I am no stranger to brokenness; I’ve dealt with my own, I have been through restless nights thinking about my friends in rough situations. Over time, I’ve become better at not taking other peoples’ issues upon me, but still being empathetic.
I’ve experienced some new territory in the past few weeks. I encounter some pretty difficult things every day for my job. They have nothing to do with me, but I am thrown into these situations on a daily basis where people are scared, hurt, and confused, and I am supposed to tell their stories.
Earlier this week I was on the scene of a fairly straightforward vehicle accident on a main road involving two cars. One turned without looking and smashed into another vehicle. Police usually can’t tell me what happened because it is “under investigation,” so I rely on the witnesses to give me their take on what happened. When I get on the scene, I ask the fire police if I can come onto the scene and I immediately tweet my observations: how many cars, damage, if there’s an ambulance or helicopter, and how bad traffic around it is. Then I get as much information from the police and tweet that and perhaps a photo of the scene. Then I try to talk to a witness. The witness is usually one of the drivers.
Obviously it’s pretty upsetting to be in a car accident where the police have to come. Although the police said there was no injuries at this scene, there was, just not the kind they tend to report. I spoke to the driver that got smashed into. She was injured emotionally and had a minor physical injury. She didn’t say much and her eyes were just shocked/scared. She cradled one arm in the other; there was a nasty gash on one arm. She wasn’t in the hospital or dead. her car had damage. On the surface it didn’t seem like a big deal, but I could tell it was a big deal to her.
What should I do in situations like this? I have to admit that our exchange was pretty awkward. In my attempts to be comforting and avoid cliched phrases, I stumbled over my words.
At the scene of another accident, a mother was driving her car with three children in it. Mom and one of the kids were taken to the hospital. When I got there, the two kids and grandma were there. I talked to grandma, and the oldest child hid behind her. She was scared. Her mom and little brother had just been taken away in an ambulance and now this stranger (me) was asking her grandma a bunch of questions.
This time, I crouched down and said, “It’s ok. I’m just trying to find out what happened for the newspaper. Don’t worry–I’m not going to ask you a bunch of questions, because I know it was scary, and it was scary, wasn’t it?”
She started at me wide-eyed and nodded.
I want to remain professional in my work, but when I’m confronted with so many instances like this, I am struggling to find the perfect mix of professionalism and empathy. I don’t know what boundaries I can and should cross. I want to be respectful to the people I encounter but still get the information my editors expect.
I knew I’d have to do this kind of thing eventually, but I did not expect so much and so soon. This is taken even further when you add the issues I’m hearing about because of a huge story I am doing on heroin in the area. I’ve spent hours hearing the stories of people who have struggled with addiction and their families. I even sat down with a mother who lost her son three years ago. These mothers are so strong but they cry in front of me because their children who are about my age are struggling with drugs.
What do I do when they tell me that no one understands, that it is hard for them to tell their stories, and when they’re crying in front of me as I sit across the table and take notes?
Stories on big issues like this are why I wanted to go into journalism, but I feel so incapable and so unworthy of being in these strangers’ lives like this. I feel unworthy of the story of the mom of an addict and the woman with the gash on her arm. I’m this just 22-year-old recent college grad, but I am hearing the stories and pain of those older than me.
I have the potential to be a source of comfort in these situations. I have the opportunity to love these people, but it’s all so foreign. I can’t wrap my arms around the sobbing mother and hand her a tissue. I want to so desperately, but it’s not my job to be their friend at this point.
I don’t know how to end this gracefully. I am learning how to walk the line of the boundaries of empathy and professionalism. But I’m happy that I have this issue. It means I’m doing some good, worthwhile work on stories that really matter.