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When A Child Dies, Facebook Becomes Faithbook

photo-of-gavin-leong-I watched my friend’s child die on Facebook this weekend, as did thousands and thousands of other people.

Gavin had cerebral palsy; my son does too, and Kate and I had bonded online. Last Wednesday, Gavin had a seizure followed by three episodes of cardiac arrest. On Friday, doctors told Kate and her husband that Gavin’s brain was dead. They stayed by his side all weekend; he was officially pronounced dead last night.

Kate wrote a few posts on her blog about what was happening and shared regular updates on Facebook, of the most heartbreaking kind:

On Friday, Gavin’s little brother Brian came to the hospital; Kate posted a photo of the paint handprints they made and one of Brian kissing his brother goodbye. Brian knew, Kate said, that Gavin was going to “Heaven’s House.”

Yesterday, Kate posted a photo of her holding Gavin in her arms one last time. Then she shared one of Ed holding Gavin. Last night she spoke of bathing her little boy for the final time.

For days now, like many others, I have been weepy and thinking of little else but Kate and Gavin. My one consolation: Knowing that the love pouring in from Facebook was a comfort to her. Because that’s exactly what happened after Kate’s shocking Facebook update on Wednesday:

for-Gavin-LeongIn an instant, people were posting the most heartfelt prayers, messages of hope and strength on Facebook—both those of us who knew Kate and Gavin before this happened and countless others who had only just heard about what was going on.

“Please know that prayers from people you’ll never meet, in states around the country (and probably countries around the world) are lifting up your family and begging God to keep Gavin here with you and use his healing testimony for great things.”

“He learned his awesomeness from his mom and dad. My heart breaks for you. You amaze me with your strength and faith. May God carry you through this.”

“Your strength is so different than anything I’ve ever witnessed. All that you’ve been through, yet your faith is so strong. I pray for you and your family and pray that your faith may not once again be broken, but healed by the Grace of God.”

“Gavin was blessed to have such a wonderful, caring family.”

“I, too, have only known about your family’s story for a few days, but I have been so touched by your honesty, grace, love and determination. I have shed tears for you and have been inspired to be an even better mom, because of you. You are a shining example to all moms, to all people. Blessings and prayers for all of you from Minnesota.”

And on Sunday, when Kate posted that she might collapse and asked for prayers to make it through the day:

“No one should have to do what you’re doing. And collapsing would be perfectly understandable. But if you do, you’ll pick yourself up—and all of us out here will collectively help you do so with our prayers.”

And this morning, when Kate posted that Gavin’s liver would be donated to a three-year-old in Texas, a mom shared this:

“Our family is whole today because of a liver transplant on Feb 1, 2012. Gavin is giving the gift of birthdays, smiles, more time. From all families that have ever received this gift, thank you. I am so very sorry for your loss, astounded by your bravery and faith, and truly inspired by your sweet son. Thank you for sharing his story and blessing so many of us.”

Recently, Facebook has gotten flack for being “Fakebook” where moms post overly perfect updates about their overly perfect lives. Last week, a writer wrote a lengthy post about the “degeneration” of Facebook, a place where users have developed a “distinct lack of personality” and everyone’s “coming out with the same old stuff.” Last year, The Atlantic ran an article questioning whether Facebook and other social media is making us more lonely

But these past days have been a testament to the power of online community—and the comfort it has given to a mother going through a living hell. “I am so grateful for the outpouring of prayers, love and support,” Kate wrote on her blog.

Those of us who have kids with special needs know just what a lifeline Facebook can be. Some of our children are medically fragile, and whenever a child is ailing, hospitalized or undergoing an operation, we are there for each other, sharing messages of hope. When one of our kids does something awesome—taking a first step that doctors said might never happen, speaking a first word after years of speech therapy—we are there to cheer each other on, too, with “YOU GO!” and wishes that Facebook had a “love” button.

The Facebook flow of support for Kate this weekend was unlike anything I’d ever seen online, a community bonded in prayer and encouragement. What Kate gave back in return was remarkable as well: A mourning mother showing astounding grace, inspiring many of us to be better mothers and people, too.

On Sunday, Kate’s birthday, she asked that people participate in a special project of doing something to help someone and sharing it on her Facebook page and gave suggestions. She hoped, she said, that others would “get inspired by the outpouring of love.” My kids and I gave to a Donors Choose project; a teacher in a special needs classroom needed funding for communication devices. Someone else gave to a children’s cancer foundation, some reached out to people in their community in need. Another mom donated to a program that hands out backpacks with food to kids whose families don’t have money for good meals. A mom took the opportunity to discuss organ donation with her children and why she and her husband felt it was important to do. A woman in an area devastated by a hurricane donated batteries for hearing aides and superhero underwear in honor of Kate’s little superhero.

There was nothing virtual about any of this. Real good was done. Kate found real solace during the worst time of her life. Facebook had become Faithbook.

And sweet Gavin: He may be gone, but his legacy will live on, perpetuated by the people he touched—and immortalized in so many posts, updates and “likes.”

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