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Posted at 10:22 PM ET, 12/ 9/2010

Telling a mother's story through her Facebook status updates

By Ian Shapira

Several weeks ago, my wife Caroline and I were stuck inside Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting for a flight home, and, to burn some time, she logged onto Facebook. She tapped my arm and pointed at her screen. There on the comforting blue-and-white page was a very personal status update from one of Caroline’s colleagues at her office: “Shana Greatman Swers passed away Sunday, October 31, 2010 shortly before noon. She was surrounded by her loving family and friends. Information on services will follow.”

I took my wife’s laptop and clicked on Shana’s Facebook page, scrolling down to figure out why a 35-year-old consultant had passed away. She had just given birth, Caroline said. I clicked downward on Shana’s page and learned not only that she died from unusual pregnancy complications, but that she had been remarkably public about her ordeal.

Like many other people, she had posted announcements of her pregnancy and delivery, but she went on to issue status updates about being sent back to the emergency room and “random, horrible stabbing pains in my belly.” She had been posting these comments, apparently, from the hospital, using her iPhone. On top of that, her friends were responding to her in real time, dashing off comments underneath her status updates like “hang in there princess. better days are coming. i am sending you a big hug!!!!”

Shana’s Facebook page revealed a full-blown narrative, from pure joy to frightening entrapment and helplessness. As a reporter who has written a lot about the way we use Facebook, I was amazed.

I knew there was a story here. I felt even more inspired to write it after seeing a viral video on the tech site Gizmodo depicting the imagined narrative of one man’s life on Facebook, from the time the man was single through his adult life all the way to old age.

I figured we could do something similar about Shana, focusing instead on the brief and scary period that she endured beginning with her son’s delivery. Instead of writing a traditional story, my editor Marc Fisher and I decided to use Shana’s Facebook page to tell the story, weaving in reported annotations to guide the reader through the thicket of updates and friends' comments. Beyond showing readers the gripping dialogue between Shana and her friends, we thought such a story could capture and tell us something about the very modern way that we communicate these days.

Shana’s Facebook page does not answer all questions, of course. I interviewed many of her friends and family, and in my conversations with her mother and husband Jeff, one question lingered. His pain is so public, yet ultimately, as with all deaths, he must also find a way to cope alone, not only with the loss of his wife, but also with the birth of their son, Isaac.

“Shana wouldn’t have wanted me to throw the covers over my head," Jeff said. "She wouldn’t want me to hide from life. I gotta go on. I gotta work. I’ll be okay. It’s hard. I got Isaac.”

By Ian Shapira  | December 9, 2010; 10:22 PM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, More on the story, The inside story  
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Comments

This story is ridiculous and depressing. Somewhat depressing because of the tragic story, but mostly depressing because someone's facebook news feed (albiet with a few added comments by the reported) apparently makes a front page news story, complete with an additional self righteous article on how the article was created (by copying the subject's facebook page, duh), and a question and answer session.

Posted by: mustid | December 10, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

This story is quite powerful as you read Shana's own words as things are happening. I've never understood the allure of Facebook, I have an account but I rarely update or log on. But this story really shows effectively it connects people. I can tell she is a vibrant woman just from her words. You just never know what is coming around the corner. My heart goes out to her family.

Posted by: bookworm333 | December 10, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

This story is so sad and depressing...as someone who is about to give birth, this story makes me sad and nervous!

Posted by: ananyaprice | December 10, 2010 9:25 AM | Report abuse

I found the story very compelling and painfully familiar. My cousin's facebook page became the primary focus for information, well-wishes, questions, prayers, etc. when she underwent surgery, suffered complications, went into a coma, and died 3 weeks later. At first it was strange to have such a personal experience so public on facebook, but it quickly became a blessing to be able to hope, remember the good times, and grieve together with friends and family virtually.

I wish this article had provided more information about the rare post-delivery complication Shana suffered. How rare is it? what are the symptoms? What can be done to avoid it?

Posted by: jpostonday | December 10, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

This story is so tragic, there are just no words. I feel so much for this family. By limiting the story to Shana's perspective, you have properly captured the extreme sadness of joy being turned to brave face being turned to sadness for the family. But the emotional power of using Shana's perspective comes with the price of limiting the context of her story.

As a reader, I want to know more about Shana and what happened to her. I want to know the things that she may not have known herself, things a traditional story (which would be less of an emotional tribute, but more comprehensive) would give me. What were her doctors telling her about her condition? Were they giving her false hope? Was something missed during her pregnancy by her Ob/Gyn that could have prevented the heart damage? Were there signs she missed herself? Why couldn't she have received a donor heart? Were her doctors at fault in any way, or was her death unforeseeable?

Traditional stories give context and take myriad viewpoints and pull them together more cohesively. By limiting Shana's story to essentially her own voice (and that of friends and her family), you have chosen emotional power over giving a full picture. I wish there was more information in the framing device (both before and after the facebook page) that would complete the picture.

Posted by: hillmannic | December 10, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

i'd be interested in knowing how "public" her posts were before you took over your wife's facebook account to get her story.

Posted by: kiwispouse | December 12, 2010 2:25 AM | Report abuse

This story has been on my mind since the day it was published - and not in a good way. While I feel bad for Shana and her family, I think by telling her story using only her words has been an enormous disservice to both her and the medical community. Like the poster above said: by showing only Shana's side, you've spread some amount of fear about what was an unusual (and thus unlikely to occur) birth experience. I would have liked to hear what the doctors said about Shana's condition - why did it happen, and why to Shana? Was there anything she could have done to prevent it? Did she even know it was a possibility of her specific pregnancy? (And on a personal note, from someone who has adopted: what scared her so much about that process that she was willing to risk her life - assuming she knew her death might be an outcome - to have a child?)

I know there are some who found Shana's entries compelling and emotional. To me, however, who did not know Shana, and is not on Facebook, they were short, uninformative, and boring. I didn't know what was happening, and neither did I find myself starting to care.

There's three sides to the truth: your story, my story, and what actually happened. You only told one part of the story. I hate to say it, but that was lazy journalism at its finest. I'm highly disappointed in both your story and your editors for allowing it.

Posted by: azriona | December 14, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse

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