Using social media to cope with tough times

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Margaret Plevak | July 19, 2015

DELAVAN—In the weeks after her daughter Avery, an ebullient fifth-grader at Delavan Christian School, was killed in a car crash in the fall of 2012, Bridget McCarthy would find herself awake in the middle of the night. Unable to sleep, she'd often turn to Facebook or her blog, Stumbling Towards Perfect, and read comments from people who were thinking about her and wanted to let her know.

“Social media saved me when Avery died,” McCarthy said.

It's not that her own family wasn't loving and concerned, but they found it hard to talk about the unexpected death of a beloved 11-year-old girl. McCarthy understood people grieve in different ways, but she couldn't help thinking of her daughter.

“I'm the type of person who wants to express things, to peel things apart. I want to understand,” she said. “If I'm struggling at 2 a.m., I'm going to feel guilty calling someone on the phone, but if I get on my computer and say, 'I'm having a really tough time right now,' someone—and I might not even know that person—most likely is going to say, 'I'm here. What's going on?' There are times when you get these people who just kind of come together like a little rescue boat and they're holding you up.”

Ann Peru Knabe, a public relations lecturer for the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, likens social media to support groups used by people going through troubled times.

“It's human nature to want to share our struggles with others, particularly with people who face a similar challenge,” Knabe wrote in an email. “Sometimes the act of writing down feelings or personal challenges can by very cathartic…sometimes it's 'easier' for us to share worries or troubles with strangers than face criticism or embarrassment from our own family and friends.”  

McCarthy had blogged sporadically since 2007, but she didn't have a computer when her daughter died. A blogger in New Hampshire, Brenna Jennings, who had seen McCarthy's previous posts and knew about Avery's death, sent her an iPad and a keyboard and told her to keep writing.

“I've never met her face to face, but I tell you that lady pulled me out of a pit,” McCarthy said. “She allowed me to start talking about Avery.”

McCarthy said the Internet gives people unsure of how to proceed in a sensitive situation a way to unobtrusively offer condolences or encouragement.

In reading others' comments, especially those who experienced the death of loved one, she found her own feelings validated, and in turn, she's helped others process grief, both new and old.

“They'll say to me, 'I lost my son when he was in the sixth grade and that was 27 years ago. But thank you for talking about it now because it's helping me think more deeply about that where I couldn't before.'”

McCarthy also created a nonprofit organization and website, AVERYday Ministries, for causes Avery was interested in, such as orphans in Haiti. McCarthy is raising funds to build a safe house for young women there.

While comments on her blog and Facebook page have been supportive, McCarthy remembered one reader who chastised her for describing Avery as if she were perfect.

“Yeah, Avery was an 11-year-old kid who had a messy room and refused to put her shoes away and would give me hassles about brushing her teeth. And yeah, she was frustrating at times, but she was also really good,” McCarthy said. “I remember thinking, when your children die you can choose to focus on their faults or their goodness.”

McCarthy said she sees a lot of anger and hate on the Internet in general, and she worries how that wears on others, like her friend, Jeff Borchardt.

Two years ago, Borchardt's 14-month-old son Daxton, was fatally mauled by two pit bulls while at his babysitter's home in Walworth. The 15-minute attack was horrific. The toddler, who'd been wearing a snowsuit and cap, was stripped naked, his spinal cord severed, his face and head severely injured.

After news reports of the attack came out, finger-pointing debates from complete strangers broke out almost immediately on media websites and Facebook pages.

“We hadn't even decided what to do with our son's body yet and we were getting harassed,” Borchardt said.  

Dax had been with the babysitter, a friend of Borchardt and his wife, before. The sitter's two dogs were well behaved, but both families took precautions to keep Dax and the animals separated. The afternoon Dax died, the sitter, holding him, called the dogs inside when they started jumping on her. Nips and tugs on her jacket suddenly turned into a frenzy of snapping and biting.  

Pained by his son's death and puzzled by what caused the dogs to turn, Borchardt began researching dog attacks online, and discovered Daxton was one of 16 children killed by pit bulls in 2013, according to a website called DogsBite.org. He began blogging what he learned about the breed, and got responses from other victims. Some readers, including a veterinary technician and an animal control agent, helped him create the website Daxton's Friends for Canine Education and Awareness, and eventually a nonprofit organization.

Borchardt, himself a dog owner, said his priority in both the group and website is providing education.

“It's having the information to allow families to choose breeds that work for them. Our goal is to teach people that you can love dogs, but to still be realistic about them, recognizing dangerous or negative behaviors, and understanding the needs of different breeds,” he said. “We want to help prevent future tragedies.”  

Soon after their son's death, Borchardt and his wife moved from their Darien home, where every day, they saw Dax's markings on the walls. They put all of their son's furniture, clothes and toys into a spare bedroom of their new house, but, unable to look at it, shut the door.

In the midst of their grief, they read online comments about themselves and their son by people—many of them pit bull owners—who trolled the site.

“It's kind of this big fight online, especially Facebook—that's the worst. I mean there are entire pages set up about me, about victims, “Borchardt said. “It was hurtful, and I am scared sometimes by the threats, but for me it was more of a motivator. The more I was bullied, the more I was harassed, the more I just want to keep fighting.”

But there are also supportive messages from people all over the world, and responses from those who say they'll research dog breeds before choosing a family pet.

“That's how I find the encouragement to keep going,” he said. “It's done so much for me, and it allows Dax's death to have a positive meaning by helping others.”

Helping others was also part of Jacey Power's decision to start a video blog or vlog, called “That Time I Had Cancer.”  Powers got a diagnosis of breast cancer in October of 2013, the same year her father, author John Powers, died.

Powers, who grew up in Lake Geneva, is an actress. She'd blogged a handful of times on her site, Nutella and Sprinkles, especially after her father died.

“It was much harder to deal with the loss of my dad than having cancer. Some days writing about him is therapeutic. Some days it just feels too real and overwhelming,” Powers said from her home in New York. “Cancer was a problem I could fix because of the stage and the kind of cancer I had. The reason I call my blog 'That Time I Had Cancer' is because from its inception it was my hope that in a few years, this would be a distant memory.”

While Powers had a family history of breast cancer—her mother had breast cancer three times—she knew it was unusual to get the disease as a young woman in her 20s. She discovered it was surprisingly complicated at her age to get a low-cost mammogram.

After telling friends about her struggles, they encouraged her to write about the experience. Comfortable in front of a camera, she decided to do the blog as a series of short films. She got a friend to direct and edit, and other actors she knew to appear in it—all while she was going through chemotherapy.

The vlogs are laced with both information—like resources for getting a mammogram—and a sense of humor.

“Some (episodes) I think are pretty funny and some are really dark,” said Powers, who is in her 15th month of remission. “But it's always been my goal for them to be funny but honest, and as informative as I feel capable of being. I mean, I'm not a doctor.”

She often got comments from caregivers or friends of those who were surprised or touched by what she talked about. “Which is great because part of what I hoped to achieve was for people on the outside to see what it's like from the inside,” she said.

Powers said making a diagnosis like this in a public forum means you're always identified with it. And she sometimes worries the vlog may affect her career if a prospective casting director passes her over because of it.

“That being said, I have no regrets about it,” she said. “I wanted to share my story in this way, and I think it's a story worth telling. Even if one person sees it and relates to it or learns something new, that's worth it right there.”   

Knabe agreed. “Without censoring, social media posts and videos can show powerful images and put a face to an illness or health issue. Organic posts can be particularly powerful with a story or journey that others can follow,” she said.
But she cautions bloggers to remember that posts are immediately shared with the world and erased with difficulty or sometimes not at all, leaving vulnerable people open to privacy invasion, scams, even predatory threats.

“Social media is an incredible tool, but users should be cautious before sharing too much personal information online,” she said. “…The very tool that may be helping someone cope can also make that person very vulnerable.”


Facebook's benefits and downsides

A little over four years ago while living in Virginia, Anna Courtier, now the science outreach coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, used Facebook to keep in touch with family members in Wisconsin and friends around the country when her husband, Tim, was diagnosed with brain cancer.

“I quickly found that it was logistically difficult and emotionally exhausting to try to keep everyone up to date by phone, and discovered the CaringBridge website,” Courtier wrote in an email.

Through a CaringBridge link she used on Facebook, she let people know what was happening. When she posted a painting she, her husband and their two small children made of a tree with their fingerprints as leaves, she was touched when dozens of people used it as their profile pictures on Facebook.

“I found Facebook to be the most emotionally supportive to me whenever we were in 'emergency mode'—whether it was an unexpected trip to the hospital, a scheduled surgery or while Tim was in hospice—and I could post short updates on Facebook…(T)here was almost always someone to comment on a post or to send an instant message at any time of day. It really helped to feel connected to people and not to feel alone,” she said.

But not all posts are kept on Facebook, which automatically switches to only “highlights,” Courtier said, which left some readers who couldn't see all the posts confused.

Even worse were the automatic reminders from Facebook on upcoming anniversaries and birthdays after Tim died last October. Facebook also made a slideshow for users at the end of the year of posts and photos with the most likes or comments—which in Courtier's case included her husband's obituary and hospice updates—entitled “What a great year it's been.”

“It was hard to be 'emotionally ambushed' by Facebook with things like this,” she said.

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