“Was this tragedy my fault? Had I done things differently, could I have averted catastrophe?”

These and similar questions can endlessly haunt the relatives or caretakers of someone who died an untimely death. Hypothetical “if only” scenarios and endless imaginings of better endings are especially destructive. Such second-guessing disrupts peace of mind and causes feelings of guilt, which can drain whatever energy is left in those already suffering terribly from loss.

Responsible and loving family members and caregivers need to be confident in the knowledge that they did all in their power to help their loved one and that the rest was beyond their control.

This was the approach that the Rebbe advocated, as the following letter indicates. The addressee had written the Rebbe regarding a tragic event that had occurred in his home. He had invited members of his community to a festive meal on Shavuot to celebrate the completion of a Torah scroll, which was scheduled to be presented to a synagogue in a few days. During the course of the celebration, a young woman suddenly fell ill and died. The Rebbe responded:

Each and every individual has been granted a set amount of years of life on earth. It is only in extreme cases that one’s deeds can lengthen or shorten them with some terrible sin, etc., G‑d forbid.1

This belief is absolutely essential to dispelling unjustified feelings of culpability, and it is wholly supported by the Torah. Indeed, the idea that no one passes away before his time is alluded to in the opening verse of the Torah portion Chayei Sarah: “Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years; the years of Sarah’s life.”2

The obvious curiosity in this verse is the seeming redundancy of its final words: “the years of Sara’s life.” According to the Midrash, the circumstances surrounding Sarah’s passing—“she heard the news that her son…was nearly slaughtered, and her soul flew from her”3—might be perceived as the cause of her death, when, in fact, the reason for her death was that these 127 years were “the years of Sarah’s life”—i.e., the exact amount of time prescribed for her by G‑d.

There is a profound lesson here. Sometimes we attribute certain results, positive or negative, to unexpected circumstances we encounter in life. For example, a couple experiencing difficulty having children for an extended period of time might one day seek the counsel of a new doctor and then have a child soon after. They may say to themselves, if only we had visited this doctor sooner, we would have averted all the heartache of our childless years.

However, from a spiritual perspective, the reality is very different: For reasons known only to G‑d, this couple was destined to be childless for a determined period of time. When that period was over, the agent chosen by G‑d to facilitate the birth of their child was this particular doctor they heard about at this particular time.

And the same is true of tragic occurrences that cause the loss of life. If someone is struck by a car and dies as a result, it is only natural to think that the cause of death was the car accident and to speculate that if the deceased had shown up a minute sooner or later, he or she might still be alive. These thoughts are not only terribly painful, they are also untrue, for in actual fact, the time for the deceased to pass on had come, and the car accident was simply the facilitator of their passing.

Recognizing and internalizing the belief that each person has an allotted time on earth, and we cannot add to or subtract from that amount of time, can help us let go of unnecessary guilt and attain a certain measure of inner peace.