The Gift in Tragedy

The following is a post written by an amazing woman named Diane Reilly, a lifelong friend of my mother’s.  Her sister, Colleen Leslie Reilly, was killed 7 years ago and this is her account of her grief, how it has shaped her life, and how she allowed the tragedy to transform her.   We honor her courage, honesty, and resilience.


……..Colleen Leslie Reilly………. …..2/23/1957- 5/26/2008……..


You could be right in the middle of the most mundane task – you could be brushing your teeth or doodling in a meeting at work or perhaps weeding your garden when that phone call comes. It happened to me 7 years ago today on a warm humid morning just like this one. I was driving on the MA Pike, on the way back from dropping my daughter off at Logan airport – her predawn flight allowing me plenty of time to get to work. I was preoccupied – swatting a mosquito that had danced on my dashboard during the entire trip, when the phone rang. At 6:08am on a Tuesday in May, I learned that my sister had died the night before, on Memorial Day, forever marking this holiday for me. The day we set aside to remember the sacrifices of our soldiers, the “unofficial start of summer” is now the day my sister died. But of equal significance to me is the day following, the aftermath of a tragic event, the day I was catapulted into a changed world. I have heard it said that when the Universe wants the attention of some, a tap on the shoulder will suffice – but for others, like me, nothing short of a brick to the head will do.
That brick to the head shattered my elitist belief that tragedy happens to other people, to the less fortunate, to the unlucky. After my mother died a painful, premature death from pancreatic cancer, I harbored this ridiculous belief that somehow my family had developed immunity against further loss but I have learned there is no immunity, no inoculation against death. Every one of us will experience the loss of someone we love – eventually. My sister’s death destroyed the illusion that I could somehow protect and guard those most precious to me. I have learned that I have no control. Though I might live a reasonably responsible life, taking care and caution to mitigate risk, I cannot stop a stray cell from dividing, or a drunk from getting behind the wheel of a car. Though I would “shoot the moon and put out the sun” if I thought I could save a loved one, I now know those attempts are futile and exhausting. The truth of the matter is that there are far too many people in my life who choose to live on the edge and if I get too close, it is likely that we will both fall off the precipice. When I am frightened for them and sick with worry, I will throw out a life line but I cannot stop anyone from driving too fast or drinking too much or choosing an abusive partner. As much as I abhor the concept of living in fear, I confess that I am forever waiting for the “other shoe to drop.” It is the price I pay for leading a conscious life. Whenever my phone rings at an odd hour or the voice on the other end is unfamiliar, fear rises up in me. I remember that early morning May phone call that changed everything, that changed me.

Yet, I consider the experience of tragedy to be a gift.

I am awake, I am aware; I am paying attention – most of the time.

And if I am momentarily distracted, please, just tap me on the shoulder.



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