I have blinding empathy. Like a loyal golden retriever. I’ve gotten close to almost all the people I’ve interviewed and I stay in touch with them. The coal miners in southern West Virginia. The uncouth Cypriot chef in Philadelphia who threw a baby quail at my face. Even the Muslim couple who runs Trump Cafe in rural Texas. If they’ve spoken into my microphone, I’ve likely gone out of my way to rationalize and defend them.
This piece made me question what I’ve thought of as a funny, endearing, harmless quirk.
I found Joe and Amy’s story through a news article about the fundraiser they’d started to buy a special crib for their local hospital. A crib that had a cooling system, so families with stillborn children could spend time with them after delivery — hours, days, even up to a week.
They were donating this crib because their second son Landon was stillborn, and his body deteriorated in front of them very quickly, within just a few hours.
I never really thought about maternal health before. I never knew that 1 in 160 pregnancies ended in stillbirth. I had no idea that families spent time and took pictures with their babies after they had died. I never knew that families, if they choose to see their child, might have to watch the baby decay in front of them, or that a crib designed to prevent that kind of trauma existed. Then I found out that 95% of hospitals in the UK have them, and only 7% in the US do, and that some families aren’t even given the option to see their kid.
After interviewing Amy and Joe I was up in arms. I was ready to go to battle for them. Why didn’t more hospitals have these cribs? Why are hospitals so unprepared for stillbirth? This became my story — why the f*&% is this not a priority in American hospitals?
This is the story I pitched Ira Glass when he came to visit.
The first thing he said was, “So . . . this is pretty weird, right?”
I was confused. “What do you mean?”
“They spent time with their dead kid. Like why would you want to spend time with a dead baby? And take pictures with it? Why would anyone do that?”
My brow furled, my muscles tightened. I was ready to scuffle Thunder Dome style with Phillip Glass’ second cousin. A man I had, until then, trusted as a beacon of empathy and understanding.
“Well, who the hell are we to judge how this family grieves? Who are we to question that?”
“You’re human. That’s who you are. That’s what gives you the right to question it.”
In real time, as I looked at Ira, and his perfectly wavy salt and pepper flow, every story I’d ever made flashed by, and I knew that . . . I’d f*cked up.
The empathy thing wasn’t cute. It wasn’t endearing. It made me miss the story.
In the process of becoming irrationally defensive of these people I had gotten to know, I forgot the original curiosity and questions that drew me to them in the first place. I abandoned that original question I know I had: why would you spend time with your dead child?
Those are the questions that drive stories. That primal reaction. That first thing that pops into your head. That thing that turns part of your gut right over, that sends shockwaves down your arms — that is the question, that you as a storyteller are indebted to answer.
If I was going to tell a story about hospitals not having technology that allows families to spend time with their child, I first needed to answer — why? What is it about that time? What is an hour to this family? What is two hours? What is two days? What does it mean to spend only moments with someone you had planned to spend a lifetime with?
If you are in radio, it’s because you give a shit. It’s because you see something that needs to be shared or changed. Your weapon is storytelling. Asking a family why they would spend time with their deceased child doesn’t mean you lack empathy. It means you’re human, and so is everyone else who will listen to your story. If you want to change something, those are the questions you need to answer — those primal, unequivocally human curiosities that will mobilize whoever hears it. That is how you turn giving a shit into actually effecting change.
After listening to Ira, reframing this story, and sharing the finished version with people, the first question is almost always: “How can I help?”
This is how I went to battle for Amy and Joe.
All this may be common sense for some of you, but it wasn’t for me. Since then, the moment something lights my fire, irks my stomach, boils my blood — I furiously jot it down, even if it looks like I’m writing in Sanskrit on PCP. I keep that and hope I can read it later.
Because, whatever the story is, what you wrote down will almost undoubtedly be the question you need to answer.
Amy and Joe Loud quickly raised enough money to donate two CuddleCots to local hospitals, and now they’re raising money for a third. To donate and share, visit this link.
Otis’ Sonic ID
If you’re feeling stuck, if you’re restless, if you’re “in the forest” — grab your mic and walk out the door. Seriously. Now. Get off your ass, stop looking at your screen, and walk into the world. First person you see doing something (literally anything), hit record, go up and ask, “What are you doing?” Chances are, you might remember why you got into radio in the first place.