by Craig M. Klugman, Ph.D.
Media images of dying surround us everyday. In an average hour of dramatic television, bodies fly across the screen as they are shot, knifed, bled, disintegrated, run over, and even decapitated. Heroes in these shows regularly kill the bad guys and in one case, the hero is the bad guy as serial murderer. And that’s before the news comes on.
While we are surrounded by death in our entertainment, these depictions have been blamed for numbing us to mortality and make us less likely to stare death in the face. The more we see outrageous death on television, the easier it makes for us to deny it in real life. Just avoid a zombie bite or a sword-wielding soldier and life will continue.
True and accurate portrayals of death are hard to find. Perhaps one of the best is from the play (and later HBO film), Wit by Margaret Edson, a staple in death & dying courses and medical classes. Documentaries and movies in recent years have explored physician-assisted suicide. Even these deaths are viewed as happening to an “other.” In Wit, Vivian Bearing is a person who has managed to go through life without making any connections to other people. Assisted suicide is not common and is still illegal in most places. We watch, but we do not identify.
Now a new mini-series on the premium cable channel Showtime is bringing conversations about end-of-life into living rooms across the nation. According to the show’s official website “Time of Death offers an unflinching, intimate look at remarkable people facing their own mortality. Cameras follow these brave, terminally ill individuals as they live out the end of their lives.” In short, for the first time, an audience can see how a person just like them dies.
Each of the 6, 1-hour episodes features two people who are dealing with their end of days. As of this writing, two episodes have aired. One person’s story arcs across the whole series, Maria who suffers from stage IV breast cancer. We view her mood swings as she undergoes radiation therapy for a brain metastasis and the steroids she takes to control brain swelling. Viewers see her two youngest children talk about their fears of losing their mom. And at the center of this saga is Little, the 25-year-old daughter who is supporting her mother but mainly, making plans to take care of her two siblings after their mother dies.
Each series also contains a shorter story of another person’s death. In episode 1, Michael is a Navy vet dying from cancer, surrounded by his family. Episode 2 has the story of Lenore, a 75-year-old grief therapist dying from cancer. Her scene opens with a final party, recognizing that her life is at an end. Eschewing all treatment, we watch her decline into a world where she is too weak to leave her bed.
The series is edited to play with our emotions, to make us feel empathy and sympathy for the patients and families experiencing these deaths. This is not surprising considering that the series is produced by the reality series creators of “Project Runway” and “Top Chef.” These stories offer another opportunity for reflecting on the great equalizer, the fact that each of us will someday die.
Most of us are looking forward to sitting down to overindulgence and time with friends and family in the coming weeks. While these are times of celebration, take advantage of this opportunity with your loved ones to talk about your end of life wishes. It’s not enough to watch other people dying. It’s necessary for all us to think about how we want to die. Avoiding the conversation does not put off the inevitable or increase the chances of immortality.
Consider the information that you want others to know about your end-of-life wishes and what you want to know about theirs. Encourage your family to view one or more episodes from the series. Watching them together is best. Other useful tools include the The Conversation Project, Five Wishes and (for teens and young adults) Voicing My Choices.
Perhaps Lenore summarizes the importance of this series and the conversations it should elicit in all of us, “We live in a death-denying culture.” With “Time to Die,” we can’t deny it any longer.