On Their Own Terms: A Talk With Bill and Judith Moyers
Beliefnet interviews the journalists about the PBS special and their views on dying in America.
Death is obviously a very daunting subject. Why did you decide to devote several years to it?
We are journalists, both of us, and we saw a story that was working its way through the undercurrents of American life. And that story has several layers, as most good stories do. One was a growing movement to improve care at the end of life. Second was an emerging conversation about death and dying after a long period of denial.
You know, we like jumping on subjects that are thought to be taboo. So, we felt challenged to take on this taboo as well. Dying is a part of life, a part of the life process. We don't want to skip it.
Bill Moyers: Three years ago, our own, then-37- or 38-year-old son acknowledged that for the first time, he was having to try to imagine a world without his parents. That was a startling confession to hear come from this, our oldest child. So that was a factor. There were so many factors that came together, that converged to cause us to think that this is a subject we wanted to do.
Beliefnet: I understand Bill's mother died while you were making this series. How did that loss affect the way you approached this journalistically?
Bill Moyers: The way it influenced me was that I realized all the mistakes I made in the course of my mother's dying. I was a fairly sophisticated, fairly knowledgeable fellow in his early 60s who nonetheless knew very little about hospice; who didn't understand palliative care, or its importance, or the breakthroughs that have come in America in palliative care. And who just simply didn't know how to respond to my mother's needs for comfort. It was when hospice was called in that I really began to learn a lot about the care of the dying, that I had only thought about abstractly until then.
Beliefnet: If you could have done it differently, what would you have done?
Bill Moyers: I would have explored much more deeply what the last stages of life are. Any of us should know more about the fuller stages of the process, in the last years or months of life, than I did. That's one. I should have, myself, questioned the doctor's judgment more than I did. He would say, "Well, I don't think your mother needs more pain medicine. I think that she needs to be conscious, and we need to change her diet a little bit." I wish I'd said, "Look, let's face it. My mother isn't going to recover. Her agitation can be addressed. I'm not sure consciousness is as valuable at this time as it would have been 6 months, or 12 months, or 2 years ago. So, let's have a more open conversation."