To Live and Die in a Socially Networked World

Social Networks have not only changed the way we interact in our daily lives, but have made a profound impact on how we deal with illness, death and grieving

NOTICE: This post is not about open source. It is very much about community though. It is about how social networking fosters a sense of community when we need it perhaps the most. It deals with some real life experiences I have recently been through and how social networking has played a significant role. This is a bit of a cross-post from my own ashimmy blog. I apologize in advance for it being off topic and will return to the usual open source theme tomorrow.

I got some bad news last night. A former co-worker and friend of mine, Ernie Ferraro passed away yesterday. Ernie and I worked together at Interliant. He was assistant general counsel, I was VP of business development. We did lots of deals together.

Besides working together, Ernie and I had a good time and were friends. He was a true gentlemen. His first child, Olivia was born the same day as my oldest son Landon. They are both 10 years old now. We got them together a few times before I moved the family to Florida.

I stayed in touch with Ernie over the years. Mostly on Linked In or Facebook, not really seeing each other in person as much. He was always threatening to stop by when the family was in Florida, I saying next trip to NY, lets get together.

How many of you have been carrying on relationships like that with friends and colleagues? You may not call them on the phone or even email them, but seeing an update from them on a regular basis makes you feel like the connection is still strong. An occasional chat on line and you are caught up.

I just chatted with Ernie last week on Facebook. He said that he had no power in his house for days due to the weather. I told him to get away and come down here. He said that his parents were in Florida and so he and the family were staying at their house in NY. I said OK, but lets get together soon.

It seems Ernie came down with bacterial meningitis just a few days after we chatted and slipped into a coma this weekend. Yesterday the decision was made to remove him from life support.

I found out about Ernie’s plight while chatting with another former colleague of ours on Facebook. I was devastated by the news. I went over to Ernie’s Facebook page, numb and in shock. There was such an outpouring of love on his page. Literally hundreds of people had left heartfelt messages. Each in their own way conveying their sympathy, support and love. I felt part of a community.

I left my own message to Ernie and his family. I read with tear filled eyes the message from his daughter Olivia to her daddy about not being sad about missing so many of her life accomplishments to come. Of course I couldn’t help but think of my own children and how much I want to see them accomplish and do. It both broke my heart and gave me strength to go on.

Moving beyond that, what a profound difference social networking has made in our day to day lives. Not just in living our lives, but in death as well. It is changing the way we grieve, how we express our grief and how we share our sorrow.

I thought back to just over a month ago. My good friend and fellow NetworkWorld blogger, Mitchell Ashley was sitting bedside at a hospice in Colorado, as his wife Mary Ellen fought her final battle in a years long war with breast cancer.

I didn’t want to pester Mitchell for updates minute by minute. But Mitchell was brave enough to post a constant stream of updates on Facebook of what was going on, how Mary Ellen was doing, what he was feeling.

Though I was 1700 miles away, I felt like I was there with Mitchell. Not just myself either. From the posts and messages I know that many near and far to Mitchell were following his updates and sending good thoughts and prayers his way. I again felt like I was part of a community who was both supporting Mitchell and sharing in the trauma. There was a giving of support and a partaking in the moment.

In speaking to Mitchell I know that it was a cathartic experience for him to share in that way. After Mary Ellen passed away, Mitchell posted several poems and other thoughts about how he was feeling and dealing with the grieving process. It was a great outlet for him. Many of his friends and family post and comment on the page as well.

It is a great outlet and way to share for all of us. In death, maybe more than in life, I guess humans need to share. Social networking presents us with a new way of sharing. It makes you feel connected no matter the physical distance. It gives us strength. It also gives us unprecedented insight into what others are feeling and saying as well. It truly connects us.

I think that grief counselors, psychologists and mental health professionals should start using social networking as a way of helping those in need. It can be a great force for good at the worst of times.

So for those who say Twitter, Facebook and the like are for people who feel compelled to tell everyone every move they make and they don’t care what plant you harvested or what plane you just got on, you are missing the point. Social networking is about socializing. It has changed our lives already in so many ways. From the cradle to the grave and beyond, nothing is the same. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.

To my friends Ernie and Mary Ellen, rest in peace with God. Those of us left here on this earth will miss your smiles, warmth and sharing with you.

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