On September 11, Welsh actor Andy Whitfield died of lymphoma. He was survived by his wife, Vashti, and their two children. He didn’t die when a plane crashed or when a building collapsed. He passed away at a hospice care facility after chemotherapy efforts proved unsuccessful against a very aggressive non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I know about his death, and a tiny bit about his life, because I googled around to find out who, besides those in New York and DC and Pennsylvania, died on September 11.
Many people died on 9/11. Statistically, about 250,000 to 300,000 people die every day around the world. Unless they perish in some spectacular fashion, their deaths go largely unremarked. Because he was an actor, probably more people than usual followed his life and remarked on his death, even overshadowed as it was by the events of that day.
I always think about the people who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Not the killers, not the politics and news and prognosticating behind all that went on that day and in the years since. The people who died were normal human beings. Men and women going to work. Tourists checking out lower Manhattan. Firefighters, police, paramedics, and other first responders running towards danger while others were running away. Fathers and mothers, sons, daughters, favorite aunts and barely-tolerated brothers-in-law. People living exactly as long as was preordained for them. What was important, their deaths, or their lives?
Totally unrelated, I think about a little boy named Mattie Stepanek, a remarkable young man who lived exactly as long as was preordained for him and who died in 2004 at the age of “almost fourteen” from Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy.
I think about the times I was pregnant and gave birth to beautiful, healthy children, and the times I was pregnant and had painful miscarriages, babies unborn who lived exactly as long as was preordained for them.
I think about starving children in Africa, bombed-out families in Gaza, mothers and babies buried under rubble in Syria, teenagers gunned down in Chicago, all the lives and deaths that happen every day on this planet, most ignored, some remarked on in passing, mourned locally and ignored globally. Which lives are important, and which are unimportant?
Well, that’s a silly question. Every life is important. Every death is a sadness, but I won’t say every death is a tragedy. Death has to happen. It’s something that is going to happen to every single one of us without exception. We try to ignore this fact and live as if death was going to come to someone else, but it is indeed the great leveler. One day, a second or a minute or a year or a decade or more from now, you and I will be gone. We will live exactly as long as was preordained for us.
The people in New York, and DC, and Pennsylvania had no idea they were going to die, or the manner of their deaths. The date and time of our death is something that Allah mercifully keeps from us. But we are warned; we are warned to live each day as if it were our last, because we do not know when our death will come. We don’t know when a car will crash, or a mugger will attack, or a bacteria will invade, or some freak accident that is captured by someone’s cellphone will bring us down. So we are warned: Be ready, for tomorrow is not promised to you.
A friend of mine lost her father a few days ago. She was very close to him; she watched his slow decline from the strong mountain of a man he was when she was a little girl, to the fragile husk that finally let go and returned his soul to Allah. Some would say he lived a good life, a long life, and those who loved him were comforted by the fact that they had him in their lives for so long. Another friend lost her brother, who died at the age of thirty-four. Though his life was shorter, it was just as worthy and worthwhile, and no more a tragedy simply because of its brevity.
I’m rambling, I know. What I’m trying to say is this: Death is only a tragedy when the life the person was living was one of forgetfulness, ignorance, and rebellion against Allah. A tragic death is the death of an elderly rich man who enjoyed every comfort in life and died surrounded by his loved ones, but he died with no belief in his heart. I tell you, a man in the fullness of his youth who died saving lives at the Pentagon or at the Towers or rescuing a drowning child in a flash flood or a mom who died giving birth or a child who died from a muscular wasting disease who died believing in Allah and the Last Day, those deaths are not tragedies. Yes, they are a shock. Yes, we are broken-hearted and grief-stricken. Yes, we will always have a hole in our hearts and will never pass a day without remembering those who have gone before us. But if we maintain our belief, if we are strong in our hearts and really, truly believe in a resurrection, a Day of Judgment, and the eternal peace of Jannah, then we will have the understanding that death itself is not a tragedy, but rather a transition, one that will happen for each and every one of us. The tragedy would be if we allowed death to make us disbelievers and cut us off from our loved ones in the life to come.