One of the hardest things a reporter will ever have to do is interview a mother whose child has just died.
Reporters become more cynical over time and harden themselves to difficult situations. Soon, it becomes natural to question political leaders, inquire about inequitable power on governing boards or listen to the details of a murder.
But, for me, talking to people who have lost loved ones reverberates in a way other interviews don't. Last fall, when I called the fiancé of a man who had just been shot in Anson, my voice shook. The woman was curt, refused to talk.
When we hung up, I walked out of the office and burst into tears. I didn't cry because she declined to talk but because, for one small moment, I had put myself in her situation. I'd briefly felt her unbearable pain. I mourned for her loved one and for her.
Recently, I again had the opportunity to interview someone who had lost a loved one. In this case it was the mother of Eric Benson, 24, of Westbrook, who was attacked in downtown Portland one early May Sunday and died hours later of a traumatic head injury.
While his mother, Wendy, spoke to me on her cell phone, she found two four-leaf clovers outside. Her son was dead, and she told me how she usually finds at least two four-leaf clovers together. Like twins.
Her first-borns were twins, Eric and Andrew, she said. One alive, the other dead. She was kind to me; she laughed when she told me about Eric as a child. She cried.
She described the moment he passed away in Maine Medical Center. He was peaceful, she said. His family surrounded him.
I was already past deadline and had an entire story to write. My colleague told me, "Take your time," as he left for the day. It was a straightforward article to write: a boy is dead, a mother remembers. But there was so much weight to it.
Interviewing loved ones who were close to someone who has died tragically is important for that reason: they lend weight, or meaning to the person's life, so readers understand what has been lost.
People who die are more than statistics or an obituary, even. They are the sum of their dreams and history. Those close to them can explain how they mattered.
It wasn't until I got home that night that I recounted the interview to my loved one. "She told me about the moment he died," I said, and my voice cracked; my eyes filled with tears.
As a reporter, I keep my composure. I do not let emotion obstruct reporting facts. But I am glad Wendy's story moved me. If anything, it lets me know it's worth its space.
Erin Rhoda is a reporter for the Maine Morning Sentinel and covers Somerset County. She graduated from Colby College in 2006 as an English major, with a concentration in creative writing. Three years later, she earned her master's in creative writing from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, which she attended as the recipient of the national George J. Mitchell Scholarship.