When tragedy strikes, it is virtually impossible to feel anything but intense grief, anger, and hopelessness. How can we rationalise or make sense of the brutal and violent end to a young person’s life? The family of Ashanti Riley is grappling with such questions after her untimely and horrific end. It is alleged that Ms Riley, aged 18, was raped, murdered and left naked. Her attacker, a seemingly known predator from within her community, was found to have other similar charges levelled against him. Her parents, friends, and family are probably lamenting what could have or should have happened differently, but sadly, this will not change anything but rather trap them in their pain.
In the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, author Harold Kushner explores this theme, provides some reasons, and suggests approaches to making acceptance of life’s tragedies easier to bear. The harsh reality of life is that bad things happen all of the time, often to those least deserving. The mystery of why this is so may never be known or fully understood by any of us.
A similar theme is explored in the book and the movie The Shack, written by William P. Young, directed by Stuart Hazeldine, in which a young girl goes missing in the woods after her father briefly leaves her unattended to save his other two other children struggling after a canoeing accident. This split-second decision resulted in the abduction of the child who was never seen alive again. The siblings in the boat blamed themselves for goofing around and causing the canoe to capsize; the father blamed himself for leaving the young child alone, albeit just momentarily and for a very good reason. The mother probably harboured negativity towards all three of them. The end result was a family in crisis that was not the same. In the film the father ends up meeting ‘God’, reconciling the horrific death of his child, and making peace with the tragedy and his own history of abuse.
How amid such pain can we keep hope alive? One coping mechanism is to find something, anything good that can come out of the situation, as difficult as it may be to find. This requires diving deep and thinking beyond the pain at the moment.
The case of Ashanti Riley’s death sparked outrage, yet it ignited a lot of very positive debate followed by calls for fixing the ills that plague our society and providing a higher level of protection for women. These included:
- Closer scrutiny of the “PH” drivers who use their private vehicles to provide an “unofficial maxi taxi service” to travellers. The driver who picked up Ms Riley was a known predator suspected of using the ruse of transportation to lure the young woman into a situation, which ultimately cost her her life.
- Extensive debate and elevated action from advocates calling for more support in the fight against gender based violence perpetrated against females of all ages in our society.
- A call for the closer examination and implementation of solutions to address the root causes behind the high incidence of gender based violence (sexual, physical, and emotional) in this country.
- Consideration is being given to legalising Pepper Spray as a non-lethal, first line of defence for women to protect themselves and improve their odds of escape from predators.
While it is extremely critical to assist and protect women against the ills of gender-based violence, the majority of current or proposed remedies merely treat the symptoms of the problem, rather than solving the underlying problems. It is, therefore, imperative that a better job be done regarding educating parents, using the education system to raise our boys, changing the prevailing narrative about women, and ensuring that boys grow up to be high-calibre men who respect, protect and value women while seeing and treating them as equals. It is said that hurt people, hurt people, so we must examine what is giving rise to the plethora of men causing harm to women.
Another suggestion for keeping hope alive in the wake of tragedy is to consider what our lost loved one would want for us. While loss can be crippling, permanently altering one’s happiness and sense of wellbeing, it is important to remember that you are still alive. Those of us who are left to carry on still have the gift of life and the choice to use it well or to expend it on prolonged grieving and/or blaming. None of us can change the past and continuing to carry guilt and sorrow, and damaging our remaining relationships serve no one. Many marriages have fallen apart after the loss of a child, where one parent blames the other. Often parents resent a child who lived, mourning the favoured child who died, effectively losing both relationships—one to death and the other to the death of affection. Would your deceased loved one want you to wallow in sadness and grief for the rest of your life or to live and experience a joyous life big enough for the both of you?
The greatest gift that we can give to honour the life of a lost loved one is to live what is left of our lives fully, purposefully, and with gratitude for the opportunity our loved one was denied. Natalie Sabga is an excellent example of this as she used the tragic death of her husband, John Sabga, who died at the young age of 56, to launch a foundation to raise funds to assist persons battling pancreatic cancer, to find more effective treatments and a cure. Her grief and loss were turned into a powerful mission, which celebrates the legacy of her husband while working for an important cause.
There is power in the words of Michael Crichton who said: “No one escapes from life alive.” To the extent that none of us knows when or how we will meet our end, we owe it to ourselves and to those we lost too soon, to make every day count, ideally leaving the world a better place for having passed through it.