What happens when you can't come together to say goodbye?
There was a moment a few months ago when I realized how important this next story would be. A distant family member passed from COVID, and my family WhatsApp group began blowing up. First, it was the news, then it was the condolences and the details, and finally — the link to a funeral service streamed over Facebook Live.
It was a surreal practice. Nothing anyone had experienced before. And yet, I already knew it as standard protocol. You see, a few weeks earlier our Fenix team finalized the story we bring you today. A story about how the coronavirus pandemic has made many forms of in-person support unsafe after the death of a loved one.
Adina Solomon is the reporter on this one, and I could not think of anyone better. If you’re unfamiliar with Adina’s work, she is a thorough and empathetic reporter. She specializes in the topic of death, and for this story, she brilliantly explores the question of what happens when we’re no longer able to come together to mourn those we’ve lost.
Below you’ll find an exclusive Q+A with Adina. It covers everything from what it was like to write this story as the COVID-19 death toll continually increased to her reporting methods and how she developed her beat.
1. You started reporting this story in late September. Since then, the COVID-19 death toll has continually increased. What was it like to see this story become more and more relevant as the months went on?
I started pre-reporting this story about two months earlier, back in July 2020. That’s when I began doing research, looking for sources, and having informal conversations with them about the toll of online funerals and mourning. Before I really set the objective for the story, I wanted to first get a better idea of what was going on and what I should be aware of.
During all of this, I was of course keeping an eye on the COVID-19 death toll. I knew projections said that it would only get worse and I believed that on an intellectual level, but at the time, I still didn’t want to believe it on just an emotional level. The death toll was already so high — back in September, 200,000 people had died — that I didn’t want to contemplate how it could get any higher. I don’t have to tell you that the death toll has more than doubled since then.
I’m sad that my story has gotten more relevant over the months, but at the same time, I think it’s being published at a key moment. So many people have lost someone close to them, not just from COVID-19 but from life continuing. Yet even during this dark time, many people can’t do what they need to do in order to grieve. I’ve heard talk that once COVID-19 subsides, we need to take a moment for reckoning and reflection on all the people we lost. That’s absolutely true. But we can’t forget that we also need to be processing right now. I hope my story speaks to that and offers some solace and information for the many, many people going through personal loss.
2. What surprised you about this story once the reporting process was done? Was there anything you didn't expect?
There was so much! When I write a story, I do my best to try to envision what it might cover and where it will end up. We journalists (especially freelancers who have to pitch ideas to editors before the story is ever written while also working on the outside of a publication) are asked to do this all the time, but it’s difficult. You don’t know everything until you really research and talk with people.
I had contemplated the unequal nature of having online mourning at all. It’s a privilege to have unfettered access to the internet, so as I reported the story, I thought about people who are in rural areas, lower-income areas, or both. I thought about people of color, another group who is less likely to have home internet. But I didn’t think about the barriers to online mourning for older people. Laura Hensley, one of the sources in my story, brought that to my attention.
Toni Miles, another source, taught me about the epidemic of bereavement that we’re going through — even before COVID-19 — because of our aging population. More people are losing friends and family, meaning that more and more of us are grieving. That was eye-opening.
3. One of the topics you specialize in is death. This is, understandably, a very tough beat to cover. What keeps you coming back to it?
I’ve asked this question of myself. The thing that attracts me about reporting on death is how we all have to go through it but it can still be a taboo subject. (This Key & Peele skit comes to mind.) So I want to make sure it’s talked about. Plus, death touches on so many different topics: public health, personal finance, business, mental health, real estate, art, technology. The list is virtually endless. That journalistic possibility fascinates me.
Right now, I’m beginning work on a long-term project to talk with more of the people involved in death care and end-of-life care, the people who tend to us in our final moments and our bodies after death. (If that’s you or you know anyone who works in those industries, even part-time, please check out my survey.) People who work in death and end-of-life care make up a good-sized segment of the population, but those of us on the outside ignore a lot of that work. I want to bring it into the light.
4. This is actually your second Fenix story! What do you think is the biggest challenge of these types of long-form journalism stories?
It’s a real challenge to keep your focus. When you do a long-form story like this, you learn so much that never makes it into the final piece, either because it isn’t as related to the article at hand or because, hey, you gotta come to a stop on your story at some point or else it will never publish. I love researching, reading reports and articles, and talking with sources. It can be hard to know when it’s time to wind down and start writing. And then when you outline, it’s difficult to cut out information that you know is interesting but perhaps doesn’t move your story along. That’s my eternal struggle with long-form journalism.
5. What are you reading?
I usually read a book for 30-60 minutes each night before bed, so I’m always in the middle of something. Right now, I’m reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. It focuses on incarceration of Black men. I knew that the U.S. had one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world. I knew that this was disproportionately represented by people of color. But I’m remiss to say that I didn’t think about the lifelong, legalized discrimination that people who have been through the prison system face in employment, housing, voting, and other realms.
I read this sentence from the book over a few times: “In major cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.” I’ve been thinking about this statistic a lot and how our criminal justice system is designed to harm so many people without offering sufficient opportunity for rehabilitation.
That’s it for now! I appreciate each and every sign up to this newsletter so much. Fenix is slowly growing an audience, and we could not do it without you.
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