When a Child Dies

How to Write an Obituary About a Child

The death of any child — even a death expected after long illnesses — is shocking. Children aren't supposed to die.

Writing their obituaries presents several challenges.

In many cases, an obit gives voice to a person who — by virtue of their age and vulnerabilities — may never have had a voice for him- or herself. Unlike adult subjects of many news obituaries, kids may never have risen to prominence or newsworthiness in their short lives. This may be the only story ever written about them. The task requires a judgment call on to what extent you frame their obituaries around the details of their lives or the causes of their deaths.

Life, like death, is complicated and messy — and judgments are all too easy to make without knowing or taking the time to report the backstory.

These decisions can be tough. Take, for instance, Veronica Moser-Sullivan, who was killed in July's Aurora movie theater shooting. Questions — and judgments — quickly arose nationally about why a 6-year-old was attending a midnight screening of a PG-13 movie. What later came to light was that Veronica's special night out with her mom, Ashley, was intended to celebrate Ashley's acceptance into nursing school after a string of financial hardships and the recent death of Ashley's dad from leukemia. Life, like death, is complicated and messy — and judgments are all too easy to make without knowing or taking the time to report the backstory. Veronica's memory should no more be defined by Ashley's decision to treat her to a midnight movie than it should by the fact that Veronica had just learned how to swim and soon was to become a big sister to the baby her mom was carrying. The best obituaries about children strike the tricky balance of honoring their lives while also acknowledging the tragedy — and bad fortune — of their deaths.

There's a tendency in obits about children to try to derive meaning in their deaths. The killing of Cassie Bernall is a case in point. Cassie, 17, was shot in the library of Columbine High School during the massacre there in 1999. Word quickly spread that one of her attackers pointed a gun to her head and asked if she believed in God. As the story was widely reported, she said, "Yes, I believe," and then was shot. The story made Cassie a martyr among many Christians. Her mother published a book entitled "She Said Yes: the Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall." The problem was that the story seems to have been made up. Witness testimonies indicated that Cassie wasn't asked anything before being shot. The story may have comforted her parents, inspired the devout and made big headlines, but it also misreported the truth, unfairly elevated the death of the beautiful blond snowboarder beyond stories about other victims and ultimately entwined her memory with a myth.

The moral of the story is this: Don't use an obituary to give a moral to the story. It isn't necessarily our jobs as journalists to make sense out of the horrifically senseless. Keep in mind that your sources for obits about children likely will be family members who are grief-struck and searching for meaning. Many will frame a child's death with religious significance. Quote them, by all means. But don't sing with the choir as did the New York Daily News in its July 22 article about Ashley Moser, Veronica's mom. "Miracle! Aurora shooting victim Ashley Moser, shot in the belly, is pregnant," read the headline. That miracle wasn't so miraculous days later when Ashley — who was paralyzed in the attack — miscarried after learning of Veronica's death.

The goal of an obituary is neither to inspire nor depress. It is to tell the story of a life with accurate details and nuances that distinguish the child from all others. As the Society of Professional Obituary Writers puts it, "We want those who write articles about the recently deceased to regard obituaries as once-in-a-lifetime stories that should be researched, reported and penned with as much care and attention as any other news."

If you ask the right questions, the story of any life — even short ones — are powerful enough without moral embellishments, euphemisms and clichés. Don't try to sugarcoat death by using expressions such as "passed away" or "went to be with his lord" instead of verbs such as "died" or "was killed." Try to avoid describing the child as a "little angel" who, for example, "loved life," "personified innocence," and "touched many lives" with a smile that "lit up a room" or a laugh that was "infectious." Such hackneyed descriptions tell readers little about the child, and highlight the likelihood that you — the writer — didn't know your subject.

Some journalists hesitate to ask questions of relatives for fear of imposing on them in a time of grief. But what you'll find is that most families relish the opportunity to talk about the child and are grateful that you're taking the time to preserve his or her memory.

So, within the bounds of appropriateness, sensitivity and deadline pressures, ask to do interviews in person, not over the phone. Ask to see the child's bedroom and security blanket. Figure out not only that she had a teddy bear, say, but also who gave it to her, what she named it and why. Ask about favorite colors, foods and books, about best friends and silly habits. Ask to see baby books, photos and artwork. Leave time between your questions for sources to remember, fill in the silences and cry. Hand them a tissue, if they need one. Or grab one for yourself, if necessary. It's all right to tear up.

Any child's story is inextricably tied to the stories of parents, siblings, grandparents, caregivers, teachers, neighbors, schoolmates and friends. Ask them gently to try to "show, not tell" when describing the child. What did the child mean to the mother who adopted him after having four miscarriages? What are the regrets of a father who spent the first years of the child's life in military service overseas? What about the kid made people laugh? And what made them cry?

Like many family members and readers, some journalists confuse obituaries with death notices. These are not legal documents to fill in the blanks with personal information. There is no need to list every relative, dead and alive, or to thank every doctor and nurse at the hospital. There's also no obligation to list the date, time and location of memorial services — although doing so can be helpful to the family and readers. More than most other forms of journalism, obituaries enlist the aid and solidarity of the community to support the family or an institution or cause related to a child's death. Some families ask obituary writers to include details about where to send memorial contributions. Some, instead of donations, ask readers to make gestures in memory of their child by, for example, donating blood, planting a tree or hugging their own kids. Make sure you ask their wishes. Their answers may be part of your story.

Obituaries — many of which will be glued into family albums and carried in parents' wallets for years to come — need to be accurate. Proofread your story. Then proofread it again. Among the many judgment calls you'll need to make is whether to read it to the family before filing. If that breaks policy in your newsroom, violates your professional standards or otherwise feels uncomfortable, check — and then double-check — the story's accuracy. This, after all, may be the last and only word written about a life that should have been much longer.