11 votes

Is death always tragic?

I'll preface this by saying this post is birthed out of a small argument I'm having on Reddit, but the topic seems like a worthwhile one. (And I'm not getting much other than downvotes for a counterargument over there!)

The initial question is whether or not the death of someone who is very old (95 years or more) should be considered tragic. Some things to consider:

  1. The overall health and condition of the person.
  • Are they in constant state of suffering?
  1. The wishes of the person.
  • Do they actively wish to be dead? This might not even be out of suffering. Some people, as they get to be quite old, are just bored of their lives or want this stage to be over. Anecdotally, my great-grandmother was this way from the ages of 90 and onward. (She quite famously would greet cashiers with "I want to die.")
  1. Are they still active?
  • Do they still find meaning in what they are doing? For example, David Attenborough is 93 years old and is still a big presence on the world stage. Despite his great age, if he were to die, his work would still be ‘cut short.’
  1. The circumstances by which they die.
  • Was it sudden, or did it take a long time? Was it painful? Was it violent?

This list is not exhaustive. I welcome suggestions for what should be added to it.

There is also how we define tragedy. In general terms, it typically just alludes to an event that causes great suffering and distress. I think this is the definition that we are more concerned with. Alternatively, there is the theatrical definition of tragedy, which is more tied to the leading character suffering some major downfall at the end of the narrative. While we could construe the death of someone in real life this way, it seems to be a bit of a stretch as most of us do not live out our lives in three-act structures with a clear climax and finale. (I’m going to rule out this definition now, if not just for the sake of argument.)

Balancing all of these thoughts, I think the crux of where disagreement lies is in how we feel about death for the deceased versus our own selfish desires. Bringing this back to my anecdote, about twenty years ago, my great-grandmother passed at the age of 94. She spent at least the last 5 years of her life pleading to God to finally take her. Her health was fine. She lived in her house, alone, fully capable of maintaining it (and herself). In fact, in the year prior to her death, she was so physically active that she painted all 200 feet of her white picket fence! By all means, she was not physically suffering. She just simply wanted to go.

Then she did. I think the group consensus was something akin to, “Well, I guess she finally got what she wanted. I’m going to miss her.” It was a feeling of simultaneously being happy for her and grief for ourselves.

To which, does this make for a tragedy?

Some might call it splitting hairs, but what I am arguing is that the death itself was not tragic. What is tragic is our loss of the ability to interact with that person and the feelings of grief that follow. I cannot help but feel these are ultimately separate things that we have such a difficult time reconciling. Part of life is death, and as long as we revere life, we must also revere the last part of it. If we did this better, we might have an easier time accepting things like medical-assistance-in-dying. It is for this reason that I say, death, by default, does not necessitate tragedy.

However while death is not necessarily tragic, I do think there are a multitude of conditions that would make death sufficiently tragic. Looking back at my list above, the death of a young healthy person would be considered tragic. Suppose someone was violently beheaded; this could be considered tragic. Even suppose that the 93-year-old David Attenborough passed away, I would think his death to be tragic as he wanted to offer more to the world.

Anyway, I think I’ve rambled enough. What are your thoughts?

8 comments

  1. [2]
    PahoojyMan
    Link
    Life is the real tragedy. If we all had quality, fulfilling and fair lives then our death would simply be closure to a life well lived.

    Life is the real tragedy.

    If we all had quality, fulfilling and fair lives then our death would simply be closure to a life well lived.

    10 votes
    1. mike10010100
      Link Parent
      The second to last episode of the Good Place really hit me hard in this respect.

      The second to last episode of the Good Place really hit me hard in this respect.

  2. Loire
    (edited )
    Link
    The fact of the matter is there is no factual answer to this question because we all fall into different methods of viewing reality. I don't think any death is tragic if it isn't within my direct...

    The fact of the matter is there is no factual answer to this question because we all fall into different methods of viewing reality.

    I don't think any death is tragic if it isn't within my direct social circle. Millions of people die every single day, why are people sobbing over a celebrity they never met from a sport they don't watch? Empathy. They have a different level of empathetic ability than I do.

    Just because they see it differently than I do doesn't make them wrong, and I would hope no one here would argue that I'm wrong for not shedding a single tear for any single particular death. Yes a 95 year old has lived a good life, and I'm not going to be particularly broken up about it, with that said I am not going to begrudge someone who is. That could have been someone's favourite grandma, their closest relative, the only person that treated them decently or knew them for who they were. Who knows what that person meant to them.

    10 votes
  3. mrbig
    (edited )
    Link
    Death is frequently not tragic. My grandmother died a few years ago, she was 95. She had spent her last 15 or so years struggling with the consequences of a stroke. During that period she awakened...

    Death is frequently not tragic. My grandmother died a few years ago, she was 95. She had spent her last 15 or so years struggling with the consequences of a stroke. During that period she awakened a humorous and affectionate side she was never able to express before. The doctor said this could be a side-effect of her neurological condition, but we'll never know. What I do know is that I had a new, loving and fun grandmother. In a way, the first stroke was a blessing. Life required her to be a tough woman, but she got the opportunity to reboot her personality and be much closer to her family.

    She had a good life, was very loved and we took good care of her. The second stroke took her ability to speak and also her reasoning. She was suffering and it was time. Of course we miss her, but we also felt an overwhelming relief in the knowledge she would never be in pain anymore.

    Reddit has a good sub on this issue (like everything on Reddit, sometimes they go a little overboard. But it's a cool place to hang out): /r/deathpositive.

    8 votes
  4. moonbathers
    Link
    Given that we're all mortal, no, I don't think it's always tragic. I can't say how often it happens, but there are definitely people who are at peace with their impending death. The fact that we...

    Given that we're all mortal, no, I don't think it's always tragic. I can't say how often it happens, but there are definitely people who are at peace with their impending death. The fact that we have to die is tragic, but I think the circumstances don't have to be. I was talking about Neil Peart's death with my dad and he made a good point: 67 is young to die, but even so, Peart lived a fuller life than most of us. So at least to me, even though he had a bigger impact on my life than Kobe, Kobe's death is more tragic because he's 25 years younger and still had a lot more life to live. I wouldn't think negatively of someone who didn't want to measure those things though.

    1 vote
  5. Autoxidation
    Link
    No, I don't think death is always tragic. It comes for all of us. If it is within a window that a human is expected to die in, then it's more or less normal. So yeah, I more or less agree with you.

    No, I don't think death is always tragic. It comes for all of us. If it is within a window that a human is expected to die in, then it's more or less normal. So yeah, I more or less agree with you.

    1 vote
  6. Davada
    Link
    I would say it has nothing to do with age and health or even a person's wishes. The tragedy comes from the pain the death leaves in others. No pain, no tragedy. Great pain, great tragedy.

    I would say it has nothing to do with age and health or even a person's wishes. The tragedy comes from the pain the death leaves in others. No pain, no tragedy. Great pain, great tragedy.

  7. Icarus
    (edited )
    Link
    When I think about death and the death of others, I don't equate it to tragedy but just the nature of life. I heard a good parable about death listening to one of my Buddhist podcasts:

    When I think about death and the death of others, I don't equate it to tragedy but just the nature of life. I heard a good parable about death listening to one of my Buddhist podcasts:

    A simple forest monk was meditating alone in the jungle in a hut made of thatch late one evening when there was a very violent monsoon storm. The wind roared like a jet aircraft and heavy rain thrashed against the hut. As the night grew denser, the storm grew more savage. First branches could be heard being ripped off the trees, then whole trees were uprooted by the force of the gale and came crashing to the ground with a sound as loud as the thunder.

    The monk soon realized that the grass hut was no protection. If a tree fell on top of the the hut, or even a big branch, it would break clean through the grass roof and crush him to death. He didn’t sleep the whole night. Often during that night, he would hear huge forest giants smash their way to the ground and his heart would pound for awhile.

    In the hours before dawn, as so often happens, the storm disappeared. At first light, the monk ventured outside the grass hut to inspect the damage. Many big branches, as well as two sizeable trees, had just missed the hut. He felt lucky to have survived. What suddenly took his attention though was not the many uprooted trees and fallen branches scattered on the ground, but the many leaves that now lay spread thickly on the forest floor.

    As he expected, most of the leaves lying dead on the ground were old, brown leaves, which had lived a full life. Among the brown leaves were many yellow leaves. There were even several green leaves. And some of those green leaves were of such a fresh and rich green that he knew they could have only unfurled from the bud a few hours before. In that moment, the monk’s heart understood the nature of death.

    He wanted to test the truth of his insight so he gazed up to the branches of the trees. Sure enough, most of the leaves still left on the trees were young, healthy green ones in the prime of their life. Yet although many newborn green leaves lay dead on the ground, some old, bent and curled up brown leaves still clung on to the branches. The monk smiled; from that day on, the death of a child would never disconcert him.
    When the storms of death blow through our families, they usually take the old ones, the mottled brown leaves. They also take many middle-aged ones, like the yellow leaves of a tree. Young people die too, in the prime of their life, similar to the green leaves, and sometimes death rips from dear life a small number of young children, just as nature’s storms rip off a small number of young shoots. This is the essential nature of death in our communities, as it is the essential nature of storms in a forest.

    There is no-one to blame and no-one to lay guilt on for the death of a child. This is the nature of things. Who can blame the storm? However, this helps us to answer the question of why some children die. The answer is the very same reason why a small number of young green leaves must perish in a storm.

    The tide recedes but leaves behind bright seashells on the shore,
    The sun goes down but gentle warmth still lingers in the sand,
    The music stops but still it echoes on in sweet refrains,
    For everything that passes, something beautiful remains.