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Video Valedictions: TV Aids in Last Goodbys : New Technology Helps the Dying--and the Living

October 17, 1986|MARIA L. La GANGA | Times Staff Writer

Paulette Kizzar's face stares out from the television screen, eyes rimmed red with tears and fatigue. A tube, hooked over her ears and into her nose, brings oxygen to her failing lungs. As she speaks, a tear rolls down her flushed cheek.

She is 18, she is dying, and she is saying goodby.

"I don't know if I'm gonna die or not, but my biggest fear is not being remembered," she says from her hospital bed as her mother strokes her back. "I just want everybody to remember me--not like I look right now, but how I was always smiling and having a good time.

Not a Quitter

"And I don't want anybody to ever think that I'm a quitter, because I'm gonna fight it as long and as hard as I can." A pause. More tears. "And if I die, I want everybody to be happy for me because I won't have to have treatments. I won't have to go to the doctors any more."

The cystic fibrosis patient from Santa Ana died last January, one day after taping this 10-minute video. Paulette Kizzar never saw the finished product. She was buried in her prom dress on Jan. 29.

Through the ages people have left behind farewell messages to ensure that, if they can't defy their mortality, at least they can live on in the memories of their loved ones and of coming generations.

Earlier Practices

Ancient Egyptians left elaborate crypts, furnished for use in the afterlife and decorated with wall paintings depicting their life stories. Later generations composed farewell letters and poems. And today's technological revolution has spawned a new way of saying goodby--with videotapes.

"For their last statement, people have used whatever means of communication they were most content with, the technology of the day," said John S. Stephenson, president of the Assn. for Death Education and Counseling, a national organization of teachers and therapists. "It seems to be very fitting for people today to make use of videotape, just as in the past someone might write letters."

In what became his last statement, Glenn Anderson, brother of Beirut hostage Terry Anderson, videotaped an emotional plea June 3 for his brother's return. Terry, the 38-year-old chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press, was kidnaped on March 16, 1985. The tape, which Glenn recorded from his New York hospital bed, was subsequently played on Lebanese television. The family hoped it would lead to Terry's return.

"My father died of cancer waiting to see Terry," Glenn, 46, said on the tape. "He did not see him. Now I have cancer, and I made a vow I would not die until I saw Terry. That vow is very close to an end. Please release him. I wish to see him one more time. Please release him. Thank you."

Glenn Anderson died June 7 of lung cancer. He never saw his brother again.

'Anticipatory Grief'

Most people who compose farewells know beforehand their approximate time of death, experts contend, far enough ahead to allow them to start a process called "anticipatory grief," in which they acknowledge their potential loss of life, prepare themselves for it and project beyond their death to think about life without them in it.

"They're on their way to accepting death," said Stephanie La Farge, a psychologist who founded a "video analysis" program at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. "It doesn't mean they're not still angry and don't have doubts. (Composing a goodby statement) shows both the need to communicate and this acceptance of death."

Just Like Artists

The dying who write or tape goodbys are doing the same thing as artists when they paint pictures, novelists when they write fiction and parents when they have children, contends Edwin Shneidman, a UCLA professor of thanatology, the study of death and dying.

"It's a lien on the future," Shneidman said. "It extends life at least a minute beyond death."

Although each family reacts differently to farewells, experts debate the merits of these videotaped messages.

Psychologist Stephenson contends that goodby letters and tapes help friends and family cope with the death of loved ones. The only time such a tape might be harmful, he said, is if someone became "pathologically linked" to it and stayed mired in grief.

"Some of us might on first hearing of it be repulsed by the notion of a (farewell) videotape, but this is the communication mode of today and tomorrow," he said. "If it (the tape) is used as a token of what that person meant and was, fine. If it becomes a vehicle for trying to avoid the reality of the death, then we'd have to ask what the purpose of that is."

'Great Blessing'

Dennis Hlynsky, a videographer and documentary maker who works on the Rhode Island Hospital project, said "The tapes are good and they're bad according to who's watching them."

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