So on this bright and sunny day, I'm thinking about writing about death. Perhaps it's because we've just come out of about a week of rain. It could be all the death that's been happening in the last little while: in Haiti, the mom run over and killed in Toronto, journalist Michelle Lang in Afghanistan.
It got me thinking about how tough it is to write about death, particularly when the deceased was young and healthy. One of my early assignments as a reporter at The Hill Times was writing an obituary for a senator - it certainly wasn't a joyful occasion, but he had lead a full life and been around to see and be a part of a lot of cool things in his career. I spoke with his friends and colleagues who were sad, but expected his death.
I didn't get off so easily the next time I wrote an obit. A young man who had gone to the same university as me died after wiping out going full-speed on his rollerblades. I remembered his name as he'd been heavily involved with the student government. When he died, he was working for a high-profile cabinet minister. His death was stupid and senseless. He hadn't been wearing a helmet and had no I.D. on him, so it wasn't until the day after the accident when his coworkers started making calls that anyone found out what had happened to him. He was in a hospital on life support until his family was able to come from out of province to say their final goodbyes. I went to his service, but didn't speak with anyone there. I was terrified, quite honestly and still very green as a reporter. But there were other reporters there, so I felt comfortable taking notes and wrote about it accordingly.
A couple years later, it got harder. Liberal MP Shaughnessy Cohen collapsed in the House of Commons and later died in the hospital of a cerebral hemorrhage. The next day, I was outside of the House with my news editor. Did I mention I was also the paper's photographer? I got to take photos of her mourning friends. I felt pretty shitty about it. Yeah, it was my job, but it still felt wrong. This assignment was particularly tough as Ms. Cohen had been close with some of the reporters. I was still new enough that I didn't really know her, but for some reason, seeing the people I considered mentors break down was particularly difficult. Thankfully, my editor came with me to an interview I had with a couple of her friends, reporter Susan Delacourt and I believe Mary Clancy who if memory serves me correctly, was no longer an MP at that point.
My final stint as a reporter dealing with death came after I had written a piece for Canadian Living about young breast cancer survivors. One of the women I had interviewed, Gabi Helms, passed away months after the story ran. When I'd last spoken with her, she was frustrated that the cancer treatment had possibly left her infertile. Well, she did get pregnant but the cancer came back. She gave birth to a girl and died days after her birth. One of the other women I'd interviewed contacted me to let me know. She later warned me that another member of their circle had come under fire for contacting a local daily about it. She said I was welcome to come to the service, but not as a reporter. I respected her request.
So what's my point other than depressing everyone who's reading this? Well, I'm not too sure to be honest with you. Perhaps my issues with reporting about death made me a bad reporter. Maybe they made me a more sensitive, respectful reporter. And it's not like I've escaped writing about death - last summer, Dave Still, a faculty member at Douglas College passed away unexpectedly. As editor of the employee blog, I had to cover it. But I had the luxury of time. I waited until his colleagues were ready. I simply ran the Q & A and let those who knew him best speak for themselves. It felt right doing it that way.