Happier Endings

Overcoming the fear of death

The Death Prank

Why did a radio prank call go so badly? Maybe we can't handle mistakes.

I am haunted by an image of a nurse shaking and crying to herself in staff acommodations when she took her life because of a prank call.

Last week, the announcers on an Autralian radio show called the London hospital where Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, was a patient with acute morning sickness . The callers pretended to be members of the royal family seeking information. After three days of silence, one of the announcers said in a public interview: "We thought a hundred people before us would've tried it. We thought it was such a silly idea, and the accents were terrible and not for a second did we expect to speak to Kate, let alone have a conversation with anyone at the hospital. We wanted to be hung up on.”

But they were not hung up on. Instead, a 46-year-old nurse, Jacintha Saldanha, reported on the Duchess’ condition only to be excoriated for giving over private information to prying news media. Of course, anything that has to do with the royals is subject to intense scrutiny and media attention, but could this death have been avoided?

In defending the announcers, many said that prank calls are not unusual for radio stations or other outlets. In fact, they seem to be an endless source of amusement; some sappy innocent gets the gauntlet for the entertainment of others. In this case, the stakes were just higher than usual, ending with the two Sydney announcers saying they were, "shattered, gutted, heartbroken." They weren’t the only ones.

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Not knowing this nurse, I can only imagine her vulnerability and the big, looming question mark of how to handle a situation that seemed to her unsolvable at the moment. Death can ironically seem like a better prospect than the humiliation of facing a lynching public. But it only seems a better propsect if we as a society have failed to teach people how to come to terms with their mistakes.

In a world where celebrities and opinion-shapers often say they have few regrets and admit to few personal slip-ups, we deny people one of the most basic gifts of being human—the right to be be imperfect. This nurse was the same age I am now. I cannot say how I would have handled this in her white rubber-soled shoes, but I can say that if I were to take my life over a mistake—even a big one—I would be denying myself the joy of every day that follows today with my family, friends and colleagues. I would be saying “no” in the most final way possible to the chance for repetance and redemption.

This is just one of millions of cases of a suicide that should never have happened. To save face, suicide victims destroy body and mind. It’s the father shamed by bankruptcy and the wife aghast at the affair she didn’t stop. It’s the child who thinks he’s failed his parents, and the college student who doesn’t live up to an unrealistic grade point average. And every friend and family member wishes after the fact for one more day to tell those they loved and lost: “Put it in perspective. We love you too much to lose you over a mistake.” There are lots of reasons that people take their lives, but failure should never be one of them.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator in the DC area, where she lives with her husband, four children and two dogs. Her forthcoming book is Happier Endings: Overcoming the Fear of Death. more...

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