Chance is a cruel mistress indeed

The appalling coach crash in a Swiss road tunnel in which 28 people died, amongst them 22 children, is one of those news stories that simply transfixes you in dumb, mesmerised horror. You don’t have to have children yourself to appreciate the awfulness of course, but for any parent I suspect this strikes a deep and heartfelt chord of anguished empathy. I simply cannot begin to imagine the shock and despair that must engulf the parents of these children. They sent their kids off for a fun-filled skiing holiday, and never saw them again.

One might think that losing a child in this way represents some kind of ultimate limit of suffering, a sort of absolute zero on the scale of emotional experience. But in this incident there’s another layer, a twisting of a knife that one might have thought could not be twisted any further. The coach in which so many children died was but one of a convoy of three. The other two coaches arrived unscathed in Belgium, discharging their occupants to the loving arms of their families.

The agony of having one’s child killed in the third coach must surely be cruelly aggravated by the inevitable thought that they might just as easily have been travelling in one of the other two. For the parents of those killed, the temptation to fall into a bitter jealousy of those parents of children in the other coaches must be almost irresistible. And in a symmetric but equally unfounded manner, the guilt experienced by the parents of the safe children must be just as overwhelming.

The need which we all have to make sense of events, to construct some sort of narrative that explains what things mean, that looks beyond “how” into the realm of “why”, makes us vulnerable to all sorts of distortions and tortures every bit as destructive as the meaninglessness from which we are trying to escape in the first place. In trying to rationalise events that in fact are devoid of meaning, we ironically create irrationality.

We know with our heads that there is no answer to the question, “Why was it my child that was in the coach that crashed?” No answer to why my child was spared when others were not. Yes, chance is indeed a cruel and unforgiving mistress.

In the face of such a mistress we have nothing to offer except our prayers. Meaningless fantasy in the face of meaningless events, many might feel. Yet if I were one of those grieving parents, I might take the prayers anyway. Anything is better than empty nothingness.

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