Column: Learning from loss

Column: Learning from loss

Despite the fact that we hadn’t talked for months, I greeted her over the phone like we still talk every day: “How’s everything going?”

“Good,” she said, her voice wobbling over the obvious fib.

“You’re doing good?” I shot back, emphasizing “good” too much and sounding more surprised than I intended to.

“Well, do you know what happened?”

Of course I knew what happened. Two Northeastern students died last weekend in two unrelated accidents; she knew both of them. Of course I knew she wasn’t “good.” But the call needed to be made.

I’ve been a journalist long enough to know that I needed to call for myself. I’m still young, but this is a job that will make you grow up quickly – traveling to crime scenes, interviewing families experiencing tragedy, even sometimes mistakenly calling them before they know what has happened.

I’m mentally tough, I always thought when told about the difficulties of the job. I’m a people person, I said, it ought to be easy. But that line of thinking changed pretty fast when I was sent on the hardest assignment of my career my freshman year and forced to face the most difficult decision of my life.

A prominent sports player had died in a tragic on-campus incident. As per the norm in the rushed world of journalism, I was dispatched immediately from campus, riding with the school team to the wake in the player’s hometown. It wasn’t until I was engulfed in a sea of Sunday’s best that I realized I was horribly underdressed, still wearing my school clothes – a blue hooded sweatshirt, some ripped jeans and a shirt with a cartoon bear playing guitar and boasting, “I eat, sleep and breathe country music.”

I waited outside in freezing weather more than an hour, as seemingly the entire town waited its turn to express their condolences. I had a different mission, though, my editor told me: to get a quote from the grieving parents, which meant interviewing them about three steps from their child’s open casket.

As the line snaked through the funeral home and more people started to take note of my reporter’s notebook and whispered about my sloppy attire, I grew more anxious about the assignment. Sometimes you have to sacrifice yourself and do something you’re uncomfortable with for the “greater good” of your job (like, say, the public’s right to know), I told myself. But it didn’t seem at all appropriate in this approach. I could find no greater good in it.

I could see the front of the line now, and since this was the first wake I ever attended, I carefully took note of others’ actions in front of the deceased so I knew what to do when I reached the open casket. When I finally did, I just knelt down like those before me, folded my hands, closed my eyes and apologized. To this day I’m still not quite sure who I was apologizing to – the player, his family, God, myself – but for what I was about to do, I felt it required an apology.

As I walked over to the parents, his mother looked at me with some distant puzzlement. Then, clarity washed over me: This isn’t a journalist’s job. This is simply wrong. Instead of fulfilling my task, I simply told the parents who I was and issued my sympathies on behalf of the newspaper and myself, for whatever it was worth. With that, I left.

That decision cost me. Not professionally – I still ended up getting the story, interviewing friends, coaches and teammates. I was named News Reporter of the Year later that semester. But it cost me personally. I became disenchanted, nearly disgusted, with journalism. However, it had been my life since I started my own newsletter in the fourth grade, and therefore I was in too deep to turn my back on my first love.

The next semester, I accepted a co-op at The Boston Globe’s City/Region section, where every day I’d call families who may or may not have known their loved one had been injured or killed (yes, I’ve unintentionally informed a family member of an accident). Whether for breaking news or an obituary, I’d use the same stock responses to anyone who seemed resistant to speak to me, “Don’t you want his/her story to be heard? Don’t you want The Globe readers to know what he/she was like?”

When I left that position, my editor told me I was one of the most sensitive and careful co-ops they’d ever had, with an affinity for talking to people. But it was of little consolation. I had already decided that if, like I or many young journalists feel, you think you’re tough, or if you think you don’t care, you’re missing something: the soul of reporting. And most journalists, I believe, unfortunately learn to cope with the stress and mind-boggling grief of their job by losing that soul. They cover it up with the image of “thick skin” until they legitimately don’t care.

It never got easier to make that call to someone who’s grieving, and I figured out there’s no right way to do it. As I spoke to my old friend on the phone last week, her voice gravelly from crying, I refused to do my job yet again.

“You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to,” I told her. I meant it, too, because sometimes not doing your job is the best way to do your job. And sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the greater good.

First, you just have to figure out what that greater good is.

– Glenn Yoder can be reached at [email protected]

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