Twitter Offers Grieving Parents Solace and Solidarity

Filed under: In The News

Madeline Alice Spohr
Research asserting that social-media platforms erode our moral values was roundly proven wrong last week, after thousands of Twitter members rallied around two mothers whose children unexpectedly passed away.

Heather Spohr of Los Angeles and Shana Myers of Edmon, Okla. are bloggers and frequent Twitter users, and when the terrible news about their children became public, their readers and followers reacted instantly and with enormous generosity of spirit and wallet.

Spohr, 29, chronicled her challenging pregnancy and the life of her daughter, Madeline Alice, who was born 11 weeks premature, on her blog, "The Spohrs Are Multiplying." Twitter, a natural extension of blogging, became a place where Spohr could interact with women she calls her "mommy co-workers."

Many of Spohr's followers knew 17-month-old Madeline was in the hospital, being treated for respiratory problems exacerbated by the prematurity of her lungs, because she tweeted about the experience in real time -- and then she posted notice of Maddie's passing.

Immediately, Spohr's Twitter followers mobilized, led by her friend and fellow blogger Meghan Gesswein of Santa Barbara, Calif. Suddenly, Tweets about Madeline's passing were flowing fast and furious in the Twitter stream, marked with the label (known to Twitterers as a hashtag) #Maddie, which allowed users to track and follow all the information regarding the Spohrs' ordeal. Many of the tweets urged users to donate to Spohr's March of Dimes fundraising efforts.

For several days, the hashtag #Maddie was the no. 1 trending topic on Twitter, an indication of just how many people were sending messages about the radiant little girl with the impish face and irresistible smile. A hashtag for Myers' son, Thalon Bruce, who was just 3 months old, followed close behind in search rankings.

"I have been truly shocked at how people have responded to Maddie," says Spohr. "I remember thinking in some of the moments after she passed that no one would ever really know or care or remember my daughter, and I just couldn't bear that she wouldn't be remembered. And now, I know she will be."

Megan Callhoun, the founder of TwitterMoms, an online community for moms who Twitter, says that people who use the site feel a real connection to one another: "Community is a basic human need that we all share. We find comfort in the support of those around us, especially in emotionally challenging times. The technology is just a tool. It just gives us the ability to maintain a large number of surprisingly meaningful, authentic connections."

Callhoun just may be right -- in Maddie's case, the sincerity of the Twitter community can be quantified. Prior to Maddie's death, Spohr's March of Dimes fundraising efforts had netted her $2,500. Today, donations in the toddler's name equal $29,738 and counting, and hundreds of people across the nation plan to participate in the annual March for Babies sporting T-shirts emblazoned with Maddie's image.

Tanis Miller is a mom from Alberta, Canada who connected with the Spohrs through her popular mommy blog, Attack of The Redneck Mommy. She flew to Los Angeles last week to be with the Spohrs during Maddie's funeral services. Miller, 33, knows all too well the pain of a grieving parent. She lost her son, Shale, on Oct. 21, 2005, when he was just shy of 4 years old.

"Back then I didn't even own a computer," says Miller. "If you asked me what a blog was, I'd likely would have answered something about clogging a toilet."

But blog she did, after buying a computer and searching for online resources to help her cope with her grief. She started writing, and people started reading. Soon, however, she abandoned her first blog, "Missing My Bug," when she became "too overwhelmed with sadness to continue."

Miller started writing again, and the second time found a community of friends who helped her focus on living her life without her son. But, says Miller, she doesn't think she could have handled the attention that the Spohrs and the Myers' are attracting.

"While I am amazed and awed at the outpouring of love and financial support shown for sweet Maddie and her parents, I believe if I was on Twitter when my own son had passed away, I would have likely stepped away from it and never looked back," she says. "The death of my child was such an intensely personal and private part of my life. I don't think I would have been able to as freely share the experience as the Spohrs have done."

Spohr and her husband, Mike, feel quite the opposite. They find solace in the constant stream of conversation about their beloved daughter. "Twitter has been a refuge for me," says Spohr. "Watching the #Maddie stream, and just regular old tweets, has been a way to escape, or find comfort when I need it. And I do feel so comforted."

Twitter isn't the only way the online community is reaching out to Spohr and Myers. Several sites started funds for the families, and others have organized help in the form of meals, transportation and other small favors.

Spohr says she and Mike have read every blog post, comment and tweet about Maddie, as have their extended family members. "It has been so therapeutic for them," she adds.

Callhoun says she aches for these parents, but that she is uplifted by the huge, organic outpouring of love. "Reaching out in times of need feels completely natural to me, regardless of the means," she says. "What's amazing is to witness how 'the network' responds. Our connections give us solace and hope, even in the most tragic of circumstances."

The world we live in is vastly different even from the one in which adults of my generation were raised. Just a few short years ago, the response to two grieving mothers would have been limited to the immediate circle of their friends and family, or maybe their neighbors.

And now, to live in a world that allows thousands of parents to imagine themselves in these mothers' shoes, and then to knock on their virtual doors with casseroles and comfort? To me, that only proves that the world is still a loving place, and that one person's story is also the story of our collective humanity.

The entire ParentDish staff wishes to express our deepest and most heartfelt condolences for the Spohrs and the Myers. To learn more about how you can help, please visit Maddie's March for Babies page and the Love for Thalon page at Whoorl.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.