Opinion: Is Tweeting Our Family Tragedies the New Normal?

Filed under: Opinions


There is a little girl named Layla Grace who died yesterday. She had cancer, and I followed this 2-year-old's downward spiral from the time she was diagnosed with neuroblastoma 10 months ago.


Layla Grace was not my neighbor. She was not my child's nursery-school classmate nor the daughter of a friend. She was not a member of my church or even a resident of my community. I do not know Layla Grace -- or her parents -- but her passing weighs on my mind nonetheless.

I know Layla Grace through Twitter. The child's parents were tweeting and continue to tweet about their loss, and blog about it as well. Some say using social media to reach out to other moms and dads during times of tragedy is a way to connect us all, across the usual dividing lines of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and geography.

I used to think so, too.



In fact, I wrote a piece on the topic last year, after a California couple shared their grief at the passing of their 17-month-old daughter and Twitter mobilized around them. They had been raising money for the March of Dimes at the time of the child's death -- she was born 11 weeks premature -- and by the time #Maddie was trending, which is the way you find a topic on Twitter, they raised more than $100,000 through donations from, literally, virtual strangers.
At the time, I called Twitter the modern version of a back porch, where friends and community members gathered with casseroles and comfort when tragedy struck. I believed that then, and in Maddie's case, it is still an accurate metaphor.

Now I wonder just how much tragedy we can absorb before we are immune to it. Layla Grace's journey to death, and her parents' overwhelming grief, is almost unreal. It feels like a play, or a TV movie of the week. My fear is that we will cross the line from compassion to consumption.



Layla Grace's dire condition attracted the attention of celebrities like Ryan Seacrest, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, all of whom helped the 2-year-old's mom in her effort to raise awareness of the child's condition -- stage four neuroblastoma, a cancer that is common in infancy and childhood. Their involvement in the story made it ever more surreal, and more and more like the plight of a fictional character.

I fear we are in danger of grief and loss becoming so abstract that it seems more like entertainment than tragedy. While there's no doubt that most people who reach out to families in need are genuine in their empathy and compassion, there is another side to that coin. In a sickening way, it feels almost trendy to glom on to what were once the intimate moments of tragedy borne only by families and their closest friends.That is one trend I will let pass me by.

I can't judge the parents of these children for needing to share their sadness. I cannot and will not pretend to understand the heart and mind of someone whose child has died or is dying. That is not my right.



Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe tweeting our family tragedies is the new normal, the Web 2.0 version of gathering around those who are suffering. What I do know is that I need to turn away from the screen when I see this kind of pain and agony scrolling by. Not because my heart is hardened, but because I fear it may become so.

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