Posted by: Joelle Burnette | May 14, 2011

Reporting on a teacher’s sudden death

I wrote a story today for my job about a teacher who died. She was a friend and had been my son’s fifth-grade teacher. These are difficult stories to write, but more difficult when it’s someone you know.

It was only the beginning of this month when she found out she had leukemia and it was only a matter of days before her body reacted to an infection and began shutting down; she went into septic shock, into the intensive care unit, and into a deep sleep when the doctors decided to sedate her to reduce her pain. She never woke up, regardless of the doctors giving her a 95 percent chance of surviving her leukemia.

Because she died in my town, in my newspaper beat, I wanted to write a tribute feature about her; something involving her family and the reaction of the people in our city, at the school where she taught second grade.

I managed to get a meeting with the family to talk about her life. Several of her family members were present: her divorced parents, her brother, her mom’s sister and her husband whom she had only just married last summer. Other family and friends came and left, but the small group sat in a circle and told me their stories about Heidi; too many stories, really, for what I could fit into the story, but all important, nonetheless.

When my sister was killed in a car accident when she had only just turned age 19, I was 12, but I remember the reporters who came knocking at our door and called the house. My parents were a mess emotionally, as we all were, but those reporters weren’t exactly respectful or compassionate in their effort to gain a foot in the door and get an interview with the family of the dead girl.

I can’t be like that; so callous.

I told the family, based on my experience with my sister’s death, I know how difficult this time is for them and that statement was true. I told them I understand how hard it is to talk about this shocking turn of events and that statement was true, too.

The family allowed me into their home and they allowed me to witness them as they laughed and cried their way through stories, almost like it was a makeshift wake of sorts. I saw the distance in their eyes, a numbness that takes over your mind and body when something so incredibly horrible happens and you simply can’t adjust quickly enough.

Some stories brought forth laughter. The time dad tried sailing across the lake but had forgotten to put the keel in the boat, they told, and how Heidi had to put her lifeguard skills into action to help them to shore. Or how her then-boyfriend decided to bury her engagement ring in a coffee can at the beach, brought her back the next day to “find buried treasure” as part of his proposal, but nature had moved all the manually-placed markers: some rocks here, some sticks in the sand there. If it wasn’t for the giant rock on the hillside and his trusty metal detector, that small package would have made someone else quite happy to find.

Other stories didn’t take more than a word before tears were shed and sobbing became the only relief. She was such a wonderful daughter, her dad said. An angel.

“I miss you so much,” cried her mother. And that’s what it comes down to, really. Missing the one you love and trying to hold onto the memories that keep her alive in your heart.

When I was a child, I still remember that one day when I was walking home from school and I couldn’t remember the sound of my sister’s voice. I was thinking about my sister (which was most of the time…a day doesn’t go by when she doesn’t pop into my thoughts), but I couldn’t hear her. I panicked and tried with all my heart to remember the sound of her voice. That was the day it disappeared out of my memory. I was distraught; I felt guilty for losing hold of such an important memory, sound.

We didn’t have all the videos and voice mail recordings like they have now. It was gone. I ran home crying to my mother who had to console me through one of the countless rough days that followed my sister’s death.

One of my friend’s has a son who was in Heidi’s class this year. When we were talking about how he was handling the news, she told me, the first thing he said was, he missed her voice. Hearing that, it nearly broke me, but I held it together while she told me she called Heidi’s mobile phone so he could hear her message on her voice mail. One of Heidi’s family members picked up the phone. After they heard the story of her son, they turned off Heidi’s phone in case others had the same idea.

“This is a tough story,” my editor wrote to me in an e-mail. He’s been very kind to me through this story which I appreciate greatly. It is a tough story. You start to feel like a vulture when you’re trying to get the story on someone who has died. And when you interview people, you want to stay focused and the way to do that is to remain calm. Unfortunately, sometimes people interpret that professionalism as someone who is cold; someone who isn’t moved by tragic circumstances.

Generally, anyone who knows me will say I wear my heart on my sleeve. Still, I remained calm and focused and, yes, I held it together. I remained focused and didn’t cry even though this was the third of my son’s six elementary school teachers to have died from one cancer or another. I listened to their stories and felt their emotion. I remained quiet and wrote and wrote and wrote pages of notes.

And even at the candlelight vigil held at the school where many of my son’s classmates attended and several more teachers/friends spoke to the huge crowd, I remained focused, wrote my notes, took photos, listened to the sentiments of others, and I didn’t cry. I sobbed like a baby at one of the past teacher memorials, but now, I remained calm and focused.

It wasn’t until this afternoon after finally finishing my story when my heart swelled with emotion and the tears began to flow. It had taken forever (nearly 45 minutes of starts and stops – much longer than usual) to write my story’s lead; the introduction that would allow the story to flow and set the tone of the piece. All the while, I was watching the clock because I knew my deadline was pressing and the paper needed my story.

Any good journalism teacher, editor or reporter will tell you, once you write your story, it helps to read it aloud to hear (and fix) any mistakes. I thought I would read the finished piece to my husband. I made it most of the way until I read one of the quotes. I had to stop reading because I couldn’t speak. The tears flowed and I tried to regain my composure to finish reading the story. I read something else one of the school parents said and I began to cry again. Obviously, these were quotes I had heard before; I was the one to write them down. Still, I cried and allowed myself to feel the pain of loss.

So, what do you think, I asked my husband when I finally reached the end.

“Well, if you wrote it and it makes you cry, it must be good,” he said.

Later, after having posted a link to the story on my Facebook page, a mom wrote to me that I had captured the essence of who this teacher was. What a wonderful thing for an insecure writer to hear. I’m just glad I was in a position whereby I could write something special for this teacher who touched the lives of my family and so many people in our community.


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