How to find support online during life’s big passages (for Oprah.com)

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“Thinking of you lots,” I wrote on my old friend’s Facebook wall after a couple of years had gone by without a chance to reconnect. My timing was perfect, she replied. “We’re going tomorrow to meet our new son! He’s 10 months old and has been living with a foster family. I could really use some mothering advice from you!”

I responded with hearty congratulations and my best stab at useful advice. Over the next few months, we resumed the kind of regular back-and-forth, intimate exchanges that had characterized our college friendship and the years after school when we both lived in Boston. It had been a decade since we’d lived in the same city, but online conversation allowed us to reconnect through the shared experience of a major life transition: the transition to parenthood.

When I think of any significant passage in my own life, it’s inseparable from the friends I shared it with. Friends are there to share your celebrations, support you through difficult transitions, and mourn your losses. Social media enable that sharing and support in new ways, across distances that would formerly exclude people who are far away but dear to your heart.

Marriage
When we got married in 1999, we created a wedding website and gift CD for guests. My husband spent the night before our wedding burning disc after disc, and I spent the months after the wedding scanning photo after photo. These days, blogs, iTunes and digital cameras make it easy for anyone to include their friends in the celebration, and to turn this once-in-a-lifetime gathering into the birth of a shared community of friends. Create a group on Facebook or another social network so your guests can plan car pools and wedding weekend get-togethers beforehand; after the wedding, use the group to share photos, keep people in touch and ask them to share their reflections on your celebration.

Birth
If you’ve got a new parent in your circle of friends—or if you’re counting on your friends to help you through the birth of your kids—the web can help. Set up an online calendar that friends can use to sign up for days when they’ll bring meals. Keep an online grocery list so people know what supplies you need, and an online task list so people can sign up to help you out as needed. And while you’re waiting for the big day to roll around, set up an email list to blast your good news to friends (putting everyone’s email address in the BCC field so you’re not sharing addresses among your friends who don’t know each other).

Birthdays
My husband couldn’t have turned 40 without the social web, and I think he’s holding a grudge against all of social media as a result. For his 40th, we threw a huge party and invited all our friends (via email). In addition to the in-person party, I set up a virtual celebration by asking all of Rob’s friends to post memories and notes to a blog I set up for that purpose. For the actual party, I spent a week baking seven different kinds of desserts, all selected from the Epicurious website based on reader reviews. Between the severe sugar high and the deluge of loving blog posts, Rob entered his 40s with a big smile.

Use social media to organize celebrations (with online invitations, shopping lists and recipes) and to mark the event (via blog post, photo or video contributions) in a way that can include friends from any part of the world.

Illness
“A friend of mine has just been diagnosed with cancer,” a friend emailed. “Do you know a web tool that can help all of her friends coordinate visits, grocery shopping, trips to the doctor and whatever else she needs?” As it happened, I knew just the thing: Tyze, a personal networking tool I developed for the PLAN Institute. For the past 20 years, PLAN has helped families create personal support networks for adults with disabilities or other kinds of challenges; those support networks ensure not only logistical support but the kind of social connectedness that helps people lead meaningful lives. Tyze lets anyone create a support network for a friend or family member with an illness or disability: it helps the network stay in touch, schedule visits, keep track of tasks, and most crucially, share the stories that bring them closer together. Whether you use Tyze or your own combination of a blog, task manager or calendaring tool, social media can help people pull together to support a friend in crisis—not just with logistics, but with the messages of love and concern that bring you all closer together.

Death
My Dad died almost two years ago, but his Facebook page lives on as a place where our friends and family can share their memories and thoughts of him. A social media presence—whether it’s Facebook, Twitter or a personal blog—can be a way for someone to tell his or her own story as they are passing out of this world, and for friends to connect through the dying and grieving process. If you don’t like the idea of your online presence outliving you, Legacy Locker is a service that serves as a social media will: Give it the registration info for the sites you’re on and you can leave directions on how your social media profiles and content will be handled after your death.

Whatever challenge you are facing, or milestone you are celebrating, you want your friends to share it with you. Make good use of social media and you’ll have their support, no matter where they are.

This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

2 Comments on this site

  1. Joecute2envy

    i have come face 2 face with the ghost of my despair.
    some 1 please help!

  2. Alexandra Samuel

    Thanks so much for your e-mail, but I’m taking an e-mail vacation until the new year. The e-mail you’ve just sent me has been filed, so it’s not lost forever, but if you need a reply it would be great if you could e-mail me sometime on or after January 4. If you need to reach me urgently, I’ll be on Twitter (I’m @awsamuel).

    Thank you in advance for your understanding. If you’re curious to learn more about how I’m implementing this e-mail vacation — or to try taking a vacation of your own — please check out my “7 Days to Inbox Zero” at http://bit.ly/zero2011

    all the best,

    Alex


    Alexandra Samuel, Ph.D.
    alex@alexandrasamuel.com
    cel. 604.726.5445
    Twitter/AIM/Skype awsamuel

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