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The Blessing of Silence

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2010-09-17


Shortly after I entered my first semester of college, the Journal-Gazette published a feature in its Sunday edition that focused on my youngest sister. She had been involved in a terrible car accident two months earlier, caused by an impaired driver, and the Journal wanted to examine the aftermath of a traumatic drunk driving accident on a typical family. There was a legal case involving the accident so pseudonyms were used.

The story was dominated by quotes from my mother, who, as a registered nurse, was able to explain the severity of my sister's injuries. A crushed femur , several deep facial lacerations, and most significantly, a life-threatening brain stem injury that put my sister into a coma for four weeks. My mother described the agony of the ordeal, the nightmare month of bed-side vigils, the shock and anger, the incremental progress. It was obvious from her words that the entire family had experienced a profound anguish that was difficult to escape, and that daily life had now become a moment-to-moment battle. There were other voices in the story, but my mother's articulate responses were the ones that cut through.

Eventually, my sister would awake from her coma, after weeks of hoping and praying. At the time the article was printed, my sister had been released from the hospital, and though the prognosis was good, it would take months of rehab and physical therapy before she would be able to return to school.

When I received a copy of the article at Bloomington, I was surprised at how angry the story made me. I'm sure the writer was hoping for this sort of response, a righteous fury at the carelessness of drunk drivers, but the fact was my outrage had nothing to do with the guy who hit my sister. I was outraged by the writer, and I hated him for what he had done. And I was more than a little mad at my mother. Even though pseudonyms had been used, I felt that our family had been violated. Turning our family tragedy into a tidy little Sunday cautionary tale about drunk driving trivialized the scope of our pain and loss and made public what deserved to be a very private suffering. It was now just product for the hand-wringers out there, the lumpen masses who would read our story and cluck sympathetically before turning to the weather, the wedding announcements, Ann Landers. Every one of those hand-wringers reading our story, every decent slipper-and-robed morning person in the Journal's circulation, well, I hated them, too.

Three decades later I remain vigilant about combating attacks on personal privacy, especially when it comes to matters of grief and loss. I will always hold the three local news affiliates in the utmost contempt for the way they try to get instant responses from surviving members of families after someone has been killed. I can't believe the audacity of local reporters immediately after a homicide has been reported, you'll see the talking head tromping up to the family's house, microphone in hand. More often than not they'll get a response (which is troubling in itself, and which I'll discuss later), yet I don't know how they can live with themselves, how they could consider this "good reporting." It's exploitation, nothing more and nothing less, this feeding on the misfortune of others. In Ray Bradbury's horror novel Something Wicked this Way Comes, the evil carnival stays alive by literally consuming the tears, sadness, and fears of the people who are suffering. It's hard not to see the real-life parallel. The difference is, in the novel everybody knew it was right to call the carnival evil; in real life, people simply call it the 6 o'clock news.

That people are willing to discuss their most devastating losses to a television crew is a phenomenon of the information age that I can't begin to comprehend. I recognize the need to scream, to lash out, to rage at the heavens, but I can't understand the compulsion to do this so publicly, to unpack your most heartfelt sorrows to absolute strangers. Last year, a local news report told the story of a man who had lost all his children and his wife in a terrible accident five years ago, and the man was commemorating the event at a local park by releasing balloons to the sky. He told the reporter about the symbolism of the balloons and about the peace he was finally feeling after such a catastrophic loss. It's impossible not to empathize with a man who suffered such a horror, yet watching him speak make me feel creepy and voyeuristic. Commemorating the day is one thing (and perfectly understandable), but adding a reporter and a television audience? It seemed disrespectful to the departed, to the man, to the viewers, even to the clueless reporter.

Similarly, I was troubled by the success of the book Mistaken Identity A Twist of Fate in 2008. The story of the Taylor University crash in 2006 became an immediate bestseller, and while I understand the need for the families to speak about this incredible, true-life story, I wondered about the consequences of publishing such a book. For the families, I'm sure it was an opportunity to celebrate the importance of faith and God in the face of an impossibly heart-wrenching circumstance, yet I'm not sure the people buying the book were looking for such spiritual uplift.

Grief is such an overpowering, soul-numbing emotion that I recognize survivors often need to do something, anything, to battle the emptiness of loss. My mother, I'm sure, felt it was important to put my sister's accident into higher context, to make her accident a call to arms in the war against drunk drivers. But for me, the "hows" and "whys" of my sister's accident didn't matter I was too overwhelmed by the fact of what had happened to care about anything else. I know a lot of survivors who have started foundations and championed causes in an attempt to "make sense" of their respective losses, and while I'm certain they've accomplished a great deal of good in their actions, I'm not sure there's any sense to be made. Loss is loss, and raging against death is like raging against the trees for releasing their leaves.

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