Super long post but, we have friends who do not know what all we went through. Maybe it will help anyone else that goes through this tragedy.
So here’s the thing that is new in today’s age and not a lot of people know how to handle it. Social Media and Death. When Zachary died, Rogers State asked us permission to send an email to the student body informing them of what happened. We, of course, said yes. We knew that students had found Zachary, staff and university police worked on him before the ambulance arrived, they had a helicopter on campus as well. That would be shocking on its own but, we could not leave the students wondering. Rogers State was nothing but fantastic for our family and did everything possible to protect us.
Little did we know though, that a student’s relative worked in a newsroom and the email was forwarded to the newsroom pretty much as soon as it was received. This led to the story being on the news stations before we even made it home from the hospital. The story was out there and being shared before we even had a chance to tell our extended family about his death. We had people texting us asking what happened. I remember asking a fellow softball Mom who messaged me how the hell she knew. (Not one of my finest moments.) So, the story was out there and we had to make a FB post addressing it the next day less than 24hrs of our son dying. We were not emotionally prepared to do that but, everyone was wondering what was going on.
The following is the University’s post about a candlelight vigil they held for Zachary. Everything from the University was done with our permission.
A day or two after he passed away, we received a call from the University. A news station was snooping around Zachary’s Facebook page and found out he was gay. They called the college to try and get our phone numbers, who has a home phone anymore. They also mad sure to let the college know that they knew he was gay. The University refused to give out our information and protected us from them. We still cannot figure out what angle they would have been going for on that. It was two days after the Presidential election. At the time, no one knew what really happened to Zach. Jonathan had memorialized Zach’s FB page right after it happened to protect his information. We don’t know if they were going to try and tie his death to the election somehow because he was gay. Who knows? We as a family knew Zachary was gay and never tried to hide that fact.
We received a message from Zach’s boyfriend’s Mom that a news reporter had private messaged him wanting to talk to him. Keep in mind that he was seventeen at the time. Following is her message. We are so thankful Melissa respected our wishes to not have him talk to the news reporter. Zachary’s FB profile pic was abstract at the time so it was not a pic the news station would want to share.
So we have Zachary’s Memorial Service a week later and things calm down as far as FB stories, posts, etc. For almost exactly one month.
We received a return phone call on a Friday from the Medical Examiners Office telling us that Zach died from cardiac arrhythmia that was caused by they think a heart tumor but, there’s a bunch of other stuff listed so she wasn’t sure. This conversation led us to believe that they were still investigating his cause of death. We in no way understood it to be that was our phone call. We were not offered the chance to have the autopsy report faxed or emailed to us that day.
Let me start this section by saying we have worked out our differences with the local paper. They edited their article including personal health information about our family and also made a donation to Zachary’s Memorial Endowment Scholarship Fund. I in no way want to further any animosity towards the paper. They were not aware that we did not have a copy of the ME report at the time of publication.
So, the following Monday or Tuesday after our phone call from the ME’s office, we received an unexpected call from the Dean of Students. They asked if we had seen the article in the newspaper. We had not. They went on to explain that the paper published a very detailed article based off Zachary’s ME report. We did not receive the ME report until two days after the paper had published the article. We also had a neighbor leave a clipping of the article in our mailbox for us as she didn’t know if we had received the paper.
This meant that every single person that read the newspaper that morning knew details of our son’s death that we as a family did not know yet. Every single person who follows the paper on FB knew the details of his death. What people don’t often think about when sharing articles, etc, is that the majority of news articles get shared by national sites as well. The Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation also shared the article. People around the nation if they had read it knew how our son died and the details of his death before we as his parents knew.
After being notified by RSU, we digested what had happened and Jonathan made a FB post addressing the invasion of privacy. Our friends and family who were shocked shared the post and it ended up getting the attention of Senator Stephanie Bice (one of my favorite people now).
Senator Bice asked if she could contact me to find out the details. After speaking with her, she drafted legislation to make there be a ten business day hold on all ME reports to give the family time to accept the information. She worked to get every party on board, ie police departments, MEs office, insurance companies, etc. We wrote letters to every House Member and Senator regarding the same. The bill ended up being passed in its final draft unanimously by the House and Senate. The bill went into affect November 2017. It seemed fitting as it was one year after Zachary’s death.
Families who lose a loved one now will not know that Zachary’s death is the one that helped to give them two weeks of privacy, but, we as his family know and that is what matters. When you lose a child, you want to know that their death made a difference somehow. We were not able to donate any of his organs since he was an unattended death and had to have an autopsy. At least with this change, he made a difference to people who never had the chance to meet the beautiful boy that is Zachary.
So, I guess I wrote this to just give an insight to what families go through when their loved ones death is shared in media/social media. It is not easy. It’s not easy to see the articles, read the comments from complete strangers who assume something negative about your kid.
Next time you go to click share on an article, think about if you would want a stranger to be reading about your loved one’s death. Think about the fact that the family may not have even had a chance to share the information with their extended family. Think about the fact that the articles might not even have correct information in them. The article about Zachary said he died in a parking lot and he didn’t, he was under a pine tree. It seems like the smallest detail but, to a Mom, it really matters.
Love and miss you Zachary ~ Mommy
Memorial Bench under “Zach’s Tree”
Memorial placed by college. This is right where his bench is.
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