Telling a mother's story through her Facebook status updates
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.”
| December 9, 2010; 10:22 PM ET
Categories: How I got that story, More on the story, The inside story
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