In American Culture Death is Warped by Movies and Entertainment

In our culture death is warped by entertainment and Hollywood. Its not a conspiracy or anything of the like. Dying on the big screen is very different than dying in person. In the last two years I have watched two people who I was deeply close to die. Also what do you do when disease or illness affects their ability to say goodbye to you? With a funeral and a wake coming up next week I am dreading what is to come. This feels like a dream and I am trying to come to terms with this new reality – both Mom and Dad are gone.

“Six feet of earth makes us all equal.”

Italian saying

    “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

Steve Jobs     

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

Mark Twain

He will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.

Isaiah 25:8 NRSVCE


Mom’s wake in 2017

As I continue to write about my Dad and his death on November 21, 2018 there is another topic that I have realized. This comes after dealing with two deaths and watching them in process. Let me explain some more below.


A Warped View of Death From Our Culture

My view of death and dying has largely been carved by the culture that I live in. In my life I have watched a number of movies and also television shows. And there is something that I came to realize recently. Before I continue with what I am going to say I am not going to reference war movies, horror films, or severe accidents. Sometimes in the movies death can be sensational. All you have to do is watch movies like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, any James Bond, We Were Soldiers, or Saving Private Ryan. That is not what I am going to focus on as that is another genre.

In a lot of movies and television shows death can often go like this. The dying person gets to say their last good bye. People are close, and they can sometimes hold hands and communicate to each other. All parties say what they need to say. The final farewell is said.  Then its almost like the person dies on cue. Its a perfect ending, and one that seems normal or usual. I have a couple of examples from Return of the Jedi and the Wrath of Khan to try and make my point. When I have thought of death or dying that is what has come to mind. Its what has shaped my thinking over the course of time. Except here is what I learned. It is a lie.

That seems to happen frequently in other situations with fantasy or what you are taught. For example some people think sex is like what the have seen in regular pornography. There are magazines like Better Homes & Garden that tell you what a house can look like. As a result some females feel guilted by how their home doesn’t meet those expectations. Or think of how some men can be about physical fitness and weight lifting. There are some people who try and look like what some men look like because of body building websites or magazines like Men’s Fitness. There are many aspects to our culture that are not healthy and good. So its not just death or dying that this can be the only example.


What I Witnessed in 2 Hospital Rooms

In the last year and I half I have watched two people die. They are my Mom and my Dad. Mom died on April 1, 2017 and Dad died on November 21, 2018. What I saw in both was troubling but Dad’s was much worse. Dad’s was not peaceful at all. But let me start with Mom. Mom died on April 1, 2017 in the ICU. It was almost as if she waited for the family to be together. Then it was like everything came apart. The monitors started to indicate that she was dying. Her brain waves were changing. I watched her blood pressure plummet and alarms going off as they did. 90 to 70 to 60 and on down it went. I watched her heart rate flat line in the course of time. It was hard to watch and those who read this I hope you never have to see anything like this in your life. What was also hard was seeing how death changes the body with seconds of it occurring. My Mom’s face drained and became white. The body became more white and rigid. I remember crying over my Mom and feeling her forehead and you can feel the warmth leave the body. It was a difficult thing to go through. One thing that was weird and I don’t know if this was a signal from Mom to us, but when we got into the car and turned on the radio. Her favorite song came on, and it really stunned us. But my Mom’s was peaceful considering everything.

Then there was my Dad on November 21, 2018. I was not prepared for what I walked into in a hospital room at 3:30 in the morning. I saw Dad in bed his eyes were wide open and almost looking like they were going to pop out. He was twitching and moving in his bed. I was baffled as he was to have been on morphine and yet it seemed like it didn’t have any affect on his breathing. It looked like he was in pain. Then there was Dad with his mouth wide open and gasping for breath. It was a disturbing sight to witness. And the breathing was deeply labored and sounded tortured. The noise coming from Dad was absolutely awful. As I type this I can hear it in my mind. I watched it for a few minutes before stepping out of the room. I sat in the hospital chapel trying to make sense of what I witnessed. When my sister called me and told me to return to the hospital room at 5:20 the first thing she said when I walked through the door was “Dad died.” I looked at my Dad and the scene reminded me of my Mom’s. His ashen body was turning white. I held his hand and kissed him, while crying and I could slowly feel the warmth leave his body. His body became more rigid and it was as if it was changing before our eyes.

In the case of both of my parents neither of their death represented what I saw from Hollywood or television. Their death was much harder and was more painful, and that was with modern medicine being involved.


Death and Saying Goodbye

But here is another thing I learned with my Dad’s death as well. How do you say goodbye when a disease or illness has affected their ability to speak? When I recall my Dad’s last words I have to go back a few weeks. It wasn’t on the day or even a couple of days before his death. The brain tumor he was dealing with affected his speech. At least with Mom I heard her last words for the family especially due to the time I spent in the hospital. But the process of saying goodbye is affected and not at all like in the movies. In both cases the death was unexpected and hard to go through. Also in writing this post is not meant to be an insult to entertainment of Hollywood. Its just life colliding with reality.


The Wake Before the Funeral

The reason why I am writing this post is because the wake and the funeral are this upcoming week. This afternoon I was shopping for clothes to wear at the funeral. One thing I am dreading is the wake. Going to it and seeing Dad’s casket for the first time will be very hard. Seeing his remains and how they will resemble someone I do not know will be hard. Is this the same person that laughed at his own jokes, loved wine and enjoyed long conversations? Another aspect to the wake that will be hard is hearing the stories. Having strangers come up to me that I do not know who will tell me about how they worked with Dad or how he treated them as a patient. It will be emotionally draining and hard to go through. I am dreading the wake and wish I could honesty avoid it. As I deal with Dad’s death this is a reminder that this is happening. Its not a dream but the cold, hard reality of life. I can’t believe that they are both gone. I can’t believe both my parents are gone. That is about all I can say, but this is now off my chest.

10 thoughts on “In American Culture Death is Warped by Movies and Entertainment

  1. Yes, it’s hard seeing your own parents like that….The image is still burned in my head and comes back late at night….I suppose a more “romantic” death is more suitable for dramatizing than what really happens.

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  2. My dad died when I was away at college. My last visit with him, he was in the hospital for one of his many many hospitalizations for a chronic health problem. It was a good visit, but neither of us was expecting it to be the last. Before I left to go back to school I held his hand, and he looked so frail, even though he was only 50. He never made it home from that hospitalization. I got the call at my dorm in the early hours of the morning. No chance to say goodbye.

    No “wake”, that wasn’t in my family’s tradition, but there was a “visitation” that was actually pretty helpful. No open coffin, that would have been awful. But it was comforting to hear from people whose lives my Dad had affected. So I was able to appreciate sides of his life that I hadn’t seen before.

    When I’ve had to go to events with open coffins, I’ve tried to position myself so that the coffin is out of sight, because that’s not what I wanted to focus on. Gathering memories and stories to carry forward was a much better way of saying goodbye for me. What’s in the coffin isn’t them anymore anyway, they now live on within us, and our memories of them.

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  3. I was not present at either of my parents’ actual deaths. My mother (1975, small-cell lung cancer) died about 3 Ayem in the hospital terminal ward; we got the phone call. (After six months of that, we were all too burned out and numbed out.) As for my father (1994, mesothelioma), we were estranged at the time (long story, more Reality Show family dynamics) and I got the phone call at 6 Ayem.

    In a lot of movies and television shows death can often go like this…

    Not just “movies and television shows” but Christian Urban Legend as well.

    When Internet Monk died in 2008 (also by brain tumor), his widow made a guest post on that exact subject, how everyone else seemed to have these Christ-enhanced “Good Deaths” while IMonk went like your father:

    Some of the longer comments were by hospice/hospital nurses who had seen many deaths; they said sometimes they do go like in the stories, but most don’t. And Evangelical Bubble Culture cherry-picks these “good ones” and claims those are the norm. AND THEY’RE NOT.

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    • Actual text of one of the above-mentioned IMonk comments, from a “Melanie”:

      As a palliative care nurse I can offer some comment on all of the more hopeful stories that you are seeing about the peaceful deaths that others apparently witness. Yes, they do happen, occasionally. They are not the norm. In my experience these accounts are told because generally it is taboo to tell tales otherwise. People rarely want to hear the painful truth, and the grieving soon realize this. They realize that they are often isolated when others cannot face the grief in their eyes. Remembering these fleeting moments and extrapolating them to the whole experience of the dying process gives the grieving and those around them comfort and reassurance while preserving social relationships and the support they offer at a desperate, severing time.

      Another observation is that these stories become, to some, the new memories for the living. This takes time. Sometimes a very long time. Sometimes they are constructed for survival. I often see the families of those I have cared for years later. More often than not the recollections have grown and changed from what I witnessed. A similar thing happens with recollections of childbirth.

      For Christians I am often amazed at how many honestly believe that their faith somehow magically prevents them from suffering. They then assume that when a follower of Christ dies it is the culmination of faith that will result in a peaceful, kind death. When this does not happen they are sometimes immobilized with the double shock of loss and what seems pointless suffering for a believer.

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      • My dad also died of mesothelioma, after fending off two other cancers. It came on him so fast that I had to rush down there (I live two states away) and still didn’t have time to find him very verbal.

        There was the scene with church members and family all surrounding him and interacting with him, but that was a few days *before* the actual death. Then it was the immediate family in and out, taking care of tasks (he was at home), taking care of him, just watching and waiting, and hearing what he was going through. It’s excruciating for the ones waiting. Not a guaranteed peaceful, painless expiration; it’s the same for the Christian as for anyone else. Fortunately, I never heard of anyone expecting this.

        This reminds me of a scene in The Brothers Karamazov: Two people die, one a child, one a venerated monk. They believe that if someone dies who is truly a saint, his body won’t decay. But the monk’s body begins to–well, what happens when someone isn’t buried right away in a land without modern embalming techniques. And the people are horrified at this, except for some who smugly think, “I *knew* he wasn’t so great!” But from what I recall, the child’s body didn’t decay during this time.


      • With my father after-the-fact, we theorized the mesothelioma was from asbestos exposure during WW2, when he spent 2-3 years aboard the USS Cleveland (CL-55). Cleveland was a war-production cruiser, and asbestos was the main fireproofing and insulation material used at the time. And in war production, what mattered above all else was getting those hulls in the water and operational as quickly as possible.

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      • We don’t know what caused it in my dad. He did a lot of work maintaining the house/roof over the years, and installed burgler alarms, so we think he might’ve gotten into something that way. He used to smoke, but quit 50 years before, so that shouldn’t have done it.


    • Its been an eye opening experience. Death is so hard to witness. I just feel numb to all that I have witnessed. Yesterday I was reading the NY Times and it talked about George HW Bush’s last day and his last words to his son George W. As the Times said according to James Baker, Bush just went to sleep. No labored breathing. Not a lot of suffering. It was peaceful. I showed the article to my sister and we both thought, “this is how we went it for Dad.” So sometimes its peaceful and sometimes its not. How it happens for each person is what confuses me.

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      • The only thing I can offer is a paraphrase of what a Rabbi from Nazareth said about a mass-casualty tower collapse in Siloam: “And sometimes, shit happens.”

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