By William G. Hoy
Whether it is the release of a hostage beheading making the rounds on YouTube, the photos of a fatal car crash in the morning paper, or the grisly homicide scene that sets up the plot of a television police drama, the media clearly play an important role in North American perspectives on death. This has been an issue of increasing interest to me in recent years.
While perhaps a hundred years ago, many young adults had cared for a dying relative in their home or community, todayâ€™s young adult is unlikely to have witnessed death except through these â€œmediatedâ€ means. This surely impacts their impressions of what death is like.
But a more significant issue is in play for those of us who care for the dying and support the bereaved. In what ways do photographic images, film and television entertainment and the news media help to satisfy or in some cases, further traumatize people who are already hurting badly? How do we balance the â€œright to knowâ€ with rights to privacy and how do we determine what images are too grotesque to show to â€œinquiring minds?â€ These are not easy questions to answer.
Perhaps an even more important question to be contemplated by caregivers of the dying and bereaved is how do the news and entertainment media portray death and bereavement? Have we lulled ourselves into expecting â€œquick resolutionâ€â€”whether it is a 12-second news â€œsound biteâ€ or a 60 minute television crime drama? Even when a situation comedy star encounters a significant loss as the Taylor family did when Jillâ€™s father died 15
years ago in a Home Improvement
episode, the grief seems largely resolved within the 30-minute episode and viewers are not often ever bothered again with the â€œnasty emotionsâ€ of grief.
A few years ago, Nancy Anderson, one of my students in the graduate program in bereavement at Marian University pointed out to me a statistic about how television medical shows frequently put a positive spin on procedures that donâ€™t always have a â€œhappy endingâ€ in real life. Her thoughts sent me scurrying to find the original research she referenced: a provocative article from the New England Journal of Medicine
entitled, â€œCardiopulmonary Resuscitation on Television: Miracles and Misinformation.â€
Though now more than 15 years old, the study examined the use of CPR on three television programs (ER
, Rescue 911
and Chicago Hope
.) The authors concluded, â€œSurvival rates for CPR on these television programs were significantly higher than the highest (real life) rates reported in the literature (Diem, Lantos & Tulsky, 1996, p. 1579). Of course Rescue 911
is no longer on the air but the â€œmiracle rescuesâ€ of this program demonstrated 100% success in field-use of CPR even though the best research indicates less than 30% survival of victims suffering cardiac arrest due to trauma (p. 1581).
, one of my favorite television dramas currently airing, seems to hold a much more balanced view about â€œrescue success,â€ with a fair number of patients dying enroute to the hospital or shortly after arrival in spite of heroic efforts by paramedics in the field. The more realistic â€œsuccessâ€ perspective offered by the writers of this drama expands to include the very real sense of failure and the emotions that accompany it for firefighters. However, a friend in fire service pointed out to me recently, â€œThe fictional guys in Station 51 (Chicago Fireâ€™s
â€œheadquartersâ€) see more bizarre stuff in a 60-minute episode than my station sees in a year; they are always in situation that requires uncanny bravery and heroism to fix.â€
Practitioners in bereavement care frequently refer to our society as one that is alternately â€œdeath-denying
â€ or â€œdeath-avoiding
.â€ Perhaps another term should be used: we appear to have become a â€œdeath-taming
â€ society where much more emphasis is placed on surviving
cancer than dying
of it, and those who cause the death of others are quickly brought to justice. When did you last view an episode of Law & Order
when the perpetrator was not tried (and sent to prison) within the 60-minute time frame? And when was the last time (if ever) you have seen a portrayal in the entertainment media of the caring hands of hospice staff and volunteers gently guiding a family as they cared for their dying loved one?
Undoubtedly, we like happy themes in our media. A standing joke in our family is that for dad (thatâ€™s me) itâ€™s a good movie as long as somebody dies! Frequent consumers of the entertainment media will attest, however, one need not look far to find a movie where death is a majorâ€”if not the majorâ€”plotline.
The many incidents of death in the media can make for provocative conversation and manifold educational opportunitiesâ€”at least if you donâ€™t mind getting branded as the family death-monger! Seriously, o
ne way we can all engage people in conversation is, when talking with friends about a film or television program, simply say, â€œIâ€™ve been thinking lately about how the media handles death. So how accurately did you think they got the death scene in that movie?â€
In the aftermath of a celebrity funeral or other newsworthy death event, ask your friends and family, â€œSo how does that hit you?â€ One bereavement group leader I know asks her group about the event whenever the media present a high profile death, realizing that a death in the news often triggers the re-visiting of bereavement experiences thought to have been long-since resolved.
As counselors and caregivers of the bereaved, we have a vital role in educatingâ€”and re-educating
â€”the public with whom we work. When we point out to friends and family that â€œgrief isnâ€™t done in an hourâ€ and â€œmost people donâ€™t die that
way,â€ we provide important facts for people who work with death far less often than do most readers of GriefPerspectives
. Better understanding of the dying process and far better support of the bereaved are only two of the benefits derived by those to whom we provide care.
Clarke, J.N. (2005-2006). Death under control: The portrayal of death in mass print English language magazines in Canada. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 52
Diem, S.J., Lantos, J.D., & Tulsky, J.A. (1996). Cardiopulmonary resuscitation on television: Miracles and misinformation
. New England Journal of Medicine, 334
William G. (Bill) Hoy is an educator, counselor and author who has specialized in end-of-life and bereavement care for nearly 30 years. Dr. Hoyâ€™s passion is equipping the next generation of physicians and other healthcare professionals through his research, writing and teaching responsibilities on the clinical faculty in Medical Humanities at Baylor University. His newest book is Do Funerals Matter? The Purposes and Practices of Death Rituals in Global Perspective