Catherine and Robert Lawton

Catherine and Robert Lawton were on the flight and heading into a new phase of life. Photo: Facebook

A plane was in the air. And then it wasn’t.

We all contemplate it—frequent travellers, virgin voyagers, all of us.

It might be a distant thought as a loved one prints her boarding pass, a flicker of fear as we act too cool for the safety briefing, or a full-blown panic as turbulence creases the forehead of the most unflappable flight attendant.

Brisbane couple Rodney and Mary Burrows.

Brisbane couple Rodney and Mary Burrows were travelling with the Lawtons after Rodney's redundancy.

News breaks, and hearts break. Catastrophe like this touches souls in even the farthest ripple from its epicentre.

In the following days and weeks, people will own their connection to it.

“A friend of mine lives in KL and said her husband takes that flight twice a month.”

Paul Weeks moved to Perth in 2011 with his wife and two children.

Perth family man Paul Weeks was bound for a new job in Mongolia.

“My mum’s on a tour to Beijing in June.”

“Did you hear about the crash? A woman from my building was on that plane.”

“My colleague’s nephew is a pilot with the airline.”

In the past, I’ll be honest, I have found the magnetism of tragedy puzzling.

Real people are suffering, broken. Shock and anguish have felled them. Their hearts are in pieces on the arrivals hall floor.

Why the urge to prove our own relevance? Why the need to express our feelings about the pain of others with a demonstration of our own grief credentials?

This time, I think I understand. It is an expression of empathy. It’s primal. Beautiful, actually.

I write this from a Beijing coffee shop.

Outside, several families are sitting at tables pulled together. They all know of someone, somewhere, with a connection. This city was the fated flight’s destination.

Kids are playing on their scooters, their innocence protected from the constant stream of updates on the TV news. Parents watch them, hearts full and grateful. Hugs are dished out in second and third helpings today. Eyes are closed, faces tilted towards the sunshine, soaking it in. Every ray is a blessing.

A few suburbs away, at an unremarkable hotel of the airline’s choosing, other families are gathering. There are hugs there too, but they’re different. They are hugs to soothe devastation.

When we say we “can’t begin to imagine” it doesn’t mean we won’t try. We want to share their pain. We connect because we love.