Grief's maximum dosage
Josef Stalin once remarked famously that "one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic." Unfortunately, Stalin was overly fond of statistics.
Some are beginning to believe God and Stalin might share this fascination with death. Personally, I find it puzzling that an event like the tsunami would shake the faith of a churchgoing man, when that same fellow has probably passed car accidents on the highway with nothing more than a momentary voyeristic horror-thrill. Intellectually, one death is far less earth-shattering than 100,000, but faith isn't essentially intellectual, is it?
It's impossible to grasp the significance of over 140,000 deaths from a single event. I don't generally like words like 'impossible' because they beg for an exception to topple them, but in this particular case, I believe it's the right term.
The media made a field day of the 1,000th U.S. serviceman's death in Iraq. Less than 3,000 souls lost on September 11th, 2001 sparked a worldwide war with battlefields from Afghanistan to Iraq to Spain to Indonesia. Yet most of us are at the point where an increase in the tsunami death-toll amounting to the combined total of 9/11 and the U.S. Iraq war-dead - 4,000 souls - wouldn't even elicit a response. 4,000 deaths is an acceptable margin of error for estimates today. If from now until the final butcher's bill is tallied, we see only another 4,000 dead, much of the world will breathe a sigh of relief and count its lucky stars things didn't end up worse.
If I told you tomorrow the toll had risen to 210,000 with the discovery of more villages completely wiped from the face of the earth, would your grief increase by 50% over today? Could it?
We lack perspective on this extraordinary event, because we lack the ability to postpone the self-defence mechanism of numbness indefinitely. Eventually, even the most sensitive of us develops some protective scar tissue over our hearts, because weeping uncontrollably for each and every one of the 140,000 who lost their lives would be too much to bear.
And so we pick up on individual stories, specific faces, particular circumstances and invest our grief in them.
Upon returning to work between the Christmas and New Year's breaks, I discovered that a young lady in my office lost family in the disaster. I can't imagine her panic when she first learned of the tsunami, trying desperately to make contact with loved ones. She finally tracked down her mother, her sister, and only three others in a refugee camp on the east coast of Sri Lanka. Our office has rallied to help her in whatever way we can - primarily financially, of course. The partners have pledged to match employee donations, and her co-workers have donated generously. Her gratitude is overwhelming - almost palpable - and heart-rending too, because it forcefully reminds you that the only difference between you and her is an accident of birth. There but for the grace of God...
Which brings my babbling back, via the most serendipitous of routes, to my central question: is the tragedy truly that much greater because of the sheer number of dead? If you believe suffering is quantifiable, then perhaps the answer is yes.
But would my co-worker's grief over her lost family be any less if only 100,000 had died with them, or 80,000, or 1,000, or even 100? Given the fact that I cannot properly empathize with each of the millions of mourning friends and relatives of the dead, my own reaction to the tragedy hinges on the few isolated scraps of information I can actually internalize. The bloodied face of a new orphan. The father wailing as he holds his lifeless child. The couple clutching each other as they're swept away in the flood.
I don't cry for the 1.5 million dead in two years as the black death swept medieval Europe. I don't cry for more than 100,000 Canadian war-dead, much as I honour their memory.
I cry only for that which I manage to understand on a personal level, and trying to let your heart feel 140,000 deaths is like trying to drink from a fire hose. You simply can't.
In the end, grief is personal, and each of us has only a finite capacity for the emotion. To the numbers, I'm overwhelmed and numb. My deadened sense of empathy recognizes only scraps of horror, now. And each time it does, that horror is for one person, not 140,000.