The hardest job of a reporter is covering a death. We all dread those assignments even though sometimes they result in the best, most honest stories.
To write about those cases, you have to force yourself to go knock on the door of a grieving family and somehow get them to talk with you. All you’re thinking as you peer into their vacant faces is, “I don’t want to be here.”
But then when they open up, and want people to know what their loved one was like, how kind she was to children, how beautifully he could paint, the portraits of their lives before the loss are like a salve to those left behind. I’ve sat in living rooms and laughed with total strangers as they told me their stories. I’ve also held the hands of some who couldn’t speak.
The editor at the little Cape Cod newspaper where I started out was a strange man who was determined to be competitive with the area daily and he’d coach us at staff meetings about how to get the key stories that put the paper out in front of breaking news.
“Get the mother of that dead baby,” he’d say, as we cringed. What did I know. My assignments at the time were about planning and zoning boards, not death and dying.
In time I moved to New York, where I stayed for 14 years. My court beat forced me to search almost every day for that mother, the grieving father, the devastated grandmother. Like a cop, you learn to put up a wall so the horrible, terrible, wrenching incidents of cruelty you write about don’t kill you. Especially when it involves kids.
Two stories eventually did me in. One, about a mentally-ill mother who drowned her 4-year-old son, and another in which a 13-year-old boy with autism was killed by his caretakers. In the latter instance, I eventually collapsed from the stress of the case and was out of work for a month. Guess it took a while for me to get the message that it was all cumulative. Not long after I left. Every day I wrote about those children, though, I came home and hugged mine.
Over the last few days I have been glued to the story of the little boy in Maine whose mother is accused of killing him. I cried as the couple who found him lit candles in his memory and said he would always be loved. If only they had known, they said. If only people weren’t cruel. If only there weren’t drug-addicted parents. If only there weren’t dead babies at all. I hugged my kids after I watched it. And was so glad I don’t write those stories anymore.