Social Media Can Offer Families Coping With Tragedy Unlimited Support

8:20 AM, Mar 12, 2013   |    comments
Lauren Nevil got to go outside the hospital for a group bowling trip Feb. 28, an update that her father shared on Facebook, with comments in her voice. (image provided to the Tennessean)
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By Maura Ammenheuser, The Tennessean

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Nevil family has 203,000 friends. And it cherishes support from all of them.

On Nov. 16, Steve and Katy Nevil, daughter Lauren, 12, and son Will, 9, left their home in Franklin, Tenn., to visit family in their native Texas for Thanksgiving. The trip came to a violent end when another  vehicle, with a suspected impaired driver, struck their SUV, forcing it into a line of trees.

Katy Nevil, 38, was killed in the crash. Lauren was severely injured, suffering brain trauma, a collapsed lung, a broken leg and ribs, and four lost toes. Steve and Will suffered minor injuries. The driver accused of causing the wreck, John David Coe Jr., is in an Arkansas county jail facing six charges.

Today, Lauren's healing in a Fort Worth, Texas, hospital. The family has relocated to Texas where Steve Nevil meticulously monitors her care.  He dedicates a Facebook page to Lauren's progress.

"It was my way of communicating with friends and family," Nevil said.

Then the page took off. By Monday afternoon, it had 203,279 followers.

The Nevils' story proves the phenomenal power of Facebook to deliver comfort to people coping with tragedy.

"My objective since my first post was to put the reader literally as close 'in' her hospital room as possible without of course being there physically," Nevil wrote. "Some people question at times why I share so much personal information relating to Lauren, Will, photos and videos, but it is simply to try to get you in that room and feel those prayers you are providing."

When Nevil posts, tens of thousands of people "like" his update; more than 2,000 might leave comments. They offer prayers and good wishes, saying the Nevils inspire them. A U.K. newspaper wrote about the family. ("I have no idea how that happened," Nevil said.) Lauren receives cards and gifts daily, everything from blankets to homeopathic nausea treatments, much of it from people she's never met.

The page has become a conduit for a massive outpouring of good will, and Nevil is grateful.

"It does make me feel good that people are praying instantly and thinking of us," he said.

A catalyst to connection

Perhaps it's not surprising that tragic stories grab our attention. People are hardwired with "fundamental human empathy," said Brian Loew, CEO of Inspire, which hosts hundreds of online groups for 300,000 patients and caregivers.

"Social media amplifies fundamental things that have existed forever," Loew said. "Hundreds of years ago, people would gather in a community" after a loss. "Fifty years ago, they might write letters. ... Social media is simply a catalyst that's lowered the barriers to connect with each other."

Inspire's groups let members vent, ponder practical problems and compare notes about treatment. People forge strong bonds there.

"The depth of connection is profound, and members reference 'losing their virtual sister' or 'virtual brother' to a disease," Loew said.

Similarly, CaringBridge.org allows people with health crises to create websites. The nonprofit has hosted 400,000 pages, with 46 million visitors, said CEO Sona Mehring.

"There's power in bringing a community together," she said. Ninety percent of CaringBridge users say responses to their pages help them heal, Mehring said.

Amplified love

The Bouges is another family who experienced a horror, and a Facebook response, similar to that of the Nevils.

In January, a head-on car accident killed Megan Bouge's mother and 3-year-old daughter, Wyncie; leaving Bouge and her newborn son, Emmett, with serious injuries. Bouge remains hospitalized, recovering from a daunting list of broken bones: both legs, an arm, a wrist, her pelvis and back. She hopes to go home next month.

Bouge's friends launched a Facebook page detailing her recovery. By Monday it had more than 22,400 followers.

"It's just blown up. It's amazing," said Kelley Anderson, Bouge's friend and co-worker, who said Bouge wasn't up to media interviews. "It's absolutely not what we expected. It's been overwhelming to Megan."

Some people send especially touching private messages through the page, Anderson added.

It's easy to see why friends and relatives track Lauren's progress, or Bouge's. But why do strangers feel compelled to follow these Facebook pages?

"The human capacity to care is great," Mehring said. People want to help. Witness the global response to tragedies such as Sept. 11, the Asian tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, she said.

Social media make it easier to connect, whether to donate or simply offer a prayer. Facebook and websites are "really amplifying the love in the community," Mehring said.

Every prayer helps

Love can't hurt, and in Lauren's case, maybe it's helping.

On Feb. 27, she was allowed her first outing from the hospital; the staff took some kids bowling.

Nevil posted, in Lauren's voice: "I'm not able to stand up on my own (yet) to bowl, but I used one of those rail things to launch the ball down the alley. We used to go bowling as a family about 4-5 times a year, so it was GREAT."

Nevil makes a point of noticing, publicly, lots of little positive things. He recently remarked on an exchange between Lauren and her brother, when they sat in her hospital room making silly animal noises at each other.

"It is so nice to see the love they share for each other," Nevil wrote. "... It certainly has increased since the accident, and I just love it! A good belly laugh and fun with your brother has got to be great therapy for the brain, right?"

Nevil hopes Lauren is home by Easter, but doctors won't promise that. The ultimate goal, as Nevil puts it, is "FRMFT: Full recovery minus four toes."

"The love and support we've been showered with is what helped us get through this," Nevil said.

Marveling one day at the tender attention from strangers, Nevil recalled Lauren's reaction: "The more praying the better. Right, Dad?"

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