When a Child Dies

About This Project

Susan Greene, Reporter

Susan Greene Susan Greene is a journalist in Denver with more than twenty years experience in daily newspapers. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the Johns Hopkins University's Writing Seminars, she has written for several magazines and reported for daily papers in California, Nevada and Colorado. During her 13 years at The Denver Post, she covered politics, wrote a metro news column and worked on a year-long investigative project about evidence destruction that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Susan has two sons who think it would be way neater if she were a cop rather than a reporter.

Reporter's Reflection:

The call came on a Saturday in November, 2001. It was a man I'd never met phoning to say, “Parker's in the hospital. She has a brain tumor. Things look bad.”

Parker Caldara was the 11-month-old daughter of Jon Caldara, a source at the time, when I was covering politics for The Denver Post. Caldara and I were friendly. He and his wife Mara Kelly had been over for dinner a few months earlier with Parker, their first child. I remember sitting in our living room that evening captivated by Parker climbing on our coffee table and flirting with our cat. I remember her blue eyes, her giggle and her spunk. And I remember thinking to myself that if my husband and I had a kid, I'd want him or her to be like Parker.

The phone call from Caldara's brother prompted me to head straight to Children's Hospital. It felt a little awkward at first, not knowing whether I was there as a friend or a journalist. Nobody asked me to cover Parker's story. Nor did anybody wince when I pulled out my notebook and started asking questions. I hung around Room 517 the next day and the day after that as the lemon-sized tumor in Parker's grapefruit-sized skull kept swelling. Kelly kept nursing her baby. Family and friends took photos of Parker, made molds out of her tiny feet and paraded her around the block for a walk in the autumn sun, singing “Love Me Pooh” to the tune of the Beatles' “Love Me Do,” as Parker held a bunch of leaves in her hand and smiled.

When told that surgery couldn't save her, Parker's parents wrapped her up and took her home that Monday afternoon. She died that night. I printed the story the next day, figuring it was the least I could do.

I've worked as a journalist for 24 years and have written about kids dying from abuse and neglect, drive-by shootings, car accidents, plane crashes, ATV rollovers, overdoses and bullets shot by fellow students at Columbine High School. Two months before Parker's death, I was in lower Manhattan the morning the Twin Towers tumbled. In the aftermath, I interviewed kids struggling to comprehend the horror that their moms or dads were in the rubble.

There is among most conscientious journalists a nagging discomfort covering trauma, especially child deaths. There's always a line we toe between trying to get the story and wanting to let people grieve in peace. We wonder, many of us, if we're taking too much in our reporting.

It wasn't until Parker's death — a decade into my career — that I stopped feeling guilty about my notebook, pen and long list of questions. I realized then that most people not only want to talk, but need to talk about the deaths of children. They yearn to tell who their kid was, what his or her life meant and where that life — and death — stands in the passage of history.

Parker's mom still keeps the story I wrote in an album she carries around with her. Eleven years and two kids later, she still needs that yellowed clip of newsprint about what happened to her baby.

“I've always been keenly aware that over time the pieces I knew of her would slip away,” Mara Kelly says. “After she passed, it was very important to have documentation of memories of her. It's sort of like if they're there, she's safe, because the memories still exist.”

Julie Drizin, Editor

Julie Drizin Julie Drizin directs the Journalism Center on Children & Families (JCCF) based at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Julie is a long-time producer of local, national and international news, talk and public affairs programs on public radio. Undergraduate journalism students in Julie's class, Reporting about Children and Families, helped fact-check and edit this training module.

Nelson Hsu, Design/Development

Nelson Hsu Nelson Hsu is the graphics editor for Project Thunderdome, part of Digital First Media. He works on a variety of things including data-driven applications, interactive and static graphics and multimedia presentations. He previously was the lead editorial designer at NPR and a senior interactive designer at washingtonpost.com.

Alyson Hurt, Design/Development

Alyson Hurt Alyson Hurt is a senior interactive designer with NPR's news applications team, working on infographics, interactives and special news presentations. She previously worked at washingtonpost.com and azcentral.com.