How I understood the value of the death knock

We were talking at work today about our former lives as newspaper journalists. A colleague asked whether we’d ever had to knock on doors when someone had died. Of course we said yes – death knocks are an unavoidable reality for most journalists on regional or local papers.

I’ve had doors slammed in my face. I’ve had people try to wrestle my notepad from my hands. And I’ve also had the privilege of being welcomed into people’s homes at the most difficult of times to try to do justice to the memory of their lost loved one by telling their story.

Social media has probably changed this kind of reporting job now – I guess it’s easier to plunder Facebook for tribute quotes and photos of the deceased than to knock on a bereaved stranger’s door with your heart in your mouth – but there’s still no substitute for that kind of personal touch which encourages a grieving family to share their memories with you.

I used to dread being sent out on a death knock. I’d drive out to the address with a knot in my stomach, willing the journey not to end. I’d sit in the car with my heart thumping. Sometimes I’d bottle out completely and just stick a note through the door with my contact details. I was all too aware that inside the house was a family who had lost a loved one, usually in tragic circumstances. Why would they want to speak to me?

It wasn’t until one particular death knock that I really understand what it all meant. I will never forget the 11-year-old girl, Cherry, who died in a tragic accident when a tree fell on the car she was travelling in with her mother and sister during a storm in October 2002.

The family lived in a town on the edge of my patch. It must have been one of those times when I popped a gentle note through the door, as by the time I got back to the office, the father had already called to say he’d like to speak to me.  Back I went, less nervous this time – he wasn’t going to swear at me and slam the door in my face! – but still not looking forward to it.

He welcomed me in, made me a cup of tea, and proceeded to tell me all about his wonderful little girl. She was such a sweet,  friendly, caring child, who had so loved the kittens playing around our feet. He cried; I cried.

When I finally headed back to the office, I was armed with scores of photos and pages and pages of loving memories. Writing the story was easy. If I remember rightly, it made the first three pages of the paper.

I thought about Cherry often and later did a follow up with the family. It was then that I found out the true value of the death knock.

Cherry’s father had had my story laminated and carried it with him at all times. Whenever someone asked him about his daughter, he pulled out my story and showed them “this is who she was”. It was comforting to him to have a permanent public record of his daughter’s life. She lived, she was here, and she was loved.

Ten years on I still feel moved by the memory of this particular assignment. Talking about Cherry today at work still made me well up. I feel immensely proud to have done work that truly made a difference.

If you’re interested in this subject have a look at Why I’ll Never Get Used To Death Knocks. The post itself paints a very well-written picture of what a death knock is like, but the author gets a real mauling in the comments. It was so interesting to me to see some public perceptions of this difficult task.

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