The intimacy of death

I was four or five when I first saw a dead person. It was my maternal grandfather. He had died from cancer and was being laid to rest. At the viewing, I remember seeing him and not quite realizing that he was dead. I was just a kid, after all. Death was an abstract concept to me. In fact, death would not become a real thing until a few years later when a kid who lived across the street from me — and with whom I and the neighborhood kids played all the time — was run over by a drunk driver. He was there one day, then he was gone.

It wouldn’t be until I was a teenager that I saw someone die for the first time. It wasn’t in person, though. My cousins giddily borrowed a VHS tape copy of a movie called “Faces of Death.” The video appeared to show people dying from all sorts of different things. Some people were shot. Others were decapitated by broadswords in Saudi Arabia. (Though there is some evidence that some of these deaths were fake.) In one video, a man is shot point blank in the chest by a soldier during a protest. He screams “ay, ay, ay, ay, ay” and falls to the ground. The person recording focuses on the man’s face as he spits out blood and slowly passes away.

That one scene stayed in my head more because of the reaction of my cousins than because of how gruesome it was. See, my paternal grandfather once took me to the local slaughterhouse and showed me how horses, cows and pigs were killed. He showed me where the meat I ate came from, and how he earned a living that made life comfortable for everyone in the family. So I was okay with blood and guts. I still am, especially now that I’ve worked so long in healthcare.

"Hospital Bed" by Dan Cox via Flickr (cc by nd 2.0)
“Hospital Bed” by Dan Cox via Flickr (cc by nd 2.0)

The reason why that scene stayed in my head was because of my cousins’ reactions to it. They laughed. They repeated the “ay, ay, ay, ay, ay” (five times “ay”) as they mimicked how the man died, then they would laugh again. For years after watching that, if one of them got hurt in the slightest way, they would scream like the man did, grab their chest, and laugh again. I remember being very sad at their reaction, thinking to myself how sad the family of the man would be if they saw my cousins acting that way, and how sad those same family memebers would be in watching the video.

I wouldn’t see someone die live and in person until I started working at the hospital as a lab tech. I was working overnights and alone in the lab. So it was up to me to respond to codes blue in the emergency room and elsewhere in the hospital. The first person I saw die was a man in his 80s who died of a heart attack. There was a clear line across his torso separating white skin from blue. (His lower body wasn’t perfusing well, apparently.)  Just a few minutes earlier, as he was in the throes of the heart attack, he had reached out to the tech setting up his IV line and said, “You gotta help me, doc!” He would die a few minutes later, despite everything that was tried to keep his heart going. A few minutes after that, he was placed in a resting position, and most of the tubes that were placed in him were taken out. His family was then allowed into the room to say goodbye.

The following morning, I included in my report to the next shift that there was a code blue I responded to, but I didn’t give many details. Even as I write about it today, I’m not very comfortable with giving you the generalities of it. That man faced his last moments among strangers, and he seemed very scared of it all… As most of us would be.

This morning, a man opened fire on a reporter, a cameraman, and a person being interviewed. The reporter and cameraman were killed. The shooter recorded the shooting and posted the video to his social media accounts. What’s worse, the crew was live on morning television when the man opened fire. So viewers at 6:30am, or so, saw it all develop live on television. Not to be outdone, just about every media outlet decided that it was necessary to publish the video taken by the dying cameraman’s camera.

Later in the morning, as the shooter’s identity was discovered, and so were the videos he posted online, many media outlets decided to post that video. Online, a lot of my social media contacts were also sharing hyperlinks to the video, or stills from the video. Like that time with my cousins, it made me sad that people were so eager to see this horrible act with their own eyes. The murderer can be explained. He had issues with how he was treated by the staff at the television news station, and he snapped and killed those two employees of the station. What I can’t explain is why friends of mine who I love and care for — like my young cousins — can now, as adults, take any kind of satisfaction in watching the videos.

I guess it’s a lot about curiosity. After all, most of my friends are not living in war-torn places where violence is everyday. They probably have never seen someone die right in front of them. So they may be curious about people dying and click on the link that takes them to a website hosting the video. (In this case it’s probably a news site. In so many other cases, sites that cover the darkest of dark things on the net.) It may be that same curiosity that draws us boys to look at naked pictures of girls. It’s something unknown to us and considered taboo. And so we click, and we end up changing.

I’m not an ethicist. I took a couple of courses on ethics here and there throughout my academic career, but I’m not as well-versed in ethics as people who study ethics for a living are. So I’ll leave it up to them to opine on the ethics of posting those videos online. On the one hand, the videos further the story or outright tell it. On the other, posting the videos may further victimize the friends and loved ones of the victims themselves. Or they can coax other criminals to think that they too will gain notoriety by doing something similar.

Again, that’s all up for people more educated than me to definitively discuss.

Nevertheless, I will offer to you the same advice that I gave others on social media today. If you have the opportunity to see these kinds of videos, don’t. Don’t do it. It’s not worth it to put into your mind images of other people dying, images that can change you on such a level that you might not come out well on the other side. If you happen to have seen these images and feel troubled, please speak to someone about your feelings, hopefully someone who can help you deal with them to minimize the damage.

Death is, or should be, an intimate process that we all will go through some day. The overwhelming majority of us will go through it nonviolently, and hopefully in our sleep and/or surrounded by loved ones. It should be our moment and ours alone, something not to be shared with the world because, frankly, the world is already pretty messed up as it is. Filling minds with images of death doesn’t further us as society. It sets us back, even if there is some sort of “need” for society to see what is going on because of our failings as a species.

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

6 thoughts on “The intimacy of death

  1. I didn’t see the videos, I have no desire to seek them out. A report with one still of the gunman, with his weapon still aimed was enough to prove the identity of the murderer.
    I’ve saw enough death over the years, even killed in the military. I’ve more than had my fill of death to await my own death in the ever closing future.

    My first experience with death was a friend at school running out between parked cars and being hit by a car when I was in third grade. I didn’t see it, the nuns came into class and told us what was going on, going into detail of skull fragments being removed from her brain, in an effort to stop city kids from running out from between parked cars.
    It worked, none of our school did that again.
    My maternal grandmother died, after battling heart disease for decades, when I was in third grade as well.
    I’ve learned one thing over the decades. In life, because of the nature of life, death is always a companion, with friends, family and pets dying along the way and eventually, escortung us away from the world.

    So, I’ll not actively seek out that horror, I’ve quite enough of my own, thank you.
    But, apparently, the murderer was terminated for cause two years before.
    To me, that seems suspiciously like mental illness was involved.

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    • There almost always is a mental health component to murder. Whether it’s lack of impulse control, substance abuse, or an outright delusional state, the mind always plays into these things. However, it worries me a little bit that the narrative is one that people with mental health issues are likely to do these things when the evidence is to the contrary. People with mental health issues — real, diagnosable ones — are more likely to be the recipients of violence. The average punk on the street with a gun who thinks he’s the cock of the walk is hardly ever truly mentally ill. All my opinion, of course.
      Also, if I haven’t thanked you for your service before, I do thank you, sincerely. I may not always agree with the military interventions and other policies, but I will always hold servicemen in high esteem. It’s not easy to up and leave everything for the sake of a mission, and you guys did it over and over with the threat of death hanging over your head.

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      • However, it worries me a little bit that the narrative is one that people with mental health issues are likely to do these things when the evidence is to the contrary.

        Totally agree. I found some of the coverage downright offensive. Mental illness this, mental illness that. As if you can’t be violent without mental illness. I think diagnosing someone postmortem over the air is questionable to say the least. In my opinion of he’s not previously diagnosed web shouldn’t be tacking them on after the fact.

        I get that people want explanations for killings like this and mental illness is an easy one to latch on to but it’s unfair to those actually suffering from mental illness. There’s still plenty of stigma attached to mental illness without; we don’t need the implication that the mentally ill are dangerous and violent.

        Is it really too much to ask for a bit of balance? Like just a mention of what Ren said here.

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  2. People experience the death of a family member, a friend or a significant other most differently. I can recall seeing my first ghost as a 4 year old outside my Mum’s bedroom window, only to be told that it was my grandmother who had passed many years before I was born. In my culture we know when death will take place, we are given signs and warnings, we have dreams, and get messages from the birds around at the time, the 3 knocks that take place. For my family death and dying is a large part of our spiritual belief system in which we are bought up into, our traditions our culture and the way we live. We can not go any where from there, it has been instilled into our lives growing up within our communities, we did not read it from a book, it just happened. If you would like more information in relation to this matter please do not hesitate to send me an email. This is such a fascinating topic and there is still much more to research. Thank you for reading my story. Jackie.

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    • Thank you for sharing, Jackie. While this blog rarely touches on theological matters, I’m going to break that unwritten rule. I subscribe to the hope that there is an afterlife, that the soul remains aware and “alive” after the body ceases to operate. I also subscribe to the Christian faith which prescribes that once you’re dead, your soul is present with God in Heaven, waiting to be summoned back to a body on a “New Earth” at some point in the future.
      However, we have no scientific evidence whatsoever of this, and that’s why it’s only a hope and a faith. There is also no way to test these ideas, and so I’m left hoping for those things only. For that reason, I cannot say that I am correct in thinking that way, nor do I do a lot of “preaching” about it. (However, I do “preach” that we must act in a way so as to love our neighbors, be honest, call out the liars, and all those other things that Jesus emphasized. Sometimes I even do it with words.)
      Thanks again for your comment.

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  3. I had a similar experience to you Ren. In middle school my friend showed me a video of someone being beheaded with a knife. Who knows if it was real or not but that has stuck with me. I think we both ended up being pretty disturbed by it, there were no jokes or anything.

    I also work in healthcare and have seen patients die, children even, and it’s never easy. But I think there’s a huge difference between watching someone die and watching someone be killed. The latter was far more disturbing to me even though I’ve only seen it in a video.

    I hope that this video hasn’t been seen by too many children but I think that’s probably not the case. Especially given how sites like Facebook and Twitter autoplay by default.

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