This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.
In the span of one week, here is what the children in my small town have had to cope with:
• A high school senior named Mitch had a kayaking accident on Lake Michigan. He was last seen by the Coast Guard when his kayak capsized in high waves and he slipped from his life jacket and under the water. Searchers still have not found him a week later.
• A junior high girl named Kelsey was struck by a truck while walking home with two of her classmates and seriously injured. She is currently recovering because of what can be described only as a miracle. Sadly, she was struck by a teenaged driver who was driving without a license.
• A high school senior named Allison passed away after experiencing previously undetected heart problems.
The small community where I live knows all of these kids and they are tied together in a criss-cross of friendships. Personally, I can tell you that my daughter knows all of the children mentioned above and it has been torturous watching her deal with these tragedies at the tender age of seventeen while trying to contain my own wellspring of emotion. However, it has not been lost on me how the teens in this community deal with their grief; it is like nothing I have ever seen, and I’m not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing.
The first thing I observed, and it is actually the underpinning of all that these kids have done to deal with their grief, is the use of social networking as a coping and communication mechanism. In all three tragedies, the news was spread and received via Twitter and Facebook. Never once did my daughter receive a phone call about what had happened to her peers. All information was disseminated via Twitter; in fact, the kids developed their own hash tags to express their feelings and make it easy to share information (#prayforfajman, #prayforlittle, and #prayforallison). They clearly found comfort in expressing themselves via this format and asking the questions they know no one can answer – why is this happening? how can I go on? what can we do for each other to help each other feel better? Amazingly, all the kids were careful to put information out that was as close to verified as possible. No one wanted to be accused of starting rumors. This was a surprise to me; I figured that rumors would run rampant. Apparently when they are all talking at once via Twitter instead of in person or over the phone, the information presents itself much more clearly, something I never would have thought possible.
The next thing I noticed was how quickly the kids mobilized themselves to do things in honor of their classmates. Mitch had his kayaking accident on a Saturday; Kelsey had her car accident on Sunday. On Sunday night, the high school students attended a candlelight vigil at their school for Mitch. On Monday, the kids at both schools were wearing particular colors to honor their friends, one missing, one seriously hurt. The wearing of different colors for Mitch and Kelsey continued all week. All the information for these symbolic salutes was shared through Twitter and groups on Facebook. These tributes were an amazing unifying force; it didn’t matter if you knew Mitch or Kelsey personally; it didn’t matter if you were friends with Mitch or Kelsey. All the kids banded together simply because he and she were one of their own.
In a way, I have been grateful for this support system simply because I have been trying to deal with my own emotions through these ordeals. Empathy is powerful stuff, and I have been full of it. I can’t seem to keep my mind from imagining what the parents of these teens must be feeling and it is impacting me deeply. And I have the luxury of knowing my feelings are imagined; the parents I am empathizing with don’t have that luxury. Their emotions are horribly real and so much more intense than mine, and their emotions won’t go away for a long, long time, if ever. I have tried so hard to be strong for my own child for those moments when she needs me. They have not been frequent, though, which I partially expected. I know that at the age of seventeen, she prefers the company of her peers over her parents, but I wasn’t prepared for her to have such a large support system in place through social networking.
One thing I am watching for, though, is the potential for that system not to serve her needs like she wants. While I think it is amazing the way the kids have used social networking to bond and communicate, I fear there may come a day when my daughter and many of these other kids are going to need some guidance and comfort from someone personally. I fear the emotions will become so overwhelming one day that the teens won’t know where to turn for help – the counselors at the school will be gone, the memorial services will be over, the hash tags will not be trending anymore, the posts to the Facebook groups will slow down, but moments will arise where the feelings of sadness and grief break through. Who will help the kids when this happens? I believe I need to let my child use the systems set in place now, but I will keep my guard up for a while, just in case she suddenly has to face reality without the network. At the very least, I am sure it will be needed come May when the class of 2012 graduates without Allison and without Mitch.
If you are interested in reading more about these stories, here are some links:
Coast Guard briefing about Mitch’s kayaking accident
Chicago Tribune update on the search for Mitch
The Patch article about Kelsey’s accident
Student support for Kelsey
Facebook page for Mitch
Facebook page for Allison
Herald News story about Allison