Grieving and the World Wide Web

I was contracted to write this article for an online fitness and wellness journal.

Grieving and the World Wide Web

You may not have heard of Liam Inglis, but thousands of people around the world know of him.

Baby Liam lived but six weeks on this earth; and spent that short time in the neonatal unit of a Halifax hospital. People know his story because his mother told it through her blog. In so doing, Kate Inglis molded a group of total strangers into a family knit together by grief and the desire to walk with her through the shadowed valley of her son’s death.

Kate began her blog in 2004 when she was expecting her first child, Evan. It was a time of intense changes for her, and she found that writing helped make sense of the helter-skelter of emotions she was feeling at the time. “It put corners around what I was feeling,” she says in her colourful style.

The young mother’s eloquent blog would probably have remained a place to sort out her feelings and a chronicle of day to day family life if it weren’t for the premature birth of Liam and his twin brother, Ben. The boys arrived 12 weeks shy of full-term and in an exceptionally fragile state of health. As Kate “put corners” around her new reality by writing from the neonatal ward of Halifax’s IWK Health Centre, her blog catapulted from a journal read mostly by family and friends to a living drama tuned into daily by thousands of people. The readers were not only parents who had undergone the heartbreak of miscarriage and the daily crises of the neonatal ward themselves, but people, strangers to Kate and each other, who had no obvious connection except reading Kate’s moving story. At the time of baby Liam’s passing, 5,000 people were checking the blog daily, and many wrote his mother that they wept when they read Kate’s words at the death of her son:

“When it was all over, when he was gone, he said to me, ‘Look mama. Can you see? I’m better now. This sick little boy lying on your lap, this poor boy, he’s not me. Not anymore. Look and see.”

We are bombarded daily with stories of the darker side of the Internet; the peddlers of porn now able to reach your twelve-year-old through a simple mouse click, the thousands of websites dedicated to covering the latest meltdown of young celebrities caught in the glare of the paparazzi cameras. Kate’s story is but one example of the good side of this technology; it can provide a channel for people to express their grief and to be supported through the mourning process.

At first glance, Elizabeth Edwards would seem to have no relationship to Kate Inglis. Ms. Edwards has made her mark on the North American consciousness as a lawyer and the wife of US Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards, who is battling breast cancer that has metastisized to her bones. However, Elizabeth, like Kate, has weathered the worst experience a mother can go through; the death of a child. When the Edwards’ 16-year-old son was killed in a tragic car accident, Elizabeth also found the Internet a source of support and healing:

“What’s great about an online community is that it’s there 24 hours a day. Somewhere in the world there is a person at the keyboard. And if you’re grieving, that’s really important. I could say the rawest things to this group because they were all going through it. Things I couldn’t say to my friends,” she says.

Kate Inglis lives in a small town in Nova Scotia; far removed from the media glare and intensity of the American presidential race that is Elizabeth Edwards’ daily reality. However, there are human experiences that transcend distance, and location, and social status. One of those is the grief of a parent who watches a child die.

Wakeful and watching over her desperately ill and intubated sons in the isolation of an intensive care unit, where only the nursing shift change alerts you to daylight or dark, Kate found an outlet for her grief. She would blog about her reality at three in the morning; or five in the afternoon. And, like Elizabeth Edwards, she always found, somewhere in the world, a person at the keyboard.

“Within 15 minute of posting, I would receive five or six comments. They [readers who commented] did me a service. They helped just by being there. It’s a strange kind of wonderful kinship,” Kate says.

She also found, as Elizabeth Edwards did, that blogging allowed her to express the raw emotions of her experience without having to tailor her expression to protect the feelings of family members.

“There were nights when I just needed to swim in it. I needed to be angry and filled with despair,” she explains.

Kate has never been naive about the numbers of online surfers who have clicked onto her blog. The fact that her hits have dropped from several thousand just prior to Liam’s death to a few hundred does not surprise her.

“The numbers came from the ‘trauma porn.’ The sensation that you are the car accident that everyone looks at,” she says.

However, a significant portion of the on-line community of strangers that gathered to witness the brief life of Liam Inglis stood by his mother in her grief when he died.

These people continue to buoy her spirits as she works through her grief at Liam’s death and her new challenges as mother to three-year-old Evan and Ben, Liam’s twin, whose premature birth means that his developmental milestones will be delayed and his progress somewhat uncertain.

“It’s not just the number of the responses, but the quality of responses,” Kate says. “I wish they were all my friends.”

“As strange and intrusive as it feels typing from thousands of miles away to a family I’ve never met, I must express my sorrow but at the same time, my hope for the future,” writes one.

Another says:

“Liam found his way into the hearts of so many around the world through his beauty, his determination and his strength (which must have come from his mama). He won’t be forgotten in a hurry.”

No-one would choose the path that Kate Inglis has walked, but some would say the best place for this kind of situation to happen would be small-town Nova Scotia, where one is surrounded by family and friends. Kate has this support, but surprisingly, like Elizabeth Edwards, she has found a technology characterized by some as soulless and antisocial became a lifeline in her grief.

“It gave me faith in humanity. The death of Liam is the most spiritual experience I have ever been through,” she says, simply.

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