How Social Media Helped Me Cope When My Family Faced Tragedy and Loss

Life is unfair, but things like terminal cancer should remind you of the positive reasons to live.
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Life is unfair, but things like terminal cancer should remind you of the positive reasons to live.

A couple of months after my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, my cousin suggested I start a blog. She told me that capturing a little something every step of my strange and new journey, even if no one ever saw it, could be a way to help come to terms with a totally baffling change. So three years ago, I created my blog, asconeatatime.com, and its companion Instagram, and began chronicling life as an 18-year-old starting university knowing her mum was about to die. 

I grew up near Cambridge in the UK. The winter of my final year at secondary school, Mum had been growing visibly ill: paler, thinner and weaker. She tried to hide it, but I would hear her sitting on the stairs outside my room, unable to make it all the way up in one go. Diagnosis after diagnosis, it was settled that she had an under-active thyroid. I focused on my exams without much further thought.

Everyone knew before I did. I was in the USA traveling by myself before my job at summer camp started in Maine. I was completely in the dark until my great aunt turned up one day with the news that, in fact, Mum had cancer. She was going to die. 

I ended my summer early and returned home to the most terrible waiting game. My brother returned to school after the summer, and my dad continued working full time as long as possible. For me, being left at home with a dying mother was beyond bleak.

People often focus on the death—not the dying—of terminal cancer patients. But the way cancer gradually stole my mother, physically and mentally, was the most devastating thing about her illness. It became clear to me that the only way to cope would be to focus on the good bits of each day. I needed a project to distract me from the increasing sense of finality in the way our days were playing out. We had a wonderful network of supportive family and friends, but ultimately I felt guilty being away from home for college, and simultaneously unhappy when I was there.

My position can be a hugely frustrating. You’re not the one dying, but you can feel every ounce of their pain. It’s also a very strange start to the grieving process: a kind of pre-bereavement that, on the one hand, prepares you for death, but on the other, caused me two traumatic years of watching my mother’s wit, wisdom, and wonder fade. There’s no real solution—it is everyone’s nightmare.

Mum’s new cancer diet basically cut all sugar. So on the way back from chemotherapy in the first few months, we would stop at a farm shop café and share tea and scones, which have very little sugar in them. This continued throughout her illness, with ambles into the local cafes, until Mum was no longer able to walk. In my boredom, stuck at home, I would bake batch after batch of scones and other goods, to feed the hungry stream of Mum’s friends. The blog's name arose from here, as life became about hopping from one scone to the next, with fairly interminable dreariness in between.

If you look up "cancer" on social media, or even "terminal cancer" (it’s pretty gloomy, I don’t recommend it) there’s not a lot that appeals to a young person with a dying mum. There’s plenty of talk on how to beat it, survivor stories, and happy stuff. Conversely, there are also some pretty tragic accounts. 

Thus, the whole idea behind using social media became to show that yes, life is unfair, but things like terminal cancer should remind you of the positive reasons to live. I just feel like there's so much overly-dramatic and dismal stuff out there about cancer already. My Instagram helped me look for the good in a world that was losing my mother and helped me navigate, later, a new life without her. I looked to other, wonderfully beautiful accounts for inspiration on how to create: @jo_rodgers' pictures of London, @littlelottieloves' simple still life images, @louiseeaton's beautiful buildings and places, and @musingsofemma's chronicles of her time at university. Suddenly, I was connected to a virtual world that was brimming with life, even though, downstairs, Mum sat dying.

In their book Coping With Loss, a leading research psychologist, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, and Judith M. Larson, an experienced therapist who specializes in bereavement education and intervention, describe the many ways in which people cope with the passing of someone they love. My way of coping through social media is one of six types of emotion-focused coping called reappraisal. They write, "Reappraisal involves thinking through one's loss, trying to find understanding and something positive in the experience." Research has found that those who engaged in reappraisal coping were less depressed, better able to make sense of their loss, and were more able to adapt to stressful life events.

As days, weeks and months passed, I’d post about small pleasures—particularly since a family dinner or a day trip suddenly meant so much more. Terminal cancer involves a lot of waiting—for hours at chemotherapy, for test results, for Mum to make it up the stairs. In the first months of chemo and waiting rooms, my posts reflected this stagnancy.

When I felt I needed an outlet to write, my blog was there and, occasionally, I would write a longer account:

Growing up isn’t just about the change when the things you desire above everything else go from the tangible to the intangible. It’s about your own conscious realisation of this: that the things you want more than anything else in the world are simply not obtainable, achievable. That tangible and material things do not equal happiness. All I want for Christmas is for my mum to be better. This can’t happen, but at least there’ll always be cake.

Since Mum passed away in April, 2015, ‘a scone at a time’ has become my way of learning to navigate life without her. It turns out that finding peace in chaos has been about all the little things—wonders, scones, thoughts, and coffee cups—and making the most of the everyday. Amongst some very sad bits, there were also many more incredible and wonderful ones.

Channelling my feelings of sadness and stagnation into these social media projects gave me something positive and productive to focus on. There’s truth in that phrase "take things a step at a time"—the biggest and most terrible challenges can be conquered if you just look for the little bits of good in unexpected places, and take things one scone at a time.

Photo Credit: Nirav Patel