I am a reporter for USA TODAY. Every single day is exciting and new and challenging and I love it. But some days are harder than others. Yesterday I was working on our story about the victims who were murdered in the senseless massacre at the Navy Yard in D.C. on Monday. I was tasked with calling the families and friends of several victims to find out as much as we could about who they were before their lives were taken from them far too soon. To me, this kind of assignment doesn’t seem to get any easier. I made my first calls after the Aurora Theatre Massacre. Next, the Sikh Temple Shooting. Then, Oklahoma tornadoes. Now, D.C. Navy Yard massacre.
These days always start out the same. You have a list of names, which, at first, seem like nothing more than just that. You break it down name by name and start searching for anything that can give you a clue into who this person was. Then you find out who the people are who were close to them. The people who have just learned the most devastating news of their life. Then: How to contact them.
The hardest part is picking up the phone and dialing the number. Once someone answers on the other line, it’s devastating. There is nothing to do but apologize, explain that you could never imagine what they are going through and hope to get the chance to explain that you’d like to be the one to help tell their story and the story of their deceased loved one. I am always surprised at the grace family members have at these times. Many times I’ve been told “It’s just too hard to talk to media right now,” or “Maybe another time.” But often, they want to talk. They want to share how incredible a person was. They want to share what they loved about their lives and what they struggled with. They want to tell everyone that their loved one was a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a sister, a brother, a teacher, a neat freak, a terrible cook, a person — not just a victim. They want to share how senseless an act of violence is that has now shattered their family forever. They want to tell the world, in their own way, just how devastating of a loss they’ve suffered.
Interviewing victims families is unlike interviewing anyone else. You hand over the reigns. Let them tell you what you should know. Let them show you what kind of questions they are able to answer. Let them tell you when it’s just too hard to continue — how the conversation always ends.
By the end of the day, that list of names if filled out with information from a variety of sources on where they worked, age, location — the basics. But sometimes the list turns into something else. A collection of stories of people, just like me, my family, my friends, my coworkers. Stories of people who could have been anyone. Lives taken and changed forever.
I love that, as a journalist, I get the chance to help people tell their stories and to help people understand the stories of devastated lives around them. It’s a gift I am lucky to have and one that is more taxing than anything else I’ve ever experienced.
When I got home yesterday I couldn’t explain how I was feeling. Exhausted. Sad. Lucky. Unlucky. Hopeful. Hopeless.
I couldn’t make sense of it.
Not knowing what else to do with a body that had sat all day and a mind that had worked harder than it knew it could, I slipped on my running shoes and took off down the trail that meets my back door.
The first 8 miles flew by. It wasn’t until mile 9 that I realized what had happened at the Navy Yard and what it means for the lives of so many. Tears streamed down my face as I kept going through mile 11. FInally, they stopped and so did I. I turned around and walked the .75 back to my house.
There is no peace to be made with the horrors that happen to people every day. But the stories I get to tell and the people I get to help make it all worth it. That came clear to me somehow during my run. I don’t know when — honestly I was too exhausted to even think straight. It’s like my legs, mind and heart just worked it out on their own. They didn’t work out the sense of the shooting. Or why tragedy happens. It just brought me back to an equilibrium. A feeling that I could go on and do it again if I had to. If someone else had a tragic story to tell, I needed to be ready to help them share it.