Death and comedy rarely mix. In the aftermath of a tragic event, we lose our collective sense of humor. Even among jovial, fun-loving people, if someone’s prank appears to lead to someone else’s tragedy, we sober up fast.

But the apparent suicide of a nurse after she was pranked by a radio show pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles was not the radio show’s fault, or its DJs, or the station on which it airs. Her death was an event that could not have been foreseen by the show’s producers, who must by now be feeling absolutely sick with regret about it.

The idea appears to have started with worldwide news of Kate Middleton’s pregnancy, the press having been informed after Middleton went to hospital for help dealing with acute morning sickness. A royal baby was in the works, and the press was reporting it like crazy.

Mel Greig and Michael Christian, DJs for 2Day FM in Australia, have a radio show of the kind that used to be listened to only by the young, but has been around so long that many ages and demographics now listen in droves. The ‘morning zoo’ or contemporary hit radio personality format of radio is now ubiquitous on English-speaking radio around the world. The DJs were given the phone number of Middleton’s hospital, and decided it would be fun to make an on-air prank call in vague hopes that they may end up talking to the Duchess herself.

Voicing poor imitations of the Queen and Prince Charles, they called the number and spoke with Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse who was working the reception desk at the time. Saldanha clearly ‘bought it’, falling for the bad fake accents immediately and transferring the call through to the Duchess’s private nurse, no doubt breathlessly telling her that the Queen and Prince Charles were on the phone. The private nurse bought it too, and openly shared an update with the ‘royals’ on the phone.

The call ended shortly thereafter. Grieg and Christian were clearly surprised at being put through so easily, and probably delighted at how well the segment had gone. In radio land, this was a slam-dunk. Radio gold. They had pulled off a notable example of the phoney phone call, a staple of the morning zoos for many years.

The news of the call was reported worldwide. Entertainment news outlets reported it with a smile, while ‘serious’ newscasters like Brian Williams at the NBC Nightly News took a disapproving tone. Although prank calls are so mainstream now that they’re generally regarded as good-natured and fairly harmless fun, old school ‘establishment’ media programs sometimes fall into the role of gentle chastisers (or joyless pedants, if you think like me).

Hospital administrators, too, weren’t laughing. After all, Middleton’s nurse had revealed more information about her health than the press had already been told, so the hospital was considering the event a breach of patient confidentiality. Even so, it didn’t seem to have had any negative consequences beyond that, and even the real Prince Charles was laughing off the prank and talking about how thrilled he was that he was going to be a grandfather. The radio station issued a token ‘apology’, wishing Middleton well while the clip went viral and was heralded by fans sharing it on social networking sites.

Neither the fans nor the head-shakers would have – or could have – predicted any tragic consequences from the call. Yet, while people were still sharing and enjoying the clip, Jacintha Saldanha was reported to have died on Friday of a suspected suicide.

It is perhaps unreasonable to speculate on what exactly happened at this point. But people are already surmising for themselves that the repercussions of falling for the prank had become too much for the nurse, and she had taken her own life rather than face the wrath of her bosses or, perhaps, the public embarrassment.

The blame for her death is being levelled at Grieg and Christian, and their employers. Thousands of comments poured onto the Facebook page of 2Day FM:

“This radio station is nothing but a sick joke and needs to be shut down!”

“Well, were the laughs worth it?”

“You guys are scum.”

“The actions of your DJs are shocking and horrific. And to have found this fun? Stop broadcasting now so no more lifes [sic] are lost in your tasteless and morbid quest for humor.”

“Really classy killing someone 2DayFM.”

“Sleep well, guys. An educated woman kills herself because of two fools.”

“Hang your heads in shame your lowlife filth [sic] and you deserve all that comes your way after this.”

Is this blistering condemnation fair? Should the DJs or the station have known better? Is the “quest for humor” really tasteless and morbid? Do they really deserve all the awful things that happen to them now?

It’s worth noting that none of these kinds of comments were received before the tragic news about Saldanha’s death. Before Friday morning, comments like, “Best prank call ever!” were more typical. To act as though Grieg and Christian should have known that the nurse would harm herself seems a little disingenuous. Where were all the people warning of impending tragedy beforehand? There are thousands of practical jokes of all sorts, on-air and off-air, going on all the time. A small minority of have any significant negative fallout at all, let alone a death.

We’re a blame-throwing, guilt-tripping culture. Almost any bad news is immediately greeted with allocations of blame, no matter the nature of the circumstances or the validity of allegations of fault. Everyone is sure they could do a better job than someone in the news. Everyone’s an armchair critic.

Part of that, of course, is a natural reaction to tragedy. We feel sad for her and her family, and her death seems so pointless. All of a sudden, the joke isn’t funny anymore. Nobody should have to suffer because we want a good laugh; no joy should need to come at the cost of someone else’s sadness.

But neither Grieg nor Christian nor their bosses could have imagined that the nurse who answered their call would suffer for their humor, let alone die as a result. And this is a crucial point: the intended result of a prank call is laughter for everyone, hopefully even the subject who was ‘pranked’. Those who prank other people intend for their ‘victim’ to ultimately find it as funny as they did.

So, what is the lesson here? Ban phoney phone calls? Ban prank calls to hospitals? Fire everybody at the radio station and shut it down? Encourage the DJs to kill themselves too? Turn back time and tell the poor woman it wasn’t that big a deal?

I can think of one important lesson for the self-righteous finger-pointers: learn how to separate retroactive sorrow from legitimate blame. We could just as easily blame the hospital for overreacting, or for making their employee feel so bad for this relatively inconsequential breach that she suffered such consequential despair, or for not having a system to verify who they’re giving confidential information to over the phone. Rather than blaming the radio station’s sense of humor, we could blame the lack of humor on the other end.

But blame is not always an appropriate response to sad news. This woman’s death is a terrible tragedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s somebody else’s fault.