When my mom died back in June, our friends Jeff and Leah sent me a book full of stories of death, full of stories of people’s experiences when their loved ones died, full of stories of compassion and hope.Â That book was Will the Circle Be Unbroken, by Studs Terkel.Â I had never heard of Mr.. Terkel before, but he’s a very well known interviewer and used to have a famous radio show in Chicago.Â He is well known for his interviewing skills, for the honesty and candor he is able to elicit.Â Perhaps what is most remarkable about Mr. Terkel’s interviews is that the subjects are mainly average people, men and women like you and me, not actors or politicians or famous authors (though he does interview them as well).
The book is divided into sections, and covers everything from the physical descriptions of someone dying, to speculations about what might come after this life.Â Some of his interviewees are very religious, and talk of the comfort that they feel in knowing that their loved ones are in Heaven, and that they will be together again.Â Others are atheists, and talk of the peace of knowing that their loved ones are no longer in pain.Â There are those who believe in reincarnation, and those who believe in no such thing.Â There are mothers talking about losing their sons, daughters talking about losing their mothers, husbands and wives who have lost their lover, people who have considered suicide, people who survive the suicide of a loved one.
The honesty and words of these people is a wonderful thing.Â For example, the story of a Viet Nam vet, talking about the horrors of war and of killing, and seeing his friends die.Â The way he copes is through alcohol, and he suffers from episodes of rage.Â His section ends with a quote, something he wrote just that morning, in preparation for his interview.
Judge me not by the number of times I have failed, but by the number of times I have succeeded, which is in direct proportion to the number of times I’ve failed and kept on trying. ~ Victor Israel Marquez
Then there is the story of Peggy Terry, a southern woman involved in the civil rights movement, though she came from Klan parentage. She doesn’t believe in God, because she feels there is too much suffering right here on Earth.
I’d love to believe in reincarnation – that would be such a sop. Wouldn’t that be wonderful if we could believe that? I think one reason people are so desperate about dying is that they haven’t lived yet. All we do here is we try to see who can get a little higher up the ladder than the neighbor. That’s what we spend our time doing, that and driving to work and back, polluting the air and all of that…I think life is so miserable for most people. All the time they’re racing around like mad, drunken ants, they’re fearing dying. That’s the way it got this way, that’s what keeps it this way, is greed. To teach people from the time their little to have respect for each other, maybe not love, but at least respect and kindness toward each other, care more about each other than you do about getting a new car. Then we might have a different attitude toward death. ~ Peggy Terry
The stories in this book were moving, and I found a strange comfort in the universality of the death experience. Of course we will all die someday, but few of us consider that thought very often. More immediate is the loss of those we love, and our ways of dealing with that loss. Thank you, Jeff and Leah, for a really interesting read.