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When Death Passes Over-From November 2nd, 2010

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This column was written as a replacement for the one scheduled for Nov. 2nd, 2010. A student at my university had died while I was writing that column. The death would have year-long repercussions for the school, and the journalism class. For his friends and family, the impact will be lifelong.

When I finished my column last week I went to bed.

When I got up in the morning, I checked in with my editor to make sure my e-mail had been received. I was speaking with her on MSN at the time and asked how things were going. She told me things were hectic, that they were scrambling to get the paper together.

When I asked why, she said “You didn’t hear what happened?” I said no. Then she asked “Did you know Andrew Bartlett?” I immediately thought it was odd that she said “did.” I said no. “He was on the volleyball team at STU.” I think I knew then, or suspected. Was. Three letters, that made all the difference in the world.

When she confirmed the conclusion I had already jumped to, and told me that he had been found dead, I did not know what to think or what to say. If I remember correctly, I said something meaningless about how shocked I was. I recited all the lines you feel like you’re supposed to. Because I am a journalist I started asking questions, and you know what? It all felt so incredibly inadequate. My connection to Andrew was practically nonexistant. The way I found out, via MSN, felt cheap and tawdry. Strangest of all, I felt an immediate distaste for the column I had completed the night before. While I was finishing a tossed-off, last minute and utterly inconsequential complaint about movie critics, the policemen that would find Andrew Bartlett dead were being called, and the lives of everyone close to him were about to change.

Most of you who didn’t know Andrew found out via two e-mails sent from Dennis Cochrane’s office, both on Oct.25. The first, at 10:49 a.m. told you a student had died but that the school couldn’t tell you any more at the time. The second, at 3:02 p.m., told you it was Andrew Bartlett.

What use was it to know simply that “a student” had died in that four hour window? If I hadn’t known already, those four hours would have meant a lot of frantic checking in with friends, making sure it wasn’t one of them. I would have been lucky. Some of you lost out on that 1 in 2,576 chance that it would be someone you knew and cared about. I know nothing I can write here can make a damn bit of difference to you for that. Still, I am sorry.

I don’t mean to single out Dennis Cochrane, or the STU communications department. Their job during those few days was not an easy one. How do you give out the right information, to avoid creating rumours or undue upset or panic? This is not an easy questions. The questions that surround death rarely are.

TheAQ staff was and still is grappling with the same kinds of problems. Some of them knew Andrew. Some of them knew him very well. Of course, the death is news. The journalistic response should be that if its news, you cover it. You ask the hard questions. You do the uncomfortable things that must be done in order to get the whole story. They have done their best to do so. As much as you might want to think that the story is the story, that you cover it the same way no matter what your seperation from it, it is not that easy.

For this column, I meant to do two interviews with people who were close to Andrew. I backed out of both of them because I was unwilling to broach the subject, out of fear of coming across as predatory. Fear of hurting them by making them go over the details one more time (what an incredibly egotistical thing of me to think, that I could actually make their week any worse.) The result? I have nothing from anyone who knew him. And I do not know what that makes of this whole exercise. Maybe some of you do. Maybe one of you, reading this right now, is shocked or angry that I have the gall to write an entire column about the death of a man I did not know without the input of any of his friends. You might be right. To be completely honest, I’m not sure if this was the right thing to do either.

In many ways, when it comes to something like this “what’s the right thing to do?” is an inadequate question. For those who knew Andrew, I do not pretend to understand or to offer any real solace as you grieve and cope, because I know that anything I say will be hollow.

For the rest of us, who didn’t know him, how do we react? St. Thomas is small enough that the degree of separation is small for many. If you did not know Andrew, I suspect you’d not have to go more than two degrees before you found someone who did. What to do then, when you are so lightly brushed by death?

I considered writing a column as I would any other week. Still it didn’t feel right to let this slip by unnoticed, or to return to writing about trivial things without acknowledging what had happened.

If anyone who knew Andrew happens to read this, I hope very much that I’ve not come across as cheapening your loss, or as a vulture come to use your grief as fodder. I can only say I am sorry and that I hope things get better for you. For the rest, who have been wrestling with how to react, my hope is simply that you realize that there is a reason why you are struggling to find the right reaction.

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Written by Colin Hodd

March 28, 2012 at 3:02 PM

Posted in The Titular Column

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