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By BOB IVRY, STAFF WRITER
Source: The Record, Bergen County, NJ
The scope of the tsunami disaster defies imagination.
How do we count the dead? There are so many. How do we wrap our minds around the tragedy? It's too big.
The numbers of the dead keep going up. The latest accounting is somewhere north of 100,000 and it's sure to climb. To make matters more grim, the World Health Organization says deaths from disease and deprivation in the wake of the tsunamis will equal or surpass those from the waves themselves.
The number is too big.
And that's not counting the millions with no homes. The villages obliterated. The roads gone. The hospitals, schools, shops and businesses that, in less than a minute, were wiped off the face of the Earth.
"You know how, when there's a car accident in your town and someone dies, we rally around each other?" asks Bob Greenlaw, Ridgewood's director of emergency management. "What do you do here? Everybody's gone.
"We can't imagine it. We have nothing to gauge it against."
"One death is a tragedy," Josef Stalin said. "A million deaths is a statistic."
How do we keep these people, these fishermen, these tourists, these shopkeepers, these hotel clerks, these train riders, these children holding their fathers' hands as they walked along the beach - how do we keep them from disappearing into mere statistics without drifting into despair?
How do we comprehend such enormous loss?
"The short answer is we probably don't. We can't," says Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. "It's too overwhelming. Instead of trying to confront the enormity of 50,000 deaths, try instead to imagine one person dying 50,000 times."
Even that is difficult. Impossible.
We have the luxury of being 10,000 miles away. We did not have our children ripped from our arms and carried out to sea. We did not get slammed against a wall, a tree, a beach and in the process lose our grip on the one thing we loved more than anything in the world.
We are not burying our dead in long, narrow ditches. We are not hunting for food, a dry place to sleep, water that will not poison us, a missing uncle, a face we recognize on a wall crowded with photos of the unidentified dead.
"Turning away from the suffering is a defense mechanism," says the Rev. Raymond Schroth, a Jesuit priest who teaches at St. Peter's College in Jersey City. "It's not what human nature is best capable of. The most fundamental element in human nature is compassion."
Allowing ourselves to feel that compassion, how do we then account for the random nature of death? One minute, you're floating on your back, letting the salty sea buoy you. The next minute, everyone you know is gone.
"It shows the absolute fragility of survival, that our visas as a living person can expire in a heartbeat," says Russell Friedman of the Grief Recovery Institute.
All of us are fragile. All of us exist at the pleasure of mysterious forces. But for fate, a whim of nature, the grace of God, it could have happened to any of us. It's what binds us all, a human family.
"This is a prime example of how small the world really is and how none of us is really insulated from anything," said Anju Bhargava of Livingston, whose sister in India narrowly escaped the wave. "Every continent will be represented, so to speak, by the victims. This is the first major global disaster. I hope - this is my hope - that people see that when it comes to these things, everyone is affected."
So we are all affected. So we search for explanations. We question our assumptions about our own safety. We think about losses we have suffered, and we try to relate them to the losses suffered by the people in South Asia.
We grasp at anything positive to feel a little better.
"At least there's no one to blame for this disaster," says Thomas Frantz, a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "It's just nature unfolding. Loss is easier to deal with if you don't have to fight through the anger to get through to the core of the sadness and awe."
Would it have been worse if it were terrorism or an act of war? Would that have made it any harder to bear?
It's true that nature cannot kill humans with the efficiency that humans can. The panorama of the 20th century is littered with examples: Armenia, the Congo, Auschwitz, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bangladesh. In that murderous company, famine and plague, hurricanes and earthquakes are safer bets.
But this is not history. This is here. This is today, and this is tomorrow.
And the children. So many children. How many parents see the photos and watch the videotape and imagine their own little sons and daughters carried out to sea? How many of us see our own young loved ones in the mass graves or in the snapshots of the unclaimed dead?
"They didn't have a chance to live a life," says psychologist Thomas Demaria of South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, N.Y. "We hope that in their little minds they didn't experience any terror or pain before they died."
And the kids who survive - what will their lives be like? Who will take care of them?
"Their innocence about nature is lost," says trauma psychologist Robert Butterworth.
Some of us will inevitably ask: Where is God in all this? How could he let this happen?
"God is in us," Schroth says. "God is working in the world for the victims of the tragedy insofar as we respond, insofar as we see God in the victims. The point of Christmas is that we will learn to discover God not looking up at the heavens or at idols, but seeing him in persons."
"At the interior spiritual level - where was God? - God was drowning with those 50,000 people," Hirschfield says. "But I also know that God is with every relief worker, with every person who sends an article of clothing or writes a check."
This is a horrible thing that happened, more horrible than any one person can imagine. To paraphrase the late author Bernard Malamud, we can never make enough of this tragedy. Somebody has to cry - even if it's us, 10,000 miles away.