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Finding meaning in tragedy

Special to the Journal

In my first seventeen years, I was lucky enough to live a life in which death and tragedy were far off, unimaginable incidents that only happened in movies. Some could say I was naïve. But when you’ve never had to mourn death or cope with a shocking loss, it’s impossible to imagine the magnitude of the emotions and emptiness you feel when the unavoidable finally occurs.

Since my 17th birthday last April, there have been three shocking deaths that have hit my family. After these experiences, I no longer consider tragedy to be out of reach. Now, more than ever, I really do think twice about everything I do.

On April 8, 2016, I was walking out of a Subway sandwich shop when I learned, via an Instagram post of an old friend, of the tragic passing of Josiah Utu, his brother, McCann, and his mother, Stacey. Josiah was one of my best friends throughout middle school, someone I knew I could always count on to cheer me up and make me laugh. In that moment, it was impossible to comprehend the fact that this young man with so much of his life still ahead of him was gone forever. My heart hurt for his closest friends, his family, and our community as a whole. This was the first time I’d lost someone I was once close with, and it was and still is difficult to describe the meaning of this loss. I still don’t know exactly what happened that night, but what I do know is that nothing can ever be taken for granted. Sometimes things happen in the universe that are impossible to explain and there’s nothing we can do about it. This is the reality of our existence – it’s unpredictable and nothing is ever guaranteed. If I learned anything from this tragedy, it is just how important the little things are. Josiah always took the time to compliment people, make jokes, or ask about their day. These little things really count. At the end of the day, no one can predict what is going to happen one minute, one day, or one year from now. We must live accordingly.

On January 1st, 2017, my father’s college roommate, fraternity brother, and longtime best friend, Chris Mohr, was on a routine morning bike ride when he was fatally struck by an oncoming motorist in Weston, Florida. When we received the call from the Mohrs, we expected it to be a fun discussion about their trip to Costa Rica the previous week – a trip that my family was originally supposed to go on. Again, I found myself at a loss for words. It was hard to imagine that the funny, caring, and down-to-Earth Chris Mohr was gone. He was out on the roads of Florida doing what he loved when his life was taken. His family, at home waiting for him to return for his daughter’s 21st birthday brunch, would eventually receive the news from the Weston Police. Now, Robyn is a widow and Alex and Sarah are without a father. As I sat there in my Dallas bedroom contemplating the magnitude of this loss, I tried to find some way to contribute to Chris’s memory and make this tragedy even slightly more tolerable for his family. My parents reminded me that Chris would’ve wanted us not to mourn his death, but to celebrate the spirit of his life. That’s exactly what I’ve tried to do. I consider every day to be another opportunity to rejoice in Chris’ spirit by wholeheartedly pursuing my passions, routinely laughing at myself, and treating others with the utmost compassion. Amid such grim emotion, I was ultimately able to find meaning and solace in my existence. What I’ve learned is that, in the weirdest way, tragedies like that of Josiah and of Chris, reveal another element of humanity.

This element was apparent not even two months later following the shocking deaths of sixteen-year-olds Samantha Sacks and Lilly Davis. Around 11:30 p.m. on Friday, February 10, Samantha’s car crashed into a tree and caught on fire as she drove down Mira Vista Boulevard in Plano. Samantha and Lilly burned to death and their friend, Kendall Murray, was barely saved after being pulled from the burning car. The Sacks had been our family friends going way back: Julie, her husband Jeff, and their daughters Sydney (18) and Samantha. Now, they were just a family of three. Immediately, I thought of the bond I share with my younger brother, Matthew. It’s no secret that the sibling bond is unique and irreplaceable. What would it be like if suddenly my sibling was gone? I attended Samantha’s funeral and quickly understood that sadness didn’t even begin to describe the emotions inflicted upon Sydney and her family. Their faces were sickly white as they struggled to lift their heads, let alone to speak. What I saw that day was visual evidence of this deeper human level of emotion, connection and morality. As difficult as it was to remain composed as I listened to stories of Samantha, I gained a new appreciation for the human experience and how, in our vulnerability, we experience possibly one of the most significant and impactful aspects of our existence.

It is within human capacity to allow the legacies of Josiah and his family, Chris, and Samantha and Lilly to live on for decades to come. We will never have their tangible bodies back, but through our own souls, we can honor them in our daily lives.

Simply put, there aren’t words to describe the meaning of our emotions surrounding tragedy. There’s no way to understand the extent of the emotions we will feel in these difficult moments until they are upon us. But in them, we will undoubtedly learn new things about ourselves, our existence, and ultimately our capacity to feel.

May the lives of my dear friends be remembered forever and may these tragedies be a grim reminder to all about the privilege of life.

This article was written by Madison Cook, a high school senior from Dallas, Texas. She is the granddaughter of Lois and Bobby Kaplan of Marblehead.  Madison will attend Duke University in the fall.

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