'Just Say What They Did'

Sunday, January 8, 2023 / 12:46 AM

In journalism, they teach you that when somebody dies, the proper words to use are just that: "So-and-so died," and here's what you need to know about their death. No need for "passed away" or any other euphemisms of the sort. Just say what they did, what happened to them: they died. 

We were taught this in our journalism classes. I was told this over and over again at NPR, where I spent the final few weeks of my internship cataloguing and updating obituaries. I was reminded again at MSNBC as we reported about tragedy after tragedy until I finally reached NBC and was the one telling the younger reporters just that: Just say what they did, what happened to them.

But despite all of that, I have always struggled with it outside of my former profession. In 2015, when a good friend from college died, I sent an email to our former newspaper colleagues to let them know of his passing but couldn't bring myself to use the word. In 2018, when one of my best friends died, I found myself again in a position where I was telling people the news – but that word continued to elude me. And for the last couple of days, I'm once again scared of that word because it's so final, so real: another person who I loved so deeply and so completely is gone.

Just say what they did. Here's an exhaustive, yet still non-comprehensive, list:

  • Greg had a respect for work that began in college (and probably even before that): I met Greg in 2010 when I interviewed and hired him for a staff job at the New University. He walked into the interview wearing a suit and we made fun of him for it later because what 20-year-old kid shows up to a college newspaper in a suit? Greg did. 
  • Greg painted pictures with words: Greg was quiet and reserved, but the first time I edited one of his articles, I knew he had so much to say. "A world of color unfolds behind the museum’s drab brown walls. On their individual platforms, the clay blends a thousand times over: red, green, brown, purple, blue and yellow cease to be separate, mixing into a single entity as each person leaves their mark." I loved it and loved it beyond college, even when I was mercilessly editing out his descriptions of tumbleweeds years later in an NBC feature I sent him to Manzanar for.
  • Greg was the life of the party: The life and, more often than not, the source of chaos. I won't go into the exact details (if you know, you know), but after the infamous Night of the Living Groog, we knew there was no going back. A party without Greg (and Groog) definitely felt more boring. Years later at a bar in New York, we were cleaning up spilled popcorn off the ground and I was slightly annoyed, but then I looked over at Greg's face and he was grinning and laughing, and it instantly made me laugh too.
  • Greg made time count, even if time wasn't on anyone's side: I graduated in 2011 and Greg stayed at UCI a fifth year. One morning in DC, I was up and getting ready for work and saw a Facebook Messenger message pop up from Greg, who was pulling an all-nighter across the country. I called him and we talked for less than 10 minutes, but it was nice to hear a familiar voice before I began my commute. It became a regular thing when he'd pull all-nighters to hear from him as I was waking up, but I think it was one of the things that kept us close when we were 3,000 miles apart. 
  • Greg didn't just make an effort; he always made the effort: No matter how far Greg needed to drive, he did it to see and to help the people he cared about. In 2013, he drove almost 200 miles (and that's just one way) to visit with me when I was in Albuquerque and he was in Farmington. If that isn't an expression of care, I don't know what is.
  • Greg loved journalism: He loved writing the news, reporting the news, reading the news – and even in those times he was exhausted by it, he never doubted it was his calling. Some of my favorite parts of my visits to his cities were seeing the newsrooms he called home. He was so proud, and I was so proud of him.
  • Greg loved Los Angeles: Greg is Los Angeles. Even when he was living away from it, the two were so intertwined. When I was re-learning how to drive, I was in a car with Greg panicking about the 101 and he kept pointing at the buildings and the sky and saying, "Just look! You can see the city! Look at LA!" And I screamed at him, "I CAN'T, I'M LOOKING AT THE ROAD." (Today, I drove down the 101 in the car Greg helped me choose, and I looked at LA and I saw Greg in the beauty of it all – and I know that will always remain.)
  • Greg loved people. Full stop. If you knew him, you felt it.
Just say what they did. 

Greg made an impact on the people he met, the profession he thrived in, the spaces he moved through. He filled rooms with the sound of his laughter and the scents of the delicious meals he cooked. He listened when you needed to vent and he checked in when you had a hard day. When something good happened and you told him, he'd go, "Hey-o!" and beam at you. If you needed a favor, he'd be ready to help before you could even tell him what you needed. 

Just say what they did.

I could go on and on, and I'd never reach the bottom of the box in my heart labeled "Greg." Instead, I'll leave you with his own words – from 2012 when he was graduating college: 

"In the words of the Russian poet Boris Pasternak, 'Let’s scatter our words as the garden scatters amber zest, absentmindedly and generously bit by bit by bit.' I hope now that as I scatter my words, they blossom and bring me into a world beyond my imagination — a beautiful flowering of the infinite." 

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