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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Grey's Anatomy, Bad Jokes, and Empathetic Eyes

I love "Grey's Anatomy." I've watched the series since it began, what, eight years ago? I love how each episode scans the spectrum of flippant to life-changing seriousness. But this weeks flippancy hit a nerve. *SPOILER ALERT* The lead character, Dr. Meredith Grey, watched her mother suffer and die from early onset Alzheimer's. One of the other physicians on the show is pursuing genome mapping and agrees to map Meredith's genes and test for Alzheimer's markers. She tests positive. Over the rest of the episode, she doesn't wrestle with this news. She doesn't get angry or sad or deny its veracity. She doesn't walk through any of the stages of grief upon learning she carries the genetic markers for this awful disease. Instead, she tells her husband to give her a lethal dose of morphine "when I can't remember where I put my keys." She also asks her best friend, another physician, to kill her when she forgets where her keys are.

Shame on you, Shonda Rhimes (the creator/writer) for being so insensitively flippant. I've watched my own mother suffer from dementia. Her symptoms started when she was just 50 and now, at the ridiculously young age of 64, she is in the end stages of her disease. Unaware of her surroundings. Unable to do anything for herself.

My novel, The Beauty of Grace, deals with quality of life issues and a woman who suffers from Huntington's Disease, a neurodegenerative disease that also results in dementia. The title character, Grace, decides to commit suicide rather than walk the path of dementia she witnessed in her own mother. In writing Grace and considering these issues of family, faith, quality of life, disease, I struggled with both sides. I tried to bear witness to both the families of those who suffer from dementia and the individuals who face an uncertain future upon receiving the diagnosis.

There is nothing flippant about learning you have an increased risk of becoming demented at a young age. Before your children have children. Before you and your beloved can enjoy your golden years. The manner in which "Grey's Anatomy" handled this issue offended me. But it also reminded me that those who haven't lived through something can't truly appreciate and understand its depths and challenges. The fear it plants deep inside. The cruelty of its uncertainty.

There is nothing funny about learning you have the gene for breast cancer. Or that you have an increased risk of heart disease. Or being born with Cystic Fibrosis, or Down's Syndrome, or countless other life-shortening diseases.

So let us be wary of crossing the line from joking about something as a coping method and being painfully insensitive. We all have a story. Many parts of it are filled with joy and excitement. But there are also parts that are full of intense hurt. Let us approach others with empathy and with the perception that some things simply aren't subject to humor. Whether it be a show you watch, a joke you hear or tell, or a word you say, try and look at others with an awareness drenched in compassion. Because a person's heart and soul--their humanity--is the core of their being. And what unites us all.

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