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Revelations: Distracted by death

By Victoria Advocate
July 15, 2011 at 2:15 a.m.
Updated July 16, 2011 at 2:16 a.m.

Jennifer Preyss

BY JENNIFER PREYSS

When I entered professional journalism, I wasn't prepared to cover death. Tragedy reporting wasn't discussed in undergraduate media studies. And through the years, I never had a manager sit down and brief me about what to expect at a murder, plane crash or fatal accident scene (and the emotional burden that may follow).

After all, reporters are information collectors, primed to gather facts from the scene and report it to the public.

No matter what, feelings must remain neutral; minds must remain focussed on the assignment.

But when death - and dead bodies - is involved, it's not easy not to feel.

Last Sunday, I went out to cover what I thought would be just another "10-50 Major," or major car wreck on U.S. Highway 87 and Farm-to-Market Road 447.

Upon arrival at the scene, I observed broken glass in the streets, law enforcement directing traffic, a Ford F-150 truck and Honda Accord scrunched together like an accordion, and a crowd of people with horrified expressions standing around.

Panning the scene, I noticed a young man sitting in the grass outside a Shell Gas Station; his eyes lowered to the ground.

His body language didn't seem all that unusual to me. After a serious wreck like this, anyone would be upset, I thought.

But I didn't yet know how bad it was.

I simply didn't see the stretcher on the ground with Judy Sullivan's body on it. Neither did my photographer. We somehow blocked out that part of the crash scene.

But then I saw it. My story was before me - the lifeless body of 65-year-old Judy Sullivan resting on a stretcher, covered with a white sheet.

Moments later, law enforcement and Justice of the Peace Stuart Posey, pulled the sheet down from Judy's face and pronounced her dead.

David Sullivan, 67, was transported to DeTar North, and later airlifted to a San Antonio hospital with critical injuries.

I looked again at the bereaved young man, later identified as 18-year-old Logan Curtis, who rear-ended Judy and David Sullivan's Honda. He hadn't moved from the grass, he hadn't lifted his eyes from the ground.

I collected the necessary information from the scene and drove back to the office with the photographer.

I remember telling her that I felt like an unbelievable sociopath because I didn't, or couldn't, feel anything at the scene.

Had I really covered too many accidents to feel them anymore? Normal people should be slightly shaken by death, but I wasn't shaken at all. I only thought of newspaper deadlines, and a later story assignment.

At home that evening, disgusted with myself and my inability to feel, I took my concerns to God. During prayer, I accepted that I was developing an immunity to tragedy, said a prayer for both families involved in the wreck, and went to sleep.

But the following day my emotions showed up with a vengeance. It was apparently some kind of aftershock.

I couldn't get the faces of Judy and Logan out of my mind. I couldn't stop thinking about their tragedy, my eyes welling with tears every time I did.

It was an unusual experience - one that I still don't understand. It wasn't my tragedy. I wasn't involved. No one I loved, died.

But it all seemed so terribly unfair to me, somehow.

Judy was dead. David was in the hospital. Logan, a teenager, bearing this unimaginable weight on his shoulders of possibly killing someone with his truck. To date, no charges have been filed against him.

It would be unbearable for anyone, of any age, to deal with.

With a tremendous sadness in my gut, I drove home from work for the second night in a row, and thought about the wreck.

I just couldn't wrap my head around what the families were going through.

And as I thought about it, something occurred to me. Death can be sudden, unplanned and hard to understand. But there is no way to prepare for it. There is no class, no seminar, no workshop that could prepare me or anyone else for dealing with death, or the emotional burden that follows.

I just have to remember to allow myself to feel, pray for those involved and remember that God is always prepared to take over the burden.

Keep the Sullivan and Curtis families in your thoughts this week, remembering how precious life is.

Jennifer Preyss is a re porter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or jlpreyss@vicad.com.

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