How to talk to grieving families
By Dylan C. Roberston
If you look at the northeast corner of Spadina Ave. and King St. W., a longboard’s been mounted on one of the lampposts. It’s a tribute to a 25-year-old musician who was killed last week in a tragic accident.
I pass this lamppost on the streetcar to work. It reminds me of speaking with the victim’s bandmates for our article about him.
We write a lot about crime and tragedy in the radio room. An inevitable part of the job is reaching out to family and friends of those who have died.
It’s not easy. In our training manual, a single paragraph gives general instructions on how to speak with those in mourning. It’s intimidating to bother people at a sensitive time. If I was grieving, the last thing I would want to do is speak to some nosy reporter.
A few things help. I close the door so nothing distracts me. I introduce myself as a Star reporter and tell them that I will be writing an article – not thinking, writing – about their loved one. I tell them I want to know about their friend as a person, not just their death. Two questions I find open people up are “How do you want your friend to be remembered?” and “What are you most proud of?”
I speak in a calm but removed voice. Over-sympathizing makes people break down and become too emotional to talk. But I allow for a slow conversation; there’s often a lot of long silences. Even if I’m on a tight deadline and see my editor walking over, I give the person I’m speaking with time to open up. We often leave a number if people want to speak with us at a later time.
Good journalism means getting more than basic facts; it’s about capturing someone’s character and how they touch others. As a colleague put it, we want to create as real and thorough of a memory as possible.
Besides, those who suffer or die in our city often speak to broader issues in our society.
Journalists cover a lot of tragedy and injustice, whether its fatal accidents at home or war and genocide abroad. Working in the radio room is not a glamorous job, but it teaches you a lot, including how to get the story from people at their most vulnerable moments.
It's by reaching out to people in grief that we keep an accurate, meaningful record of lives touched by tragedy, in the same way that longboard captures a victim's memory. It’s one of the most valuable things journalists do.
Dylan C. Robertson is a Toronto Star intern. He works in the radio room. You can find him on Twitter.