- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

''With Eyes Open," a four-part PBS series dealing with end-of-life issues, aims to spark conversations about death with aging family members.

The show, hosted by Ray Suarez of "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," presents persons dealing with caregiving, grief and life-support decisions. It also directs viewers to more information on the pbs.org Web site and provides advice for bringing up conversations at home.

For example, an episode of "ER" could create an opening to broach the subject. That's the suggestion of Kathy Glasmire, a health educator who deals with advance-care planning.

Her suggestion, during the second segment, brings me to the main problem with this series. A fictional program such as "ER" might be a more comfortable starting point for anyone wishing to discuss or ponder these issues.

Although the show is well-intentioned and the discussion is hardly the stuff of daytime talk shows, watching strangers dealing with dying and end-of-life issues feels a little voyeuristic. I won't question that grief counseling can help people, but TV makes it seem unreal.

Also, because I was hearing about critical decisions without knowing much about the family relationships or lives beforehand, some of the decisions struck me as a bit callous or selfish.

One woman in the "Difficult Decisions" segment, for example, relates her decision to stop medical treatment for her mother against the doctors' wishes. She notes that the doctors had explained that her mother, a dancer in her younger days, would have to relearn how to use her hand and perform other simple tasks. This was unimaginable to the daughter, and she eventually came to the decision that her mother would rather die than go through the experience.

Another problem is that both of the families profiled in this second episode of the series ultimately made the choice to stop treatment or life support. If the producers wish to encourage people to consider options, then profiling someone who chose to keep the life support, either in family discussions before a crisis or while a relative was ailing, would have been helpful.

More life-affirming examples are provided in the third episode, "Caregiving," which features caregivers talking about their experiences.

The opening moments of this episode, perhaps the most interesting in the series, feature Mary Ann Thyken, who is caring for her mother, Peggy, who has Alzheimer's disease. It shows her going through a day of caring for her parent — grinding her food because she forgets to chew, voicing encouragement and helping her mother through the hour-long process of getting ready for bed.

These scenes are touching and show the bond between the daughter and her mother, even though the elder woman can no longer remember who Mary Ann is.

The bittersweet discussion that follows includes statements such as this one from caregiver Larry Faulks: "It's like taking care of a child, but you can't look forward to the future."

The first episode, "Grief and Healing," features a discussion among grieving loved ones and people dealing with terminal illnesses. It is led by Frank Ostaseski, founder of the Zen Hospice Project.

As he explains, "part of the healing is feeling the pain."

"Some people have said that in dealing with illness or dealing with loss, we can either turn our hearts to stone or tear them wide open," he says.

After discussing their grief or fears of death, participants are encouraged to write four lines to their loved one, such as "I feel at peace now. I will miss your healing touch, your kisses and your hugs." They then are told to read them back and toss the words into a fire.

The final segment provides a discussion of religious views of the afterlife. Two religious figures — David Wolpe, senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and Robert Thurman, the first American ordained as a Buddhist monk — are featured. A United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Douglass Finch, speaks from the audience.

Each of the speakers, although hewing to the common ground between faiths during the half-hour discussion, urges viewers to believe in an afterlife and to become "a good sort of somebody," as Mr. Thurman put it.{*}1/2WHAT: "With Eyes Open"WHERE: Channel 26 (WETA) and Channel 22 (WMPT)WHEN: 10:30 p.m. tomorrow and each night through Wednesday

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