NPR logo No Death Is Meaningless

No Death Is Meaningless

We have trouble understanding and accepting mass deaths. The toll at Virginia Tech is too high to comprehend. The word "massacre," and there is no other word for it, chills us all. The same with the toll in Iraq or Columbine or Oklahoma City. But we do accept deaths when they occur by themselves. I read today that 30,000 people die in gun violence every year, and yet, we don't talk about it much.

When I was first starting out in television, I worked on the news desk. One of my jobs was to call the local police departments every hour or so to see if anything was happening. There was a term the police used that I am ashamed to admit I adopted as well: "misdemeanor homicide." If I heard the code for a homicide on the police scanner, I'd call and they'd say, "Don't worry about it — misdemeanor homicide." That meant the victim was maybe a drug dealer or user, or just someone nobody much cared about. That the victim was a minority was almost a certainty. In other words, a "meaningless death."

One of the duties of my next job at CBS News in New York was to check the wires for the overnight death toll. Crime was rampant in New York in those days, and there were two or three or six murders a night. At least it seemed like that. And no one cared. Unless, of course, they all happened together. Then it might be a story.

Why is it that single deaths don't move us? Why do we accept this level of violence as long as it happens in ones and twos? These deaths are no less tragic. The grief felt by the victim's loved ones is no less.

The toll from gun violence is horrendous. The toll on our highways is even higher. And the toll from cancer and other diseases, higher still. The fact that cancer deaths occur one by one is obvious, but the total is staggering. We have to do more. As I sit here so many years later, I am still ashamed that I used that term. And I am ashamed that it took me a while to learn that no death is meaningless. Ever.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Dear Leroy:
Another moving essay. Decades ago I had a professor who spoke passionately about our reading in the newspapers of 100 lives lost in a day, either by war or catastrophe, and reading about one person's life and loss. How different the experience and reaction.
After 9/11, the New York Times interviewed the loved ones of those who died that day. Those personal details, along with a photo, made each person more real to me, and their individual loss felt even more . I felt I owed it to them and their families to read them each day, though it broke heart.
A comment on yesterday's blog by Grace had the same effect. Knowing about her husband's horrific experience, and their child's illness, made me want to contact her and offer whatever I can: a hug, an ear for listening, a shoulder to lean on. That happens so often when I read the comments. Some people have offered pieces of themselves more than once, so, like a puzzle, in my head I am building an image of them, not of how they look, but what they have experienced and how they feel on the many subjects covered by you and the group. Being a part of this site is unlike any other experience I have had in my life.
Thank you again Leroy.

Sent by Harriet | 8:54 AM | 4-20-2007

You are so right about the highly quirky way that we look at death. It IS truly horrible that 32 people were killed by a nut with a gun, and I grieve for everyone involved. However, I have to wonder, how many people were killed in Iraq that day? How many died in car accidents? How many died of cancer? And, do only American lives count?

Regarding cancer (since that is the stated subject here) and death, I have some more questions about the way we value (or devalue) individual lives and deaths. And I'll even talk about Americans, since they are so much less likely to be "misdemeanor" deaths.

Why don't we talk more about the fact that minorities, especially African-Americans, are far more likely to die of cancer than their white/Anglo American counterparts? Why don't we spend more time looking into it?

Watching the Miami Heat game, I had a thought. As many of you know, our player Alonzo Mourning is the survivor of a kidney transplant. It wasn't so long ago that black transplant patients didn't survive very often. Eventually medicine took notice and came to the realization that the immuno-suppressive drugs given to transplant patients were KILLING the African-American patients (back to that American thing, what about black transplant patients that are not American?). Hence, new protocols were developed that were specific to black patients -- they receive less immuno-suppressives.

Recently, someone did care to do some research on cancer and (I'm inserting my own hopefully more helpful descriptor) members of the African diaspora, and found that in addition to the obvious economic differences, there are also genetic differences which may cause cancer to metasticize more easily in diasporic (probably I'm still using too exclusive a term) people. Hmm, if there's biochemical differences that cause cancer to be more virulent, then might there also be a need for different protocols (just like in transplant medicine)? Is anyone studying that?

For that matter (sorry, I'm white and self-absorbed with my own healing), might there need to be greater individualization of all cancer protocols? Might not every person be unique and in need of their own particular (not one-size-fits-all) curing regimen?

Perhaps such an approach would help to diminish at least one of the death rates to which we seem so inured.

Sent by jane | 8:56 AM | 4-20-2007

I just read an article about a woman in Columbus, Ohio that is accused of killing 650 cats and dogs by drowning them. This is considered another one of those "mis-deamor crimes". What does it say about us as a species when we can kill animals or people with little regard for human life, yet we are so emotionally effected when we or someone close to us gets cancer? I survived my Mom's dying of cancer and life has never been the same since. One of the things I learned is that, as you said Leroy, life is very precious and should be treated with respect and matter what species.

Sent by Lezlee Bryan | 9:25 AM | 4-20-2007

I've been wondering for days how the parents of Cho Seung-Hui must feel. Their son's face plastered on video screens all around the world, I would imagine. I wonder as I drive my daily commute to work on Wisconsin's most deadly highway why people will still take such stupid risks. I wonder sometimes why people are so self-centered that they can't stop long enough to figure out how they could make a difference in the world, even if it's in their own little part it. So the national debate will continue for awhile about this most recent tragedy and people will go back to their normal routine. Problem is, nothing changes. I believe that nothing will change until each and every individual stops in their track and take a look at their lives, prioritize what is important to them, and start taking their steps to make life better, to appreciate each and every moment. Because you just never know. A precious life can be taken in an instant. What is it going to take to stop this insanity?

Sent by Kathy Bauer | 9:42 AM | 4-20-2007

I went to the dentist last week, first time in two years he noted. I had to explain that I had been busy with cancer and that my husband has now died from the disease. The dentist had his story about his mother who died from head and neck cancer and in the end it was horrible for her. She could not speak but she wrote that if any of the other family members gets the cancer like she had it would be better for them to avoid treatment. She felt that nothing was gained and her remaining life was much too difficult. The dentist then remarked on the successes of treatments for childhood leukemia cases but then said if the public was aware of the very low percentages of success on other cancers the public would be outraged.

But we don't get outraged over much. Most of television news begins with people who got whacked that day one the streets, in schools or in our wars. Even Jesus got upset enough once and flipped over some tables. Our emotions can stir with anything at the point when it is at our very door. But I think if you graph it, our emotions show up like a sin wave and the wave peaks just short of us taking action. Oh well, nap time.

Sent by Irene | 9:59 AM | 4-20-2007

I'm with Kathy again, but how do we convince the rest of the world that life - any life - is precious? There seems to be no respect for life and no loving concern for our fellow man anymore.

If a teenager gets mad at another teenager,the angry one shoots him or cuts him. Kids drive by and shoot strangers to prove their "manhood." Little babies get in the way of the bullets and die.

Maybe my memory is rose-colored, but I don't remember these kinds of things happening 50 years ago. I think as a society we are going downhill and I don't know how to stop the decline. How do you make people value life when they don't?

Suggestions welcome!

Sent by Diana Kitch | 10:06 AM | 4-20-2007

Leroy is right when he says we to do more. One thing we can do is demand more funding for Cancer research. Money drives research, research gives us options, and options equal hope.

Cigarette companies are paying state governments $250 Billion over 25 years as part of their 1998 legal settlement with the states. Astonishingly none of that money goes to cancer research! Instead more than 95% of it goes to balancing state budgets and funding programs unrelated to treating the cancer cigarettes cause. Dr. Nathan M.D., former president of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in his recent book The Cancer Treatment Revolution makes note of the fact that we could reduce cancer by 30% if we were to eliminate tobacco use.

Although I believe all of this money should go to cancer research, even a ten percent allocation would dwarf anything state and local governments have ever provided. Specifically, it would create a fatter and faster pipeline of new "smart" drugs and other treatments that provide more of the the hope we all want.

I really wanted to ask Elizabeth Edwards to take up this cause with her husband when she called into Talk of the Nation. For now, we can all write our state governments asking them to reallocate these funds to advance cancer research. Write your federal governments to put pressure on the states. We can also ask presidential candidates to re-establish the "War on cancer" and put some real money behind it. I do not know if this link will come through, but you can view my letter to the Boston Globe editor last month regarding this issue

Hey, we're not jut a blog community, we are a legitimate voting bloc representing hundreds of millions of past, present and future cancer patients!

Sent by Dennis Reilly | 11:40 AM | 4-20-2007

I'm so glad you posted this. I also responded to yesterday's post, and here you have another way to look at this.

The same day as the VT tragedy, one of our students here at my small community college in rural central Michigan died in a car accident on his way home from his 3rd shift job. None of us realized it until it finally made the middle of the paper 2 days later - some of my colleagues who had him as a student noticed his absence, but were not sure why. The Dean of the school stopped me, because I am the psychology instructor and a person of faith, and asked if I had any advice on how our school could respond to the VT students. She was suggesting a moment of silence for Monday, cards, etc. I said - well, I don't know, but what about John? What are we doing for his family? She sent his parents a We did not even get any notification from the administration so that we would know as his possible instructors, or instructors of his friends - I only know from happening to come across the article in a local paper I rarely read. Are any of these students any more important than the other? No - but surely we can acknowledge how important he was to our community and his family.

Sent by Kelley | 11:50 AM | 4-20-2007

There is a fantastic conference going on at Emory right now discussing 'Death and Dying'...and while talking to the conference promoters.. they were SHOCKED at the interest it received..they had to close registration since the room could only hold 250 people.

It's a myriad of folks speaking..from the clergy, to the scientists.. to physicians & the like.

One life is lost--that is a tragedy...several lives are lost--that is a tragedy...whether it be cancer, murder, or accidental death.

Leroy--don't beat yourself up & be ashamed.

You are doing an amazing job--bringing cancer--the 'C' word--out in the light.. where disucssion prevails, and stories are told. These comments, stories, and sharing are bringing people together--and providing a sense of comfort and acknowledgement--that is very hard to find elsewhere.

Sent by Krupali Tejura MD | 12:12 PM | 4-20-2007

You ask why single deaths don't move us, yet we are devastated when there are so many at one time. I think I read that 130 Iraqi people were killed on the same day as the Virginia Tech massacre in which 32 lives were lost. Yet the Iraq deaths were not even on the front page of my newspaper. So -- in a way, journalists made the decision to treat those deaths as "less important." But I think most people do mourn more or less depending on whether the vicims are "ours" (Americans), what their race/ethnicity is and whether they are inner-city drug dealers or bright young college students, etc..Maybe some of that is just human nature? We naturally grieve more for our own families.

Rather than just give in to despair about all that's wrong in our culture, what can we do today that might change things -- even if it's only a drop in the bucket? I'd say the most important step might be to do everything we can to foster compassion, especially in children. And to model compassionate behavior for them. To show caring for everyone, not just those like us or those who seem to deserve it. I have been aching with sorrow for the lost lives of the shooting victims in Virginia and for the people who loved them. But also, I grieve for the family of the young man who did it. And for him, too. I heard on NPR that he had been the victim of bullying as a child because of his shyness and a speech defects. And of course, he was mentally ill. I understand some of his professors did try to offer him help, so I'm not blaming anyone here. But I also know from personal experience what a nightmare it is to try to get help for a loved one who is lost in the thickets of mental illness. And I know how such people and their families are often stigmatized and isolated.Also, at least in my state, there is a huge shortage of psychiatrists, so the chances of getting someone good, ongoing treatment are poor.

Anyway -- I definitely don't mean to make light of the tragedy of those 32 innocent lives lost. All I'm suggesting is that while there are no miracle cures for what ails our society, it might help if we all just did everything possible to see that one child learns how to empathize, to imagine how life might look to a cancer patient or a person in a wheelchair or a mentally ill, homeless person.

Sent by Doris | 12:44 PM | 4-20-2007

A week ago I found a hard, pea sized lump under my right arm, adjacent to where I had a mastectomy and lymphnodectomy in Oct. I just finsihed 5 months of chemotherapy for invasive intraductal breast cancer. I called my surgeon yesterday and he wants to see me at 12:30 today. I have gone through most of the chemo sessions, hospital stays for transfusions and follow up appointments by myself. My family is spread all over the state and the US. I have been fine with that. I have a wonderful family and husband and even though they are not near in person they call every day, sometimes 3-4 times, and check in. Today if he tells me he wants a scan, or an x-ray I think I will lose it. Does anyone have any idea if this could possibly be another form of breast cancer? Could I possibly be 2 weeks post chemotherapy and have a new malignancy? I keep telling myself it is scar tissue. I guess I will find out in few hours. Wish I could take you guys with me.

Sent by Patti | 1:06 PM | 4-20-2007

Yes to the way we become inured to tragedies of all sizes (from genocides to the daily toll of malnutrition), and an even greater YES to all who put their love into action on even one front of concern. I recognize the interest of many in this blog community in larger issues of public welfare, and without derailing the intent of My Cancer blog, am sharing a link to a site that is devoted in very intelligent and hands-on ways to increasing POSITIVE public policy and sane ways of sharing this amazing planet. is the MetaUnited site for anyone interested.

And thank you to the person who suggested the Pulitzer winning photos of the young boy in his last years. It was powerful.

Sent by Sarah | 1:07 PM | 4-20-2007

Dear Leroy,

I agree with your statement that no death is meaningless. Here are a few observations.

During the Nixon years, a so-calles War on Cancer was initiated. I wonder what ever became of it. Was it an appropriate or misleading metaphor then or now? I don't know the answer. The way we look at death as a group says much about our values, and the values determine our individual and collective meanings, threads of central and peripheral narratives that help us make sense of experience.

Even though many more people die each year in the US from heart disease, some estimates put the number around 655,000 (annually!), there is no talk of a "war on cardiovascular disease." It lacks a dramatic ring. Why is the public so lacking in this information?

We are losing vastly more people to cardiovascular disease, traffic accidents, cancer, and suicide than to the causes that preoccupy the media and our conscious and unconscious minds. This is a shame. Our society apparently places more value on inflating and maintaining our own collective phantom fears than cultivating a realistic common narrative meaning of our own lives and eventual passing.

We beed more intelligence in the media. We need a more educated and informed electorate. We need to work together, everyone, to fashion a responsible sustainable society where people are allowed to live and die with dignity. Some would dismiss such talk as utopian and impossible. But then again, hope gives meaning to the experience of life.

Sent by alan | 1:08 PM | 4-20-2007

Oh, thank you, Doris. Thank you for eloquently voicing my feelings, not only about the VaTech tragedy, but also about fostering compassion in our children. My five year old son has no preconceived notions about differences in people, he only knows when someone is nice to him or treats him badly. I feel it is my responsibility as a parent to foster compassion and empathy in him and to show him what it is by my actions. I believe that our children need us to help them open their eyes and minds, and I believe our world will benefit. It is up to us, as parents, to guide them, to help them understand what is important - people, our earth, our humanity.

To all the people who comment on this blog, thank you. I read this every day and you all open my eyes and mind to so many things - I read, I cry, and I think of you all and it brings me hope. Thank you, Leroy, for opening up this forum.

Sent by Leah Forst | 2:58 PM | 4-20-2007

Great comments, as there are everyday, on todays column. It is so inspiring to realize how many wise, deeply aware voices there are among us.

with that said, I was especially struck by Doris' comment that we all need to learn to foster and model genuine compassion to children so they can grow into adults that are capable of joyfully giving of themselves. It seems compassion and empathy are the seeds that allow this to arise. And the easiest way I have found so far to foster compassion in myself is to remember, to contemplate the fragility and impermanence of the human form. No matter how long it may survive all bodies return to dust, and always will. Can we remember that everyone is dying all the time? Can we come to be conscious of this every minute of our life, and spark this awareness in others? In doing this, really being concious of the impermanence of all bodies, maybe that compassion will sprout.

Sent by mac | 3:44 PM | 4-20-2007

To Patti:
As each of us reads your entry, we spiritually embrace you. We all await your next update. Feel our energy; allow us to make you calm.

Sent by Harriet | 4:11 PM | 4-20-2007

Doris, your comment is so wise! It seems sometimes that those who get the least compassion are perhaps those who need it most.

And to Patti: we are all with you in spirit, if not in body, any time you need us.

Sent by Gretchen Hoag | 4:15 PM | 4-20-2007

To Patti - we ARE going with you. Whatever the outcome, you can make it through. I had recurrence of breast cancer immediately following treatment and am now in full remission. I had many scares that turned out to be, well, not cancer. Please let us know how you are.

Sent by Karen | 7:03 PM | 4-20-2007

They did two biopsies... I will know Monday. Thank you for your thoughts. I'll let you know. For the weekend....make it wonderful!

Sent by Patti | 9:18 PM | 4-20-2007

The only thing that has made any sense to me in the past few days has been the works of poet, VT professor, and brave teacher Nikki Giovanni. (printed words of Nikki Giovanni at VATech convocation) (audio of Nikki Giovanni???s address)

When she said,

"We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it" I thought of Leroy's essay a few months ago on the same topic.

None of us deserve this tragedy (of cancer--of war--of murder...)


Sent by Robin | 12:36 AM | 4-21-2007


In Morocco there are fewer than 50 homicides per year. The leading cause of death for an American black male is homicide but 28th for a Swedish male.

The answer is that our country was birthed in violence and the spirit of the gunslinger is a part of us.

My favorite TV show are about violence
: 24, CSI, Stark, The Shield, Sopranos.

The only answer is respect and dignity for everyone.
There is on way to peace, peace is the way (Ghandi).

Sent by dr bill | 6:06 AM | 4-21-2007

We all bring something to this life, every single person. It would seem that we value only the ones we can name and perhaps not the masses. All the comments today express that. Patti, we will keep you in our thoughts.

Sent by Pat Zalewski | 7:16 AM | 4-21-2007

Patti, consider yourself hugged!!! We all wait for your news on Monday. Please remember, you are not alone...this is a team sport....I am sending prayers and positive thoughts your way.

Sent by karen | 11:03 AM | 4-21-2007

Hey all -- My husband and I often talk about days where something feels "off" and he calls it "a disturbance in the force"(yes, we were children in the era of Star Wars -- lucky us). I think the kind of thing that happened at Virginia Tech, things that happen in Iraq and elsewhere around the world (thank you, Doris), and even a single, unsung death are like this. I was reading this morning about chaos theory and thinking about how the "butterfly effect" really works in the world -- it just takes our human minds and hearts time to link things up in a way that makes sense. We can all feel the way the world is drifting, yet it takes time for us to overcome inertia and take action. I applaud you, Leroy, and anyone who is cultivating more compassion in his/her life. We are all connected, like it or not. May the force be with you all. aloha, Jenny

Sent by Jenny | 12:49 PM | 4-21-2007

Hi Leroy (and all).

Thanks very much for your blog. As a six-months malignant brain tumor survivor, also trying to make meaning from the experience by writing about it, "My Cancer" has been tremendously encouraging. I often feel like I have nothing to add to the discussion. Your experiences and observations, which often relate to my own at first, reinforced this. More recently they have en-couraged me to carry on ... particularly the latest one which emphasizes that no death is meaningless.

Since receiving my diagnosis, I have been doing my best to make this period of my life meaningful for both myself and others. Throughout this period, I have been profound conscious of how graced and privileged my journey has been compared with other survivors -- both of deadly diseases and of the massively stupidities and malevolences that plague our sad (and sometimes joyful) planet. No death is meaningless and neither is any life. It's just very unfortunate and very sad that so many do not have the opportunity that you and I have to examine the meaning of our own lives in the company of others.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to discuss what I have learned thus far from this journey at an Emory University conference on "Changing the Way We Die." I expressed the view that one of the things we can do is to reframe the language and meaning of death in the context of the language and meaning of life, while never forgetting our own mortality ... as you and I cannot. I am profoundly sadden that that the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings and other ongoing horrors did not have the chance that you and I do, to do so. I am heartened that their friends, family and communities have this opportunity. This re-emphasizes for me that one of the best things we can do for one another is to give each other the opportunity to tell our stories and honor those stories in the hearing and reading of them.

John Shippee
Atlanta, Georgia

Sent by John Shippee | 1:03 PM | 4-21-2007

I'm going with scare tissue. I'm thinking of you.

Sent by Lisa | 8:25 AM | 4-22-2007

Thanks for educating people about your cancer experience. Truly cancer is a ???silent killer???, a soundless genocide of a disease. And there are still today many who don???t survive. On an even sadder note, there still exist forms of cancer that are extremely hard to treat. My father was diagnosed with one of these ???silent killers???. He was a senior Trade Negotiator For the U.S Gov and former head of GSP when he learned that he had pancreatic cancer. My father was a man who had suffered greatly from his own personal demons and unfortunately, it was the cancer that seemed to make him reflect and come to terms with his life. He had no intention to pursue any treatments for his illness. This decision was based upon the advice of his physicians, as any treatment would lead to more physical pain. I tried to familiarize myself with his ailment and researched the options with hope of his survival still in my mind. I quickly despaired when I learned that the annual mortality rate nearly equals the number of people diagnosed. I realized my time left with my father would be short. It became difficult to watch my father???s body whither away and to see him in such pain. It was even harder living at boarding school while my father was dying at home. And traveling from Buffalo to D.C. became difficult because the harsh cold winter which was approaching. Before the holidays I made a controversial decision. I left my boarding school right before exams to be with my father.
On Christmas Day 2004, he passed away.the whole ordeal for him had lasted 4 months. After my father???s death, I realized many things from him. Certainly during my father???s illness and death, I gained a better understanding of the significance of mortality.

Sent by Philip Suarez Falken son of steven J Falken | 8:28 PM | 4-22-2007

Very true "No Death is meaningless" and sometimes it can be felt or heard like a pebble rippling across a pond of water.

By the way thanks again for raising awareness about your cancer a very brave thing to do.

Sent by Philip Suarez A Falken 18yrs | 8:40 PM | 4-22-2007

I know we're all dying, the world is going to hell an hand basket etc. etc., but I lived to see Yanks get swept, we got to Mariano AND watched the Sox hit four consecutive home runs!
Life ain't all bad! I'm basking in the afterglow. Cancer Shmancer!
P.S. Patti - all the best in your treatment. Our hearts are with you.

Sent by Tim | 9:43 AM | 4-23-2007