Just be patient and let people talk for a very long time. It’s just such a fresh shock for so many people that often they’ll forget to say things that they will remember later in the conversation. It’s always a good thing in journalism to sort of shut up and listen. But especially in the case of obituaries, it’s crucial because people remember a lot along the way.
BY ABBY GELUSO
COVID-19 has devastated the world in less than a year, killing nearly 900,000 people and infecting more than 27 million. Loved ones are left behind to grieve their loss at the hands of a virus that has, and will, continue to upend our way of life.
Grief counselors and doctors are practiced in the task of speaking with those who have recently lost someone in their lives. Now, more journalists are taking up that mantle.
The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN are just a few of the outlets that have published remembrance series to honor victims of COVID-19. Reporters from different beats have been called upon to contribute memorial pieces, which often include interviews with close friends and relatives of the deceased.
New York Times senior staff editor Joshua Barone typically writes about the arts and architecture. In April, the Times called on Barone to report on the deaths of several figures in the music industry for their series, Those We’ve Lost.
Barone was familiar with how to approach someone grieving a loved one; he began his reporting career writing student obituaries in his college newspaper. It was an assignment he had since avoided, however — until COVID-19 struck.
“Normally I write about music, and the obituaries I’ve written have been in the music world. And that’s been an industry like so many others that’s been so severely affected by the pandemic,” said Barone. “It’s a conversation with an objective, but they’re very understanding of that because they want to get the story of their loved one out there into the world.”
The most important thing a reporter can do is to approach the conversation with compassion, as you would with anyone who has lost a loved one.
“Just be patient and let people talk for a very long time,” said Barone, who interviewed the widow of conductor and music festival leader Joel Revzen shortly after he died. “It’s just such a fresh shock for so many people that often they’ll forget to say things that they will remember later in the conversation. It’s always a good thing in journalism to sort of shut up and listen. But especially in the case of obituaries, it’s crucial because people remember a lot along the way.”
Sometimes, it may help to speak with your interview subjects more than once. If the individual seems overwhelmed or reluctant to speak, it’s important to feel that out and determine if a follow-up phone call would be appropriate and helpful.
“In journalism, more of the work should come from listening than from asking questions, and questions should be asked at the appropriate time,” said ICFJ Knight Fellow Fabiola Torres, the director and founder of Peru-based health news site, Salud Con Lupa, which also began its own memorial project. “We try to determine if it’s the right time to talk, or if we should call back again later. In order to help the relatives providing us with information feel comfortable, we exchange multiple calls and messages to make it clear that we are going to use the details they provide us in a respectful way.”
Psychologist Dr. Yasmine Saad advises journalists to educate themselves on the five stages of grief before approaching the family of the deceased.
“Somebody can be in many different stages at once. Somebody can be in denial in the morning, angry in the afternoon, and back in denial the next morning,” said Saad. ‘So knowing the state is very useful because the moment you encounter a family, you can feel where they’re at. And based on where they’re at, you can adjust your approach.”
As journalists, we’re practiced in relating to stories and people, and are able to guide conversations based on our instincts. In that way, interviewing for obituaries is not so different.
“Grieving is such a personal process and the personality of the person, their culture and their beliefs filters into that so much that the best advice is to use your intuition. Empathy is about picking up what the person is conveying, and matching it and seeking to tune into the person,” said Saad.
Experts from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington predict that, most likely, 2.8 million people worldwide will have died from COVID-19 by January 1. This means that more than 25 million people around the world will have grieved the loss of a loved one due to the coronavirus by the end of the year, according to a study released over the summer which estimates that for every death, nine close family members are left behind.
The isolation felt because of the lockdowns has made loss from the virus even more impactful. Families are unable to mourn together, some feel the burden of self-blame if social distancing recommendations are flouted, and many have been unable to be at their loved ones’ side due to restrictions. As a result, experiencing loss during the pandemic will affect the bereaved in a new way.
Drawing from your own experiences is helpful in recognizing and empathizing with grief, but Saad advises against directly sharing your own story of loss.
“Everybody’s story is different, and when you share yours, the person will feel the perception is not the same. It’s not useful because it becomes a comparison when you share your story — you invite the person out of their own sadness of their own story and into your story,” said Saad. “That tactic is meant for empathy, and it can really backfire.”
Grief is universal but it takes a different form in everyone. While it’s never easy to experience or talk about, journalists are stepping up to tell the stories of those who have been lost. As Saad, Barone, and Torres recommend, make sure to approach your interviews and the article itself with the compassion, patience and flexibility they require.