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End-of-life clinicians are trying to shift Hollywood's depiction of death

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We're used to seeing death on TV and in the movies, but some clinicians who work with people at the end of life say the most common depictions aren't representative of what happens in the real world. They're trying to shift the stories we tell about death to help people cope better. From member station KQED, April Dembosky reports.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: We've seen it so many times - a young man rushed into the emergency room with a gunshot wound, a flurry of white coats racing the clock, CPR, the heart zapper, the order for a scalpel, stat. This is Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider's biggest pet peeve.

SHOSHANA UNGERLEIDER: Acute violent death is portrayed many, many, many times more than a natural death.

DEMBOSKY: Ungerleider practiced in the hospital and ICU for seven years. She says television tropes like this ignore the full range of end-of-life experiences and the choices people have, like dying at home instead of a hospital. And all those miraculous CPR recoveries - they create false hope. She thinks Hollywood can do better.

UNGERLEIDER: Really, our goal is to encourage them to write in different kinds of inspiring and nuanced and diverse storylines that are more representative of what's actually possible.

DEMBOSKY: Ungerleider is the founder of End Well, a nonprofit that hosts an annual conference. It's like the TEDx for end of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Please find your seats. Our program is about to begin.

DEMBOSKY: It started six years ago in San Francisco. But this year, it was in Los Angeles for the first time. Ungerleider wants to harness the power of prime-time TV.

UNGERLEIDER: We're trying to embed ourselves within Hollywood.

DEMBOSKY: In addition to the hospice nurses and grief experts, End Well invited a team of celebrities to the conference stage, like talk show host Amanda Kloots and comedian Tig Notaro. Sitcom star Yvette Nicole Brown was the emcee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YVETTE NICOLE BROWN: And when my mom passed, I called all my friends whose mom had passed before and apologized...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

BROWN: ...Because I said, until this moment, I had no idea.

DEMBOSKY: Brown had no models for how to grieve or support others in their grief. Now she's trying to set an example for the rest of the entertainment industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: If you are a writer or a producer or a comedian or whatever, talk about grief.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

BROWN: Talk about death.

DEMBOSKY: End Well has also partnered with researchers at USC Annenberg to find out what's stopping TV producers from using more realistic death narratives. Director of research Erica Rosenthal says they found Hollywood execs are wary that depressing stories will alienate viewers.

ERICA ROSENTHAL: Entertainment is still a profit-driven system, and the bottom line is viewership.

DEMBOSKY: She says what many viewers want from TV is escapism, comfort, humor.

ROSENTHAL: How do you make end-of-life care funny?

DEMBOSKY: A few industry outliers are convinced they can.

J J DUNCAN: I hope that we can learn that death stories don't have to be sad or sappy or depressing.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPAGNIA D'OPERA ITALIANA, ALBERTO GAZALE, AND ANTONELLO GOTTA PERFORMANCE OF ROSSINI'S "IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA - LARGO AL FACTORUM")

DEMBOSKY: J.J. Duncan is the showrunner for the new reality show on NBC's streaming network narrated by Amy Poehler, "The Gentle Art Of Swedish Death Cleaning."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GENTLE ART OF SWEDISH DEATH CLEANING")

AMY POEHLER: What is Swedish death cleaning, you say? Basically, cleaning out your crap so that others don't have to do it when you're gone.

DEMBOSKY: In the first episode, three Swedes help a 75-year-old woman sort through her belongings and her memories, including working as a singing waitress in Aspen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GENTLE ART OF SWEDISH DEATH CLEANING")

SUZI SANDERSON: I sang there for 11 years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh.

SANDERSON: And then I got married. And then - well, I have to tell the truth. It ruined my sex life.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBOSKY: Duncan says Hollywood is slowly opening up. She couldn't believe producers were willing to do a show with the word death in the title.

DUNCAN: I mean, that alone is amazing. And we had studio people say, oh, don't say death too much, you know what I mean? Because it's scary.

DEMBOSKY: But Duncan says any good story has setup, conflict and resolution - maybe a hero's journey. There's no reason death can't fit into the formula.

For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIR NEVILLE MARRINER AND ACADEMY OF ST. MARTIN IN THE FIELDS' PERFORMANCE OF BOCCHERINI'S "STRING QUINTET IN E MAJOR, OP. 13: V. MINUET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funeralswon the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009. April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.
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