How the media can do a better job recognizing the complexity of Cassidy Stay’s loss

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I’ve been struck this week by the media’s coverage of Cassidy Stay, the 15-year-old girl who lost her parents and four siblings in a tragic shooting last week.

Cassidy, the lone survivor, was shot in the skull but pretended to be dead until the shooter — her ex-uncle — left the scene. She suffered a fractured skull but was soon released from the hospital.

It’s understandable that the media would be drawn to Cassidy’s story; it’s a story about survival, about a young woman who is doing seemingly well in the wake of a life-changing tragedy. But I worry that the coverage has prematurely assumed Cassidy is on “the road to recovery.”

News organizations have used the “road to recovery” cliche because Cassidy used it herself.

“I am feeling a lot better and am on a very straightforward path to a full recovery,” she said during her family’s memorial.

She put a positive spin on her family’s death, saying: “I know that my Mom, Dad, Brian, Emily, Becca and Zach are in a much better place, and that I will be able to see them again one day.” Quoting Harry Potter, she said: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.” She ended her talk by smiling, raising her arm in the air and saying, “Stay strong!

Though Cassidy cried at the memorial, the media tended to focus on her “Stay strong” pose and on her positive demeanor. Her talk, and the media’s coverage of it, made it seem like she was dealing well with the tragedy and moving on.

I didn’t see any coverage that recognized how tremendously difficult loss can be for children — let alone a child who has lost six family members all at once. And I didn’t see any coverage about the challenges that children in this type of situation face — survivor’s guilt, depression, denial, etc. Instead, I’ve seen one-dimensional coverage that has relied on cliches: “road to recovery,” “stay strong,” “beacon of hope,” “Harry Potter loving hero.

I’m moved by Cassidy’s story not because of the hopeful spin the media has put on it but because she reminds me of my younger self. I will never know what it’s like to lose both of my parents and four siblings in a shooting, but I know what it’s like to lose a mom at a young age. Cassidy’s talk at her family’s memorial reminded me of the eulogy I gave at my mom’s funeral.

When I was 11, my mom died of breast cancer. I wrote her eulogy a day after she died and read it at her funeral without shedding a tear. The eulogy read like a Hallmark card:

Robin, my mother, was a pure angel who was sent to us by the Lord Almighty. Her everlasting wings brought her here on Earth to us and brought her back up to Paradise. My mother, why she was a wonderful, loving, and sincere person. She was a person who was put on Earth to take away our deepest sorrows, worries and hurts. And truthfully that is exactly what she did.

My mother was a mighty strong fighter. She was a brave soldier in a battle. She was a hiker climbing a steep mountain, a mountain with rough, rigid rocks. And she climbed those rocks with a strong wind blowing against her. She climbed those rocks often with difficulty, and sometimes with no difficulty whatsoever. Yet the wind was just too hard to take, and it thrust her to the bottom of the mountain. 

We all have to realize that even though Robin can not be seen physically be the human eye, she can be seen and heard with our hearts. Whenever you feel that you would like to speak with my mother or just tell her how much you love her, all you have to do is find the doors to your hearts and open them, and she will be right there. In fact, she is watching each and every one of us right now, at this very minute. Her spirit fills this room that we are in.

We all know that this is the beginning of a new chapter in our lives and that life goes on. For some of us right now, our courage is scattered around here and there in various places. Yet it is our responsibility, for our own good, and for Robin’s sake, that we take our hands and gather all of those pieces, big and small, to form our courage. For I know that this is what my mother would want us to do, this is what she would do. 

Everything happens for a reason. Although, that reason is often hard to find. But believe me, sooner or later in life you will find that reason. Now we should all still cry, and we should always keep Robin in our hearts, but we cannot let it bother us for the rest of our lives. We can’t keep going back to that old chapter, but look forward to the new chapter in our lives, and just hope that it brings us the best of luck and much happiness. This is hard to do, I know, to find that new chapter, but we can all do it if we try. Just think, my mother, Robin Jo Tenore, is walking along the streets of gold, she’s having the time of her life. She no longer suffers from pain. She is now in the hands of God, she is now in Heaven. A place where she truly belongs. 

At the time, I thought I was strong.  I didn’t realize that true strength comes from being vulnerable, from expressing sadness and anger and confusion. Hiding these feelings only delays the grieving process and can lead to more problems later on. No one ever told me that grieving is good, even life-saving.

As journalists tell follow-up stories about Cassidy, they should be conscious of complexity — the complexity of death, loss, and grief at such a young age. You can do this by adding some context — such as a quote from a child psychologist who specializes in grieving, or highlights from research that’s been done in this area. (There’s lots of research on children and loss.) You don’t want to assume that the child is going to face challenges; at this early stage, you just want to point to evidence acknowledging that this type of situation is extremely difficult, even if the child’s words and actions suggest otherwise.

I hope that as time goes on, Cassidy’s story will lend itself to being an authentic Restorative Narrative — a story about a person or community that has demonstrated resilience in a tragedy’s aftermath. Right now, though, it’s too soon for her story to be restorative. Too raw. Too cliche.

Recovery is a journey and a process of discovery. It’s filled with twists and turns, speed-bumps and ditches. Good journalism recognizes this.