Thursday, March 19, 2009

Present at the Dying

Most people do their dying in private.
We may take our last breath in a hospital bed or beneath a crumpled car by the side of the road, or in any number of fathomable and unfathomable ways, but the rest of the world is rarely waiting for us to die. That is not the case with the well known among us. It is even less so in the era of the internet and the 24-hour news cycle.
Yesterday in a New York hospital a woman died, with her family at her side. Those of us who have lost family members in hospitals know what much of that experience must have been like for the family. When you are caring for the critically ill, the waiting room becomes something of a community. You begin to recognize the faces from one hour or day to the next, you pick up a piece of their story, who it is they are sitting vigil for, the illness or injury, and all too often in those rooms the wait is a short one.
The moment can come in the middle of the night or in the early morning – there is no knowing – a doctor or nurse walks in and takes the family out of the room. Soon you hear the sounds of loss and you know it is over for them, the dying at least, but certainly not the grieving, which can last another lifetime. Nevertheless, aside from your fellows in that room and the staff of the hospital, the experience is a private one.
For the family of the woman who died yesterday in New York, there was no such privacy. Camera crews and reporters prowled the streets around the hospital, covering the entrances and exits like a swarm of angry pests, unwilling to give even a moment of peace to the family who came and went from the bedside of their loved one. I suppose it’s impossible to attach anything like the concept of shame to such behavior but that’s the word that comes to mind. They should be ashamed for their beastly behavior and we should be ashamed for supporting it.
Is it possible for a person who chooses to live her life in the public eye (or by accident finds herself in it) to reserve no right to privacy, even in their dying? Is our need to know so great that we deem it proper to stalk their families at what is perhaps the most devastating moment of their lives? Our collective, invasive, toxic, boredom has become a beast that knows no bounds. It’s long past time to step back, but I fear the opportunity may have already been lost. Will we ever become sated with it all or is this greed for peering into the lives of others a virus that has no cure?