Bill Moyers: 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.
Judith Moyers: 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."
Beliefnet: That's surprising--that the taboos that you found in the medical profession, and in dealing with the medical profession, persist also into the world of religion.
Judith Moyers: Absolutely. While doctors told us that they received no instruction in medical school about dying, about making a patient more comfortable, for example, or about how to deal with family members, clergy also reported back to us that they really did not have that kind of training that would make them feel able to give that kind of counseling, if in fact the subject was raised.
Bill Moyers: One of our stories concerns a couple in Louisiana. He was dying of ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. He had begun as a Southern Baptist, and was now non-denominational. She remained a deeply committed and worshipping Southern Baptist. But when he began to reach the stages of disability and needed her full-time presence, she just stopped going to church. She says on camera, in my interview with her, that of all the things she misses the most, going to church is one of them. She wasn't getting any help from her church because she didn't want to bother them. And so she didn't inform the church that she wasn't there because her husband was dying. The church didn't ask, didn't explore the matter. I actually wrote the pastor a letter when I got back to New York and called his attention to the issue. And the church then moved in and was a very big source of help. But there's failure of communication in all of these relationships--between doctors and patients, between pastors and members, between the dying and his or her loved ones. We just haven't developed a mature way to converse about death, to face it openly, and deal with it honestly. I think that talking about death is, in fact, the best weapon to cope with our fear of death, and to get help in the process of dying. But it's not done all that often.