A moment that changed me: how a ‘death knock’ taught me about grief, respect and truth

It was my first day on a local paper when I went to visit a bereaved family with a seasoned reporter. It shaped all the values I took into my journalistic career

I was 19 when, in September 1987, I got a fortnight’s work experience on my local free newspaper, the Kingston Guardian, in south-west London. It was a small but dedicated team of reporters operating out of an office in Twickenham and they were incredibly generous, taking me under their collective wing and sending me out on all kinds of assignments. By the end of the two weeks, I had a handful of bylined pieces and had written my first investigative feature – a tug-of-love dog ownership dispute over a whippet. But the moment that changed me came on the very first day, on a story that I didn’t even write.

The team had suggested I go out in the evening with an older reporter on a “death knock” – going to visit a family after a death. They didn’t call it a death knock and it wasn’t one of those notorious tabloid visits, when a reporter turns up out of the blue and confronts a bereaved family. It had been agreed in advance with the parents of the deceased, a 17-year-old schoolboy who had died in a car accident, not long after passing his driving test. It was the kind of awful, accidental death that happens regularly, all over the country.

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