Death and Dying on TV

| By Jodi Horton

Two recent scenes from two different popular television shows had us commenting on the way hospice care and dying are portrayed in popular culture.

The first scene that opened the discussion for us was Netflix’s House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. In the most recent season of the show, Robin Wright’s character Claire learns her mother is terminally ill. During the season, her mother goes on to hospice and receives care in her home. One point for the show for accurately portraying hospice as care in the home as opposed to the common misconception that hospice is a place you go to.

But then the show loses a point when, (SPOILER ALERT), as Claire’s mother is dying, Claire has a conversation in the hallway outside her mother’s room with a woman we presume to be her mother’s nurse or caregiver. Claire asks about her mother’s health, and the nurse suggests that more medication can be provided to Claire’s mother so her body “can let go.” The implication to aid in dying or assisted death and in the next scene, as Claire drops liquid medicine into her mother’s mouth and dies what is presumably a few hours later, is a misleading view of hospice care.

Let’s be clear that hospice is not assisted dying. Certainly, the hospice is and should be providing medications to manage pain for a patient if pain is an issue, but the medication is intended to provide comfort and control the symptom. Our goal and our role as a hospice is to provide you with the medical, emotional, and practical support necessary to live your last days, weeks, and months comfortably. Our aim is to let you enjoy your life, not to hasten your death.

The second show that had us thinking about death and dying was last week’s Grey’s Anatomy. This popular medical drama often stretches the limits of believability, but one scene last week had us going “Yes, that’s the moment!” Since Saturday was National Healthcare Decisions Day, and we spent a lot of time thinking about advance directives last week, it was especially poignant when it was revealed that the patient did not have any advance directives and his mother was forced to make the decision about whether or not to pursue heroic measures for her comatose son. As she cried that she didn’t know what he would want and how could she make this decision, we recognized what a powerful scene it was in support of advance healthcare directives. Our family members won’t know what we want unless we tell them; our doctors won’t know what kinds of treatments to pursue unless we document them. We have the power to remove the “I don’t know” part of that conversation with a simple advance directive document.

We hope that popular shows like House of Cards and Grey’s Anatomy can keep pushing the conversation about the end-of-life experience, one scene at a time.

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