A couple of weeks ago, I was assigned a story about a 14-year-old girl (I’ll call her D) who had just died of Leukemia. D was a force of nature, one of those incredible people you hear about but rarely get to meet. I never got to meet her, though I knew her name because she was active in a local dance program for developmentally disabled kids and teens.
I interviewed her dance program director just a few days after D died. It was sad, but manageable because the director is a fantastic lady, warm but professional, and someone I’ve interviewed for other articles.
The next day, I interviewed D’s parents.
I thought I’d mentally prepared as much as I could. Their daughter had died four days before, and the funeral would be that weekend. Interviewing grieving parents is something most journalists have to do, and of course it’s never easy but it comes with the job territory.
The director had told me the parents planned to go shop for a burial outfit for D after they met with me. It broke my heart because I remember doing that exact thing a few days after my son Graham died. They were even using the same funeral home we did.
Her parents were lovely people, weighed down with raw grief, who said many beautiful things about their daughter. I tried to stay as professional as I could be, but of course I lost it a couple of times, when they did. Near the end of the interview, I made the decision to share with them that I’d lost a child, too. No grief or situation is the same, of course, but I thought it might help to know there are more of us out there. After Graham died, right after his funeral as we were standing outside the church, the man from the funeral home told Jeff and me that his own son had died a few years previously. I remember at the time I appreciated that empathetic word from a stranger who wasn’t trying to make us feel better, but was just sharing in our grief, a little.
After I left D’s parents, I got into my car and I hadn’t even made it out of their driveway before the tears started. I took the long way back to the office and cried and cried. Mostly it was because of the unfathomable unfairness of parents having to live without their children. I’ve made my peace about Graham’s death. All my faith rests firmly on a powerful, loving God I don’t always understand. But living with loss still sucks.
I had to write the article that day; the page designers were waiting on it, and ended up running it on the front page of the paper that Sunday.
I felt unsatisfied with what I wrote. I kept thinking if I’d stayed more objective and got less emotionally involved, it would have been a better article. If you’re objective, you can look at the story arc and pick the best, most powerful parts without the cloudiness caused by grief or the fear of not giving a dead girl and her parents the story they deserve.
The next week, I was talking with a coworker, a career journalist and features writer who has done her share of “life stories” (as they’re euphemistically called in our organization). She’s one of those people who seem to invite confidences; you find you’ve told her half your life story after talking with her 10 minutes. She said she thought getting emotionally involved wasn’t something to avoid. It’s nearly impossible anyway, she said, and she believes it actually makes the story better.
I still don’t know, but that made me feel better about it. And the response to the story was incredible, much bigger than anything I’ve written before. D’s life was powerfully inspiring. It’s like she can’t help but affect everyone she touches, even after she’s gone.
Still, I’m genuinely curious about whether getting emotionally involved makes an article better. I couldn’t say one way or the other yet, and maybe never will be able to.
What I do know is the stories whose subjects have me emotionally invested stick with me much longer – they’re my favorites. It’s hard to be objective about your favorites.