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Coping with COVID deaths and what cinema tells us

It has come to this. We have reached an arbitrary new landmark in COVID-19 deaths in the United States. Inexorably oncoming, some respected epidemiologists are spooked by the specter of more waves and say we may go to 1 million. Such numbers would not make this pandemic any more unique. These large numbers, as any large number in catastrophes, are depersonalized, except for the health care workers who see them. Some commentators are good at minimizing these enormities, and we built defenses saying it is only the vulnerable. Then the statistic changes, however, and nobody is spared.

Before COVID-19, when death was imminent, families could be at the bedside and they could stay overnight. The state of palliation in the intensive care unit was unrestrained and accommodating. Families would even sometimes negotiate to keep their loved ones alive so grandchildren could visit from afar or “don’t let him die on his birthday.” We understood the sentiment and complied. It was horrible enough and if we could adapt, we did not hesitate.

Negotiations to be with a loved one during the COVID-19 surge did not cease despite quite sensible (although non-evidenced with proper use of protective garments) hospital restrictions. Even further aggravated by talking to masked healthcare workers who could hardly be identified (its use unquestionably evidenced). Most relatives were not allowed to be physically present. This was further hampered by travel restrictions. I have seen it first-hand and felt awful about it. For a family to not be present means no time to say goodbye. Families have literally begged me for an exception to the rule, and not allowing family to be present went against all I stand for; grief and mourning gone awry. These bereaved already have a name: the “COVID-19 mourners.”  Although the dying person is often unaware of what is going on around them, for loved ones, the experience of being nearby is very helpful in the grieving process. How will families cope with this experience? With death and dying in intensive care units, there should be bereavement support for families. Bereavement-associated post-traumatic stress disorder is frequent in families of patients who die in the intensive care unit and lasts many months. Can we console them later?

It brought my thoughts back to cinema. With all this depersonification, cinema found a way to personify death. In addition to violent death from viruses, aliens, climate change, and nuclear Armageddon, studios made serious movies about disease and dying. Early European filmmakers wondered if we could ask death a favor. Victor Sjöström and Ingmar Bergman asked if negotiation with the Grim Reaper was an option. In The Phantom Carriage and The Seventh Seal, we see the personification of death to great effect, and invariably it is a cloaked and hooded elderly male. The dying sister in The Phantom Carriage begs for one more opportunity to see if the drunkard she cared for has cleaned up his act. Crusader Block in The Seventh Seal, challenges death to a chess game, and Death, a better player, agrees. To postpone the inevitable, Block proposes a deal:   “If I checkmate you, I go free.” Postponement through negotiation was a major theme. Equally sadistic was Fritz Lang’s film Destiny and,  if true, was based on a nightmare. A woman in love can only get her dying lover back if she saves a life or finds another soul to replace her lover in death, even going so far as to offer her child, but she fails. Cinema has dealt with grief, and lack of resolution is common in recent films (Don’t Look Now, Three Colors, Blue, Manchester by the Sea, Antichrist). Death in the movies is agonizing, and many explore common themes of despair, the randomness of fate, and everything associated with trying to come to grips with it.  In cinema, death from illness is unavoidable and non-negotiable. Our current reality is not much better.

Featured image credit: Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Hank Greenspan

    At least in the U.S. and a few other countries, the horror of COVID deaths is interwoven with the fact that many did not have to be, and would not have been, were it not for inept and corrupt leadership. This was no earthquake or attack from Mars. That context matters enormously in how we respond to the catastrophe.

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