When people ask about my holidays, I tell few people the truth. If they know me well, then they followed my time between Thanksgiving and the New Year on Facebook or through good old fashioned face-to-face communication and email.

It all started the day after Thanksgiving when I received one of those dreaded pre-dawn calls that could only be bad news. My sister, Barb, had been in a horrible automobile crash on Thanksgiving and had just gone through 12 hours of surgery to save her life. That news spread from the hospital to my niece to me to my mom and various siblings, our most inner circle. As updates came in, we used an old-school round-robin of calls to update each other and commiserate about prognosis, which was extremely critical. As always, my mom became news central.

Eventually, we each started posting on Facebook, imploring our friends and extended family to pray for my sister. We considered setting up a CarePage which centralizes updates and statuses of ill or injured people, but ultimately decided that our close friends and family were already on Facebook and it was easier to just post there. We didn’t have to set up a new page, and we could quickly post updates. And, Facebook spread the news virally in a way that we never could have achieved with just phones, email and CarePages.

We are a very close family, so it’s natural that we share many connections among our individual “friends lists.” One thing that was really interesting and touching were all of the people who took the time to post on each individual’s wall even though all of us were seeing each other’s feeds. The number of times that people shared and re-shared the news was incredible. My sister was remembered in many prayer circles or sent healing energy. Word also spread via other channels and soon we were hearing from multiple circles of our networks.

One week after the accident, my husband and I took my elderly parents from Chicago to Denver to visit my sister in ICU and give my niece some relief from her hospital vigil. At the time, Barb was still on a ventilator, had about 30 tubes and inputs in and out of her body and was hooked up to multiple monitors, and was still critical.

After a brief visit with her the first day, we went back to our hotel and made arrangements to meet the next morning and head back to the hospital to speak with her 10 specialists. But before the morning came, my dad peacefully passed away in his sleep (you can’t make this stuff up!). So in between paramedics, police and coroners, we started the process all over again of notifying our most inner circle of this traumatizing event.

Then, we once again posted on Facebook. Because our networks were already closely following for updates about Barb, the news of dad’s death spread rapidly across multiple network nodes.

As I think back on my family’s journey, we used a combination of new age social tools and archaic drum beats to communicate with and support each other through a difficult time. Social tools are a logical and inevitable addition to the vehicles we’ve used for millenniums to share news, gather the tribe and bring people together to honor and bury their dead. Today, we have online death notices and guest books, online tribute pages for making charitable contributions (in lieu of flowers) and social networking tools to share news, arrangements and memories. Videos, photo albums and wonderful stories are all shared easily and extensively.

The core of great online experiences is their path to better offline or real-world interactions. The great hope and promise is that what people learn online will increase the quality and the level of how we engage with family, friends and peers in the physical world. Ultimately, social tools should be humanizing instead of fostering isolation as some believe.

That was certainly our experience. The online drum beat led to old-school actions that really mattered to us. Online postings led to offers to pick up relatives from the airport, make food or help with my sister in Denver while we made arrangements for my dad in Chicago. Others reminded us that they lived very close to Mom and would be happy to run errands for her…weekly! Others offered to do various chores to give us time to grieve. Some people made a donation (online of course) in honor of Dad, and others took the time to send a handwritten note via snail mail, which is truly one of the best ways to be supported. We are in fact still getting sympathy cards from people I haven’t seen or heard from in years; they saw the news on the Facebook Pages of friends or friends of friends and reached out in personal and touching ways. And some people just stopped by to give us a hug.

As we heal, we take solace in the incredible power of both the online and offline communities that supported us. We know that Dad died the death of a saint with no pain. He was a fun, independent and productive man to the end who taught us great values and a love of life. And, all those prayer circles that included Barb must have worked. She got home from the hospital the week after Christmas. She still has a long healing process ahead, but should recover fully—helped of course by our tribe!

Kathy Baughman
Kathy Baughman

Kathy’s forte is enterprise content strategy, content marketing and thought leadership. Over the past 40 years, she has worked with both emerging brands and large enterprises in developing content and thought leadership strategies. She has written several research reports, white papers and has been a key contributor to Forbes Publish or Perish Report.