Enduring tragedy and grief

Friday, January 24, 2020 - Updated: 2:17 pm

By Father Frank D. Almade

This may be a little morbid, but I can’t stop thinking about the woman in New York City who was killed by falling debris from a 17-story, 100-year-old building.

Erica Tishman, 60, an architect, philanthropist, wife and mother of three, was hit Dec. 17 by terra cotta from a building in midtown Manhattan while she was walking to her office. The building had been repeatedly cited by city authorities for cracks in its façade. She died instantly. Interviews with business associates and members of her synagogue painted her as an engaged member of the community, delightful friend and active volunteer for schools and charities.

We are not used to such sudden death. In the 20th and 21st centuries, most deaths in our country occur only after long periods of illness, suffering and hospitalization. One of the great unnoticed changes in our society is the huge increase in life expectancy. In 1900, life expectancy in Europe and North America might have been 40 years old. Within three generations it increased to the mid-70s. Advances in sanitation, health care, nutrition and immunization have given us all much longer lives.

Yet we can’t take such statistics for granted. Folks still die suddenly and unexpectedly. Do you remember the woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was hit by shrapnel from a jet engine on a Southwest flight from New York to Dallas in spring 2018? She was sucked out of the window and died instantly. Only the quick decisions of pilots saved the remainder of the 149 passengers. The deceased, Jennifer Riordan, was a bank executive, wife and mother of two, and an active Catholic in her home parish. She was the first passenger to die on a commercial flight in our country in almost 10 years.

How do you deal with such tragedy?

In a unique interview with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, comedian and CBS “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert offered an unexpected and touching perspective. In an hour-long interview in August, the two of them talked about the recent deaths of their mothers. Cooper, 52, was still processing the death of his mother, heiress and actress Gloria Vanderbilt, who died in June at age 95. In the background of his memory was the death by suicide of his brother, Carter, 10 years earlier.

Colbert was no stranger to tragic death. When he was 10 years old, a plane crash killed his father and two of his brothers. Colbert was the youngest of 11 siblings, and was forced to deal with his and his mother’s grief. Colbert said after such a personal tragedy, “ordinary concerns of childhood suddenly kind of disappeared. ... I had a different point of view than the children around me.”

When asked how he dealt with this tragedy and his grief, Colbert replied, “Faith. If God is everywhere, and God is in everything, then the world as it is is all just an expression of God and his love. And you have to accept it with gratitude, because what is the option?”

As the interview progressed, Cooper asked Colbert if he remembered telling another interviewer that “he had learned to love the thing that I most wish had not happened.” Cooper, quoting Colbert, said, “You went on to say, ‘What punishments of God are not gifts.’” Cooper, by now on the verge of tears, asked incredulously, “Do you believe that?”

Colbert said, “Yes. It is a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering. There is no escaping that.” Colbert went on, “I want to be the most human I can be, and that involved acknowledging and ultimately being grateful for the things that I wish didn’t happen, because they gave me a gift.”

Cooper agreed. “This is part of being alive. ... Sadness, suffering, these are all — you can’t have happiness without having loss and suffering.”

At that point Colbert made wonderful use of his active Catholic faith. He said, “And in my (Catholic) tradition, that’s the great gift of the sacrifice of Christ — is that God does it, too. That you’re really not alone. God does it, too.”

Can you believe what he said? That God, too, grieves loss and tragedy, and understands our own human grief. That we become more sensitive to our humanity, and the feelings of others, as we accept the losses in our own life as gifts from God.

In such a beautiful conversation these two public men expressed how they are — haltingly, imperfectly — able to grieve the loss of their mothers. Colbert in particular used his faith in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, to help him see even sudden death and tragedy as a gift from God. You can find the entire hour-long conversation on Youtube (https://youtu.be/YB46h1koicQ), and I urge you to watch it.


Father Almade is administrator of the parish grouping that includes St. Colman in Turtle Creek, Good Shepherd in Braddock, St. John Fisher in Churchill, St. Jude in Wilmerding, Madonna del Castello and Word of God in Swissvale, and St. Maurice in Forest Hills.

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