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  • Gregory Perreault

Learning about life from death


Apologies for the morbidity of the blog. Maybe it's the year, maybe it's all the losses I've seen experienced by those around me, maybe its my age, but I've found myself fascinated by obituaries. There's a sadness to obituaries--particularly when you get to the "XYZ leaves behind" part--but its also remarkably inspiring. By reading about someone's death you learn awful lot about how they lived. Given what I research, I've read a fair amount of journalists obituaries and you know what? Little time is spent in these obituaries about their work.


I reminded of the words of Dr. Richard Gathro, a professor I got to know during my time in Washington, D.C. In a city where people introduced themselves in the format of "Hi my name is Jennifer...I'm a political strategist," Gathro pushed against that in important ways. The DC mode of introduction would imply that our jobs define us, but in reality, a healthy appreciation of work is that we bring ourselves to work. That's at once freeing--we aren't defined by our work--and entrapping--our work is defined by us. In other words those work problems could actually be you problems. Switching jobs, places, cultures then doesn't necessarily fix all your work problems, because you bring yourself with you.

I spent yesterday in the Viennese Central Cemetery. Absolutely beautiful site that does a remarkable job of memorializing some pretty amazing people (Mozart, Beethoven) ...and some terrible ones (Karl Lueger makes his way into the religious art work in the cemetery's chapel). The problem with all of it of course is that no cemetery stone can encapsulate a person and a memorial can't full represent who they were. It's just a part of them. The most valuable memories I have of the people I've lost aren't ones that would make great visual art. They're intensely personal, private, contextual.


As a child, I used to spend alot of summers in New Brunswick, Canada. I remember doing something terrible and my grandmother Leontine caught me. She was a tiny, tough, farm-grown acadian woman. You didn't mess with her. But when she caught me, I didn't even apologize. I frozen--knew that I was caught in it, felt terrible about it. She had so much she could have said and I expected her to say. Instead, she wrapped me up in her arms and told me "you're still my sweet boy Gregory." It was such a brief moment, but its a moment that said so much about who she was and it couldn't be reflected in anyway in who she was professionally. It doesn't really fit the form of the obituary, but its how I remember her.

In journalism studies, we spend a lot of time talking about professional role conception, but I sometimes wonder if we're missing a key part. When we cover something terrible--a death, a suicide, etc.--the professional role helps us do it, but I think our initial response is a personal one. We realize it could have been our sister, our children, our family. We do indeed bring ourselves to our job.

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