You stare at the phone. Then you get up and walk away. Returning, the phone is still sitting there. Then you snatch up the receiver and quickly dial the number before you can put it off again.
It usually starts out something like that for a reporter, on the phone, at the front door or at the scene of a tragedy.
It is the worst moment in the life of a family, a jumbled intersection of horror, shock and sorrow. Then come the reporters. And the cameras.
There is nothing to prepare you for situations in which, as a reporter, you are compelled to intrude despite the discomfort. The stories are too important not to try. Their stories matter because families touched by tragedies are Everyfamily. They are us.
The mother whose son was just killed in an inexplicable rampage. The two sets of parents whose college-student sons have perished in a fire. The family of a young woman found dead after a cruel five-month disappearance.
And similarly, there is no instruction book for grief, so the response from families pressed to tell their stories have varied and none is wrong. Some withdraw, others lash out. Others find in reporters a voice through which they can share their anguish with a community distantly sharing its grief, to tell why this person mattered. They don’t call them “loved ones” for nothing.
There is no chin-pulling ethical dilemma here about a reporter’s detaching feelings: Writing sad stories is sad. Emotions, unlike opinions, are true and undeniable.
A family who has honored you with their trust of telling their most awful and intimate story is a privilege, demanding sensitivity — and really, just simple humanity. It also heightens the responsibility of being their voice, of getting it right, of not making a horrible situation worse.
Families publicly grieving offer us all lessons: the meaning of grace in this troubled life; the value of family and friends, and on the process of grief, in particular, that some parts of that process never end.
That’s why you don’t forget them. Ever.