Rodricks: Incident shows our vulnerability to disaster

"We love our children with all our hearts," Gordon Livingston, psychiatrist, philosopher, author and twice-bereaved parent says from his home in Howard County. "We imagine that they will bury us. Then fate intervenes and we must bury them. Nowhere is the fragility of life or the randomness of death more apparent than in the deaths of children."

I contacted Livingston because of the train tragedy in Ellicott City — an event extraordinary in its randomness.

A train pulling tons of coal derails on the bridge over Main Street. Two 19-year-old friends, Elizabeth Nass and Rose Mayr, happen to be sitting on the edge of the bridge, on the edge of summer, on the edge of the rest of their lives, a few days away from returning to college. In an instant, they are buried in coal where they sit, and they die.

It's as if Elizabeth and Rose were the victims of some sudden and horrible disturbance in the universe.

By now, of course, we're all too familiar with the common accidents of modern life, especially the ones involving children and young adults, and particularly in the busy and daring days of summer.

We know all the nightmare scenarios: car crashes, drownings, bicycle accidents. And some parents lose their children to street violence, in all seasons of the year. We've heard all these stories many times, and there's no end to them. If you managed to get this far without losing a child to any of the familiar horrors, you've probably whispered thanks.

And you probably gasped a little Tuesday when you learned about those two pretty young women from Howard County: A coal train derails atop a bridge on the same night, in the same midnight moment, that they decide to sit on that bridge ...

The Ellicott City tragedy reminded me of a bewildering event on the Beltway in 1999. A flatbed truck bearing a huge Caterpillar backhoe struck a concrete pedestrian overpass in Arbutus and caused it to collapse during rush hour. The footbridge fell on a midnight blue Dodge Durango, killing the driver.

In the news business, we call such events freakish.

And now, I suppose, we make the same declaration about the deaths of Elizabeth and Rose.

But I'm going to stop all characterization of what happened — extraordinary, cosmic, freakish — and focus instead on these two young women and offer some words for their survivors.

That's why I called Livingston.

Two of his children died within about a year of each other in the early 1990s — Andrew, a 22-year-old college student, took his own life, and 6-year-old Lucas died of leukemia. Livingston wrote a book about his experience and his grief, "Only Spring: On Mourning the Death of My Son," and he's written five more since, the most recent being "The Thing You Think You Cannot Do," which is about fear and courage.

In each of the books, parents find insights and advice. A theme Livingston likes to hit on is control — how parents wish they had more of it, and how futile that desire is.

Parents of young adults suffer long-term, low-grade uneasiness about the decisions our kids make, the places they go, the friends they choose. We wish we could keep one hand on a daughter's shoulder as she heads off into adulthood. We want to be in the back seat as the son drives away to a new job and a new life. It's hard to let go.

"The real message is how little control we have over our children's decisions," Livingston says. "Seldom are the consequences of bad choices so awful. None of us are immune to accidental catastrophe, and there is no way to prepare or armor ourselves against it.

"I know," he says, thinking of the families of Elizabeth and Rose, "these parents must believe that they might have done something to prevent this, but we are all vulnerable to random disaster."

Twelve years ago, a friend of mine lost a son — a young man full of promise and a desire to make the world a better place — to a train accident while the young man was away at college. The word "unspeakable" is attached to tragedy for good reason. At the wake, I was speechless and offered the grieving parents only a handshake, tears and hug.

"There are no words that are guaranteed to soothe," Livingston wrote in one of his books. "It is our presence with the grieving person that provides the best hope of comfort, our willingness to be with them, to listen to their pain, to share their sense of helplessness."

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