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posted: 8/23/2012 6:27 AM

Openness in an hour of pain is a gift to rest of us

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This column is my expression of thanks to all those people who, in the midst of the deepest suffering, take some time out to describe the source of their grief with a lowly newspaper writer. And I say that not as a lowly newspaper writer, though I am surely that, but as a fellow human being who reads newspapers. Who wants to understand daily life in his world and his community. Who wants to know that the events he reads about involve real human beings, real events and real emotions, not just a seemingly endless stream of categorical occurrences that can be reduced to dismal, all-too-familiar one liners.

Man stabbed to death in robbery ... Child drowns in lake ... Fire kills three ...

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Tragedy is with us nearly every day. I often think of it in terms of that haunting Shirley Jackson story "The Lottery," in which townspeople gather every year to determine who will be stoned to death. Or, the similarly themed "Hunger Games." Everyone participates. Everyone hopes, perhaps expects, the chosen victim will be someone else, someone else's family, someone else's best friend. Yet, at any given time, but for the caprice of circumstance, it could be we ourselves who open that square sheet of paper with the large black dot.

It is one of the newspaper's jobs to chronicle these constant horrors and, most important, to show that they are not stories. They are not entertainment. They are not "good reading." And most of all, they are not routine.

That objective, that duty, agonizes every reporter or photographer perhaps more than any other. It is a bitterly humbling thing to approach a person in his or her hour of grief and ask for details about the life of a lost loved one. I've known no reporter who can manage it dispassionately nor any, even with decades of experience, who can undertake it without some measure of humility and apology, some underlying knowledge of the pain and sorrow that penetrating questions can stir. But the result, when survivors are willing and able to crack open the window of their heartbreak, closes the distance between the reading and the suffering.

It permits people who are no longer with us to be understood not in death but in life, and it helps all of us grim spectators better understand the trauma that may lurk in wait for us. In Wednesday's paper, the best friend of murder victim Megan Boken of Wheaton described her friend and reflected on her loss. Only a few weeks ago, family members shared the trauma suffered by Colorado shooting survivor Julia Vojtsek of Algonquin. These became major front-page stories, but such responses don't always have to form a dramatic narrative. In countless stories, survivors provide just a phrase or a few words that supersede tragedy and remind us all of the real life that was lived and has been lost.

To be clear, this process does not require a reporter's intervention. In the past week, family members stung by two distant and vastly different tragedies -- murder victim Boken's family and a Libertyville father whose son was killed in a boating accident -- have shared remembrances of their loved ones on their own: Paul and Lisa Boken in a public statement describing Megan's example of "what it means to be a teammate and a friend"; James Borcia in an essay for the Daily Herald describing the love for music, sports and practical jokes that helped define son Tony's "10 glorious years."

Such descriptions, I know, are painful to recall and trespass deeply into survivors' private agony. But they remind me of my own humanity and the precious fragility of real human lives -- not stories, lives -- that appear in the newspaper. For that, I, not as a newsman but as a fellow human being, say this: Thank you.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is a Daily Herald assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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