Where is my Hollywood ending?: When death isn’t peaceful, serene, or good

You know I love Hollywood as much as the next person, but I’m beginning to think I can’t trust everything I see in the movies.  Examples…

1. The average woman is 5’10” and weigh 110lbs, no matter their genetics, what they eat, or whether they exercise.

2. If I jump out of a fast moving car I’ll be fine as long as I just tuck and roll.

3. Love at first sight is a pretty common thing.

4. If you don’t find love at first sight, don’t worry because you’ll find hate at first sight followed by antics, a cute misunderstandings and high jinks that will miraculously turn into love.

5. Aliens look a lot like us but with a different face shape, bigger eyes, or a strangely wrinkled forehead. And they speak English. Obviously.

6. Death, unless due to zombie apocalypse, is usually a pretty peaceful experience where family members have meaningful moments and everyone reaches a place of acceptance.

As much as I love television and movies, sometimes I worry about the impact of mischaracterizations and dramatizations on our beliefs and expectations.  Movies and television are often our first contact with things we know very little about – like say, aliens, or love, or jumping from moving trains.  There is no *actual experiences may vary* disclaimer, so when we see things happen in a movie that we haven’t experienced in real life, the movie reality starts to shape our understanding of actual reality.

Sure, sure, it doesn’t take long for most of us to realize that #1 – #5 on the above list don’t hold up to reality, but interestingly #6, Hollywood’s representation of death, is a belief that’s a little more resistant to change.  Despite the 6 o’clock evening news telling us otherwise, despite watching friends or co-workers go through terminal illness, complicated hospitalizations, and challenging caregiving experiences, many people continue to believe in the Hollywood ending.

Truthfully, we can’t blame everything on Hollywood; that would be far too simplistic an explanation.  In actuality, we all do our part to perpetuate this belief. In broader society it’s taboo to talk about the realities of death in anything above a whisper. And even those of us in the healthcare, hospice, mental health, thanatology, and social work fields, who know very well what the worst case scenario can look like, often choose to gloss over the unpleasantries of death. Understandably we advocate for every person’s right to a “good death” and we tell you to plan and prepare and we show you serene images of peaceful goodbyes, because this is our wish for people.

Now I want to be very clear, this post isn’t meant to undermine anyone’s efforts to prepare.  Please make plans I implore you, because preparation gives you your best shot at having that meaningful Hollywood-like ‘good death’.  However, it’s not fair to suggest a peaceful and controlled death is possible, without also acknowledging that death, in and of itself, is not controllable. As important as it is for you to plan, it’s also important for you to expect nothing but the unexpected.

This is important to acknowledge for so many reasons. For our purposes mainly because when we don’t, those who’ve experienced losses far worse than they ever imaged wind up feeling alienated and alone.  Not only alienated and alone, but robbed of an experience that everyone else seems entitled to.

If you can related to this at all you may have thought at some point – “Look at all these stories and depictions of people experiencing death in the same way that my loved one planned for, yet my loved one didn’t get a ‘good death’. How is this fair?” Well, it’s not fair…but you are not alone…and it’s not your fault…and there’s probably not a lot you or your loved one could have done to change things. Remember, death has its own plans.

And I promise you, for every person who we encounter who experienced that ‘good-death’ for their loved one, there is at least one (and usually 3!) who didn’t. Heck, a literature review on surrogate decision makers (those who had to make end of life decisions on behalf of their loved ones) found that only 10% perceived the death as a good death. That leaves a lot of people struggling with feelings of guilt and regret, traumatic memories, thoughts of the world being unfair, and the secondary loss of missing out on that meaningful Hollywood moment – all of which are factors that can negatively impact a person’s grief.

It would be difficult for us to create a comprehensive list of all the factors that might complicate a person’s experience or cause distressing thoughts, memories, and emotions in grief.  I’ll briefly discuss a few below, but please know this list is not all-inclusive:

1)  The illness was more traumatic than anyone could have imagined:  It can be incredibly traumatic to watch a loved one’s body shut down. The wasting, fluids, blood, strain breathing, bedsores, and on and on can be overwhelming, unexpected and extremely distressing.  This is a normal part of death, but this doesn’t make it any easier to witness.  Although physicians and nurses do everything they can to keep their patient’s comfortable, it doesn’t change how hard aspects of disease and death are to witness. 

2)  The person’s love one was scared, angry, confused, detached, agitated, or hostile: The brutality of watching a loved one suffer in this way is hard to put into words, but it is something so many face when a disease takes over or when treatment and medications impact neurological functions.

3) The person’s loved one said terrible things:  Although this can happen due to #2 mentioned above, there are other circumstances that can lead to troubling final conversations with loved ones.  Sometimes the person who is dying appears angry or hostile towards everyone, but sometimes this hostility seems specifically directed at certain friends or family members. When mean or hurtful things are said at the end of a person’s life, they cannot be fully discussed, processed or understood later.

4) The family feels they held out hope for way too long: It’s very common for family members to feel as though they were naïve to hold out hope and as a result, they lost the opportunity to “come to terms” with the impending death.

5) Withdrawing treatment was distressing: Palliative medicine has come a long way, but an “extubation” (removing the ventilator) isn’t always pretty or peaceful even with a clear advance discussion, comfort care plan and palliative medications in place. It is not uncommon to worry that a loved one struggled, lingered, or suffered.

6) The loved one wasn’t ready to die: Though people who are dying sometimes find ‘acceptance’, many people hold out hope or fight bitterly until the end.  When the family is ready to accept a person’s death but the person who is dying is not, the family may wind up feeing confused or unable to say the things they wish to say to the person who is dying.

7) There was never a Hollywood moment:  Many people are never able to have a conversation in which they share a meaningful moment, resolution, or love for one another.  Oftentimes those who expected a moment yet never had one, feel this as a secondary loss.

We have articles on a lot of different kinds of emotions, but if you are struggling with feelings of guilt, regret, and anger you may want to start with the following posts…

Guilt and Grief: coping with the shoulda, woulda, couldas

All About Anger: the good, the bad and the self-loathing 

Guilt vs Regret In Grief

You might also want to read our post on anticipatory grief, as it may offer some insight into things you were experiencing but didn’t even realize it.
Alright, there it is for today. As always, you keep the conversation going – leave a comment to share your thoughts, experiences, or whatever else you care to share!  And don’t forget to subscribe so all our posts come right to your inbox..

March 28, 2017

9 responses on "Where is my Hollywood ending?: When death isn't peaceful, serene, or good"

  1. The nature of my father’s death in this way amplifies the loneliness, I think. When people said that ‘not everyone dies peacefully’ I imagined something completely different to what I witnessed. Nobody wants to talk to me about it though. Doctor’s just want to talk about the medical side, friends just want to say they ‘are sorry for my loss’ and move on to talking about inane crap, my family are intellectually impaired or addicted to drugs and basically everyone gets uncomfortable when I talk about it. I am traumatised by watching one of the very few people I love die in such a disturbing state. He was my anchor and the only person in my family who made it worth being a part of. I try to find resources of other people who have experienced something similar, but it just seems like noone talks about it at all. It’s all so confusing and I’m angry and sad and anxious.

  2. According to my daughter’s godfather, who makes movies for a living (he’s the Director of Photography, or what the rest of the crew thinks of as a ‘connoisseur of light’ and so not very important), you need to talk to either the Director or the Scriptwriter, but the Director is “the creative tyrant,” by whom everyone in the crew has to run their ideas and he/she says yay/nay.
    He doesn’t seem like he’s that fond of the director, especially when it’s Stanley Kubrick and the movie ‘The Shining,’ which we watched a few days ago. He was cracking me up with how much he disliked Kubrick’s portrayal of the ‘hysterical woman’ in every scene. In fact all the women in the movie were whiny or hysterical. I never saw anything like it and was completely disgusted. Steven King NEVER writes hysterical women into any of his books so that story seemed like it was no longer his the way Kubrick did it.
    But I hate the way most movies portray women being the perfect weight and none ever has even an OUNCE of extra fat on her. None would survive a sudden trauma as well either, bc fat stores are helpful when you’re bleeding profusely but never mind.
    This must be why I like horror movies because none of those rules seem to apply and people die violent unfair deaths in horror movies. The only thing I can’t handle is watching someone be set on fire. I’m not the least bit fascinated with it, I can’t watch or read about it at all.
    The coroner told us that in order for them not to find any of the remains of my daughter’s dad, who died in the World Trade Center, his body has to have burned completely. It was on fire all day long. It would’ve been enough time to complete destroy the body but only if he came in contact with a ball of fire. They were shooting off from the main column of it.
    That conversation drove out any fascination I would ever have with people being in flames.
    We have a tape of his last 9 minutes. It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard. He begs for help that can’t get there in time, screams repeatedly in true pain, coughs and chokes extensively on an inordinate amount of smoke, begs for help and loses the connection to 911. They won’t play that on the news so everyone assumes that people who called in on Sep-11 were all heroic about their coming death. They won’t release the tape of the ones on Flight 93’s last minutes either, bc they’re all screaming in the last minutes before the plane crashes in the field in Shanksville. I know someone whose husband was on the plane and she listened to it.
    I don’t like that I’m expected to react the way people on the News did. How can it never have occurred to people that there might be phone calls that were kept from the public due to the content of the call? It was like that with Columbine too. The public heard some but not all of what happened. I know someone whose son was killed there. I’m a member of a club nobody asks to be in: it’s for people who know people killed by intentional violence.

  3. My husband died in Feb. 2015 after a 6+year battle with colon cancer. All considered, he did pretty well in those six years and I had hoped that the end would not be terrible. But terrible it was as he quickly disintegrated. I tell people, “Dying isn’t like the movies were people get better looking and more coherent as the moments pass by.” I wished for my husband a “good” death which would have meant no pain. I don’t think he was in tremendous hurting pain per se but his body shutting down on him made everything a struggle and so demoralizing and sad for him.
    What is also hard about the long goodbye is that you lose the person before they physically are gone. I’ve tried to figure out what day was the day he stopped being himself and went into himself and never came back out.
    But I was glad to be with him in our home in our bedroom and to hold him and tell him I loved him.

  4. I thought the blog post was very insightful and right to the point regarding Hollywood. The following is my interpretation of death and the media. This is written from the sibling perspective regarding unexpected loss and part of my literature review.

    There are also connections with bereavement issues behind unintentional interactionism in movies, books, television series, news, text messages, and social media, which for the most part can impede on the bereavement process. The imposition can occur when the person is conveying the news that someone has died, swiftly brushes it under the table. In effect, people are told that the person died, and then there is a shift to the next subject. Adams et al., (1999) pointed, “Death is often part of the play, games, stories, and music of children and adolescents. Most children and teenagers are exposed to death on a daily basis through television, films, and other media” (p. 146).

    Movies, fictional books and television series are often interlaced because of the market popularity of turning a New York Times international bestselling book series into a film or television series. The young fan market is heavily targeted by Hollywood; probably because they have the time to obsess over characters and want to purchase memorabilia. The works of J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins will be used to depict how books which were made into movies portrays the unexpected death of an adolescent and why this is important to people attitudes surrounding death.

    Niemiec and Schulenberg (2011), discussed the unrealistic portrayal of death in movies and the contradictory attitudes people develop (2011). The trivial example of the blockbuster motion picture, The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009), was given by Niemiec and Schulenberg to prove their point regarding unrealistic death attitudes (2011). Edward, the main character, tries to commit suicide to avoid the pain of living without his romantic partner. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Edward did not commit suicide because at the second his girlfriend appeared and saved him. In Hollywood style, they lived happily ever after – the end. Unfortunately, for Fifteen-year-old Amanda Cummings, her end was not so happy. Cummings’ suicide note mentioned the recent breakup with her boyfriend as one of the reasons she ended her life. Cummings committed suicide by jumping in front of a bus in New York (Curry, 2012). The article mentions bullying at school, a recent break-up, and inappropriate comments on her Facebook wall as links to her suicide.

    Some authors use their fictional characters to try and teach adolescents that it is perfectly reasonable to grieve outwardly. These types of death scenes are useful for therapists who want to use film to help their patient overcome negative death attitudes (Niemiec and Schulenberg, 2011). Collins amplifies the emotion of death attitude for Katniss Everdeen, a fictional young character, in The Hunger Games (2008). While fighting in the first arena, Katniss broke from normal tribute tradition and showed all the districts that she has compassion when a young person is murdered for amusement. The flower grave she assembled for Rue, a murdered 12-year-old tribute from a different district, was beautiful and filled with empathy. The scene offers a way to say goodbye in a society that is inherently disenfranchised with death.

    In exploring the theory of symbolic interaction (see chapter 3) in unexpected death and the news, Gerbner (1980), explained that by the time a person grows up, necromania has become part of their culture, and that hearing about the death on television is normal. Perhaps this is the case for most Americans. However, as Ellis (1993) mentioned, when it is happening to one’s self, one’s outlook on death in prime time drastically changes. Ellis struggles from seeing her brother’s plane crash on live television news then in newsprint to having to face her life without her younger brother in it. Gerbner’s research found that those who watch a heavy amount of television experience a heightened sense of danger, insecurity, and mistrust. The seven-part Harry Potter book and movies series written more than two decades after Gerbner’s research illustrate his findings. In that, those characters that died were either weak, committed sins, or had noticeable character flaws. Additionally, by placing Voldemort at the top of the pyramid of villains, it was okay for the heroes, (Order of Phoenix members) to act violently (Gerbner, 1980).

    Throughout the Harry Potter work, fictional author, J.K. Rowling has no problem with killing characters and moving to the next scene. The unexpected death of Fred Weasley and the absence of George Weasley’s inner emotions is an example of Rowling failing to show society what the loss of a sibling could entail. However, Markel and Markel, (2008), used the Harry Potter series to help a young person cope with loss and thereby find a new normal. Young people tend to close up and are afraid to talk to adults. By trying to immerse the grieving adolescent into a fantasy world, the adolescent is provided with a safe outlet to communicate. If society were taught how to grieve the death of a fictional young character, perhaps the adult sibling would no longer be disenfranchised, because the presence of the surviving sibling(s) would be depicted.

    Another way the imposition of media venues and grieving may occur is when the person who is grieving utilizes a modern way to bring their grief into the public sphere because they are frustrated and do not know where to turn for support. This is often seen in post-millennials who grew up with social media as part of their everyday life. In recent years, social network websites such as Facebook and Twitter have emerged as a way for individuals, celebrities, media, and corporations to rapidly share the news. The news could be positive or negative. What is fascinating is how the news of death and dying has leaped off the obituary section of newsprint and onto social networks such as Facebook and Twitter posts. Now people have the ability to comment, like, or share information in often a non-moderated situation. In the past when someone died, the family would contact the local newspaper and post a eulogy in the obituary section. There would be no place to add a comment (positive/negative) and more than likely no way to reach out to that family other than the mention of the funeral home. Brubaker, Hayes, and Dourish (2013) studied the experiences of users after seeing a post in their newsfeed that a cyber-friend was deceased. The studied found that people who wish to grieve in private found this new online forum to be unsettling (Brubaker et al., 2013). Brubaker et al. also noted that now parents have a way to keep memories of their child alive (2013). Brubaker et al. did not study any sibling implications for using Facebook as a public grieving forum.

    Walter, Hourizi, Moncur, and Pitsillides, (2012) discuss a wide arrange of online practices associated with death and how the new practices have implications such as maintaining continuing bonds with the deceased. Walter et al. (2012) found that social media has helped disenfranchised grievers such as child and adolescents find a voice to express emotions. However, the study found that this new expression of grieving is not without conflict because some people may not approve of the postings (Walter et al., 2012). Other people may deface the memorial page or the posting because they either object to this new way of expression or because they disliked the deceased (Walter et al., 2012; Annese & Jorgensen, 2012). Walter et al., further analyzed continuing bonds through online social media. The concept of continuing bonds with the deceased is not new phenomena. However, Walter et al., (2012) discovered that posts are often posed in active voice such as the person typing the message is looking for a response either from the deceased or someone reading the post. This new concept is changing the notion of continuing bonds from a once private endeavor to a public forum for some individuals (Walter et al., 2012). The study does not discuss the dangers of changing the notion of continuing bonds on the person who does not wish to grieve this way.

    The post-millennials have discovered a positive aspect to social media. Users of Myspace, Twitter, and Facebook are now keeping the memory of the deceased alive through public posts. Users of these websites tend to be younger, more educated, and had no problem taking their private grief to a public forum (Carroll & Landry, 2010). Carroll and Landry (2010) studied high school and college students who are considered marginalized populations. Traditionally when a person dies, it is the parents, a spouse, or an elder relative who contacts the obituary section of the newspaper, decides what to write on the tombstone, or makes the funeral arrangements. With the advent of social media now this marginalized group has a venue, which requires no monetary access other than the internet. Therefore, Myspace, Twitter, and Facebook are allowing a segment of the population to be openly heard, who in the past were essentially voiceless. The social media websites are further providing a platform for the person who is struggling to express verbally themselves (Carroll & Landry, 2010). This is a positive cognitive development, which the post-millennials have discovered.

    However, there is a dark side to this new public grief forum. A person may deliberately use technology or social media in a derogatory fashion meant to diminish the deceased and cause pain for the person grieving. While Cummings laid in a coma, dying; social media became flooded with comments. Annese and Jorgensen mentioned the new trend of publicly posting a comment when someone dies (2012). However, in Cumming’s case, most of the comments were not positive. For example, the following appeared on the Facebook memorial, “So /b/, I please ask that you respect her memory, and write a thoughtful paragraph or too so that all of the teenage candy-asses can feel like heroes by writing how sad they are that the girl is bullied is dead” (Annese & Jorgensen, 2012, para. 6).

    Olmeda (2010) conducted a follow-up news story regarding March 17, 2010, beating of Ratley by Treacy. Treacy a fifteen-year-old was dating Mason, a friend of Ratley. Ratley did not own a cell phone and was communicating with Treacy using Ratley’s cell phone. Ratley and Treacy exchanged some text messages regarding Treacy’s recently deceased brother [note that the text exchange has not been fully released to the public]. Treacy’s anger took over him, and he rode his bicycle three miles from his home to Deerfield Beach Middle School just in time for dismissal. Treacy approached Ratley and proceeded to beat her to unconsciousness and step on her head with his steel-toed boots (Olmeda, 2010). This is an example of what can happen when a person’s anger is so strong that it triggers them into a violent rage. This strong emotion of anger is also one of the fundamental stages of the five stages of the grieving process (Kübler-Ross, 1972; Opotow, 2006) (see chapter 3). An understanding of symbolic interaction theory on a micro level could provide insights on Treacy’s reaction. From the story it seems, Treacy interpreted the text as an object meant to cause pain. Treacy’s response it seems evident that he was stuck in the anger phase and had had no bereavement counseling. Ratley’s comments regarding the deceased brother depict society’s general view that siblings are invisible and essentially do not grieve.

  5. Number 4 and Number 6 hit home for me.
    My children and I tried so hard to hold out hope and be strong. I find I tried to be so strong for my husband that I missed the opportunity to “really” talk towards the end of his life. I knew he wasn’t ready to leave this world, plus he had a brand new grandson that he never met.
    I am grateful though, that almost every day of our 39 years of marriage, we said, I love you”. He truly was my Soul Mate and Best Friend and for that reason alone, I will always love and miss him.

  6. Even when you expect a death (because your loved one was diagnosed with a terminal illness), when it comes sooner than expected it just becomes overwhelming and confusing — and the emotional turmoil can make you feel totally panicked and unable to think clearly or make decisions that would have been simple in any other context.

  7. Thank you for this, is it written by Eleanor (I’m guessing)? Nice to read a post about death itself, rather than grief per se.
    Thank you.

  8. A great article that I will share with my fellow grievers and people who may be working through end of life scenarios with their loved ones.

    May I also Suggest #8- coming to terms with the fact they are never coming home. This is not a dream we will wake up from or a case of premonition or mistaken identity.

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