For more information, visit the website:
View this email in your browser
Grief Perspectives
Research that Matters
Professional Bookshelf

Media, Death, and
Caring for the Dying

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, today’s young adult is unlikely to have witnessed death except through these “mediated” 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 “right to know” with rights to privacy and how do we determine what images are too grotesque to show to “inquiring minds?” 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 “quick resolution”—whether it is a 12-second news “sound bite” or a 60 minute television crime drama? Even when a situation comedy star encounters a significant loss as the Taylor family did when Jill’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 “nasty emotions” 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 don’t always have a “happy ending” 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, “Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation on Television: Miracles and Misinformation.”
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, “Survival 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 “miracle rescues” 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).
Chicago Fire, one of my favorite television dramas currently airing, seems to hold a much more balanced view about “rescue success,” 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 “success” 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, “The fictional guys in Station 51 (Chicago Fire’s “headquarters”) 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.”
Practitioners in bereavement care frequently refer to our society as one that is alternately “death-denying” or “death-avoiding.” Perhaps another term should be used: we appear to have become a “death-taming” 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 (that’s me) it’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 major—if not the major—plotline.
The many incidents of death in the media can make for provocative conversation and manifold educational opportunities—at least if you don’t mind getting branded as the family death-monger! Seriously, one way we can all engage people in conversation is, when talking with friends about a film or television program, simply say, “I’ve been thinking lately about how the media handles death. So how accurately did you think they got the death scene in that movie?”
In the aftermath of a celebrity funeral or other newsworthy death event, ask your friends and family, “So how does that hit you?” 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 educating—and re-educating—the public with whom we work. When we point out to friends and family that “grief isn’t done in an hour” and “most people don’t die that way,” 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 (2), 153-167.
Diem, S.J., Lantos, J.D., & Tulsky, J.A. (1996). Cardiopulmonary resuscitation on television: Miracles and misinformation. New England Journal of Medicine, 334 (24), 1578-1582.

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. Hoy’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 (Routledge, 2013).

Easson, A., Agarwal,A., Duda, S., & Bennett, K. (2014). Portrayal of youth suicide in Canadian news. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 23 (3), 167-173.
Four researchers (three graduate students and a professor) from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario examined full-length newspaper stories in Canadian newspapers over a five-year period (2008-2012) to learn how the Canadian news media dealt with issues related to youth suicide. After selecting articles for their study, they analyzed the contents of the articles against five of the 11 “suggestions” of the World Health Organization for media reporting of suicide (click here).
The researchers found that the alignment of articles with individual WHO guideline items ranged from 16 to 60%. The most common content theme was prevention (80%) but in line with expectations, none of the articles glamorized suicide. The researchers also found that while 52% of articles discussed the importance of help-seeking, only 20% provided information on where to find that help.
The authors concluded, “Our findings suggest that the Canadian media does not glamorize suicide, but rather presents it as an issue for which there is hope and help available. A high proportion of articles focused on specific prevention efforts and encouraged those with suicidal thoughts to get help. The majority of articles avoided language that sensationalizes or normalizes suicide, or presents it as a solution to problems. Further, more than half of the articles included content relevant to educating the public about suicide. However, as stated in WHO’s guidelines for media reports on suicide, articles should provide the public with accurate information that can increase their: i) awareness of suicide risk characteristics and effective prevention; and, ii) ability to respond appropriately to distress, whether personal or observed in others. We recommend a greater emphasis on the use of rigorous scientific evidence so that Canadian newspaper articles can be classified as scientific media reports. This can help minimize the likelihood of increasing suicide risk and facilitate the translation of rigorous scientific knowledge into improved mental health and reduced suicide risk for Canadian youth and their families” (p. 172).

| back to top |

Ryearson, Edward K. (Ed.) (2006). Violent Death: Resilience and Intervention Beyond the Crisis. New  York: Routledge.
While not a new book, Ted Rynearson’s edited volume has recently been released in a paperback version, making it much more reasonably priced for caregiving professionals. The book represents a compendium of some of today’s brightest minds in caregiving to the traumatically bereaved: Robert Neimeyer, Kathy Shear, George Bonanno, Beverly Raphael, Fanny Correa, and Rynearson himself.
Unlike many volumes that provide clinical strategies for intervention in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, Violent Death: Resilience and Intervention Beyond the Crisis considers the long-term work undertaken by most readers of this newsletter. Chapters unpack the clinical ideas related to spiritual meaning-making, the narrative integration of storytelling after loss, the use of medication with survivors, dealing with very young children, helping communities after mass tragedies, and much more.

| back to top |
Copyright © 2014 GRIEF CONNECT INC, All rights reserved.
unsubscribe from this list    update subscription preferences 

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp