The Online Community Grieves as Donna's Cancer Story Comes to Final Chapter

The Online Community Grieves as Donna's Cancer Story Comes to Final Chapter

The posts are going quickly now, and Donna’s remaining days are few.   The final chapter in Donna’s Cancer Story will be told on October 1st.  There is a nameless, hovering sense of dread among those of us reading Donna’s Cancer Story, coupled with a wistful clinging to the moments of joy.

Mary Tyler Mom is aware of our anxiety.  “The sense I get from the chatter is that there is impending doom and fear,” she told me honestly.  “And it’s emotional, because intellectually, people are getting it now.  People understand where this is heading. I see their fear.  I get their fear.”

Of course, we logically know that this story occurred two years ago, but for all of us who have been reading about Donna this month, it feels as if we are living in real time, and we have engaged in a willing suspension of disbelief.

“I worry a lot about the readers,” Mary Tyler Mom admitted.  “For me, it’s not like writing about Donna is opening up a fresh wound, because the wound never closed.  Mary Tyler Dad and I have had had years to get adjusted to living with the open wound.  It’s just part of our lives.  But readers are coming to know Donna for the first time in a super concentrated fashion, and for them it’s like someone dying suddenly instead of having time to accept it.”

How astonishing, I thought, that this grieving mother is actually worried about comforting us, the readers, as we come to terms with Donna’s incurable cancer.  How can our grief be deserving of her energy, our grief that cannot be compared to one thousandth of the agony she must feel?

But the truth is, we still need that comfort.  We do need Mary Tyler Mom to lend her strength to us.  And she wants to soothe us.  In fact, on October 3rd, Mary Tyler Mom is hosting a live chat to reassure readers that she is functioning, breathing, and honoring Donna by continuing to live.

Donna’s story is being told online with all the beauty and intensity of time-lapse photography, and readers don’t have the luxury of experiencing the in-between time.  Days and months are consolidated down to five or ten minutes of reading a daily post, and there is no space for the slowly dawning acceptance that Donna’s body has been overtaken by the beast.  Rather, it is a crashing truth.

Mary Tyler Mom and Dad were able to enjoy many moments that we will never know.  They absorbed the trivial details of Donna’s days, storing a lifetime of memories for the movie reels in their heads.  But the price for them of slowly living through Donna’s cancer story was the horrible prolonged anxiety of waiting for news, and readers have been spared this particular form of hell.  Never underestimate how lucky we are to escape it.

Mary Tyler Mom finds the certainty of grief easier to bear than the gnawing fear.  “It’s so easily misinterpreted, but the fear and the terror on some level were harder to deal with than the gaping loss afterwards.  Waiting was the worst.  Waiting for those phone calls, when I just knew the news was going to be bad.  Finding out that cancer was in Donna’s spine was as bad as learning it was in the lungs that first time.”

Yes, the readers have escaped the terror, but not the grief.  The grief is real.  There are thousands of people walking around right now, thinking about Donna, pulling for Donna, yet faced with the impossible knowledge that Donna will not make it.  Donna is already gone.  How do we manage this collective grief?  How do we honor it?  There will be no funeral for those of us who have grown to love Donna, no memorial service to provide the comfort of ritual and grace.

We do what people do when something profound occurs.  We talk about it.  We write about it.  We record it.  Mary Tyler Mom is carrying on a long and noble tradition that dates back to the earliest of human times.  She is telling a story.  The character of Donna has come alive for us, because Mary Tyler Mom is a gifted and compelling storyteller.  Donna’s story needed to be told, and Mary Tyler Mom needed to tell it.

It is a curious phenomenon, the realness of emotions we can feel for a child we only know through the Internet.  It is testimony to the power of online events to create offline actions.  The virtual world does indeed impact the real world.

Often, we hear stories of negative online behavior, such as cyberbullying, in which a group of people uses digital technology to attack, tear down, humiliate or defeat a person.  This can translate into very real offline consequences such as depression, poor academic performance or even suicide.

But Mary Tyler Mom’s experience is the exact opposite.  It is a heartwarming case of what I call cybersupporting, in which a group of people bands together to bolster, support and embrace another person.  The community of readers is cybersupporting Mary Tyler Mom, even as we burden her with our own sadness.

“More people know Donna now because of this,” Mary Tyler Mom said with wonder.  “Selfishly, it is soothing for me and powerful and important.  It’s like a two-sided coin-  on the one hand, I am doing this to raise pediatric cancer awareness, but on the flip side, it is the proud mother in me who wants to talk about my child.  For me to have access to people’s feelings about her is a privilege.”  Mary Tyler Mom is reading all the beautiful messages that readers have written on the Internet.  “It’s a gift,” she stated simply.

Keep reading, readers, and keep sharing your thoughtful comments.  It will allow you to express your own grief, and it will bring comfort to Mary Tyler Mom.  Talking about Donna, saying her name, is in itself a balm for the devastation of her loss.

“It is hard when people don’t mention Donna.  I like to give people permission to say her name,” Mary Tyler Mom told me.  “I remember reading a quote from Elizabeth Edwards, after she lost her son.  She said, ‘People are so worried that they are going to mention my son and it is going to bring me sadness and make me cry.  On the contrary, it shows me that you remember him.’

“That’s how I feel about Donna.  It’s easier when people remember her.”

Right now Mary Tyler Mom is soaking up the greatest outpouring of love and support that she has experienced since right after Donna’s death, but she knows that the flood of encouragement will slow and trickle when this month has passed.

“When the month ends, it is going to be hard,” she acknowledged. “There is always a sense of abandonment and a sense that life moves on.  Other people will move on as they should, and we won’t.  Right now there is huge buzz and it’s intoxicating.   I feel driven, mission-driven.”

There is a frenetic pace to the writing of Donna’s Cancer Story, and people far and wide are awaiting the next installment.  No one has moved on yet.  But Mary Tyler Mom is correct that it is coming, the day when Donna is on a smaller and smaller number of people’s minds every morning and every night.  Mary Tyler Mom knows this, of course, because she has already lived through it.

“Something my husband and I learned nearly a decade ago,” I quietly told Mary Tyler Mom, “is that the world pauses for your grief but does not stop.”  There are hugs, tears, flowers and phone calls, email messages and texts.  And then, eventually, silence.  This is the way of the world, because life must go one for the living.  And it is how Donna lived her life.

With Donna in her heart, Mary Tyler Mom has chosen to embrace the energy and beauty happening right now, even though she knows it cannot sustain itself.  “We did this when Donna was alive,” she explained.  “We found carefree moments.  If we let Donna guide us, that’s where she would take us.  There were times when we got lost in happiness.”

Living in the moment is what Donna did intuitively, with all the brilliance and beauty of a toddler.  “There is so much wisdom in that, and it helps me every single day.  She went to her joy,” recalled Mary Tyler Mom, as her voice grew thick with emotion.

Donna showed her parents how to cope.   “When she was afraid of a needle or scared or mad or sad, she yelled and squawked and felt it,” Mary Tyler Mom remembered.  “But when it was over, she moved on, and it was done.”

Oh, how much we adults can learn from Donna!  If we could just feel our feelings and acknowledge the suckiness of certain situations as they arise, there would be no need for the many unhealthy coping habits that people develop.   Let us have the courage to yell when it hurts and feel the shitty moments properly, so we can forgive and move on, too.

Donna may have been desperately ill in parts of her brain, but she was wonderfully healthy in her mind.  Her indomitable spirit makes me think of the second half of Veronica A. Shofstall’s lovely poem, Comes the Dawn:

And you learn to build all your roads on
Today because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans,
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.
After awhile you learn that even sunshine burns if you get too much.

So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure…
That you really are strong
And that you really do have worth.
And you learn and learn and learn ….
With every goodbye you learn.

Many of us have grown accustomed to spending the past month alongside Mary Tyler Family.  There will be a great wail of grief when Donna leaves us.

Mary Tyler Mom does not torture herself by asking, “Why Donna?”.  Nor does she protest how unfair it is that her child died before she could grow up.  “Why not Donna?” she asked honestly.  “People tell me Donna didn’t deserve this,” she said, “but really, it’s not like anyone deserves this.   I don’t think in those terms.  I don’t ask why it was Donna.  It just was.”

What does make sense to Mary Tyler Mom comfort is remembering Donna with actions.  She and Mary Tyler Dad started a charity called Donna’s Good Things, about which Mary Tyler Mom will write on October 2nd.  Readers can follow Mary Tyler Mom to Donna’s Good Things, and honor the little girl’s memory by helping her family bring joy to others.

There have been nearly half a million page views of Mary Tyler Mom’s blog since she began writing Donna’s Cancer Story this month.  On behalf of all of us who have been so touched and impressed by your family, thank you, Mary Tyler Mom and Dad, for sharing your beloved child with us.  We ache with sorrow for your loss.

Donna knew how to live and Donna knew how to die.  May her memory bring comfort to those who loved her, an ever-growing group of fans.


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  • It's been punching me in the gut. I have to take a break and come back after a few days because I have 2.5-year-old and 7-month-old daughters and it hits so close to home. All the nuance about dance class and Chicago's ridiculous preschool process is not lost on me, not by a long shot.

    *SOB* There I go again . . .

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    Thank you Carrie--I needed this--as I'm sure so many of us following Donna's and Mary Tyler Mom's story.

  • Thank you for reading and supporting Mary Tyler Mom. I know how much she appreciates it.

  • I am reading every day. It just hurts cause you know the ending isn't what you want. I kept telling myself at least there's *this many* more days, but its almost out now. I was reading the care bridge journal too. Maybe I'll go back and finish that and get to know the amazing little Donna a bit better. I'll also probably keep reading Mary Tyler Mom. She should know if she ever needs a piece of that support she feels now she can always reach out to me and probably many other readers. I just wish I could do more.

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    Thank you for this.The connection to Donna and MTM I feel is immense. I am in awe of her gift to tell Donnas story so beautifully.My friends and I are in the midst of planning a fundraiser for a child in my town battling brain Cancer right now. The irony,,,its this Saturday Oct 1st,the same day as the end of Donnas Cancer story.

  • Carrie, your posts alerted me to MTM's story of her daughter's cancer journey. What a saga of love, devotion, hope and a zest for life! I will mourn the loss of that spectacular shining star, Donna, for a long, long time.

  • I feel bad that we made her worry about us! Like she doesn't have enough on her mind, now she's worried about half a million strangers being sad. A unique and precious woman, this Mary Tyler Mom is. I bet she makes a wicked girlfriend :)

    I have followed many children on CaringBridge that have conquered their cancers by being healed in the next life. I am accustomed to handling my grief for a total stranger, as strange and "disconnected" as it seems. I know Donna's story already and yet I came here again, because I feel she lives through her mother's words, and by me reading them I am helping to keep her alive :)

  • In reply to MandaPanda:

    Really nice post, MandaPanda - I agree with all you say. It has been a privilege to get to know Donna and her Mom through her Mom's eloquent and soul-grabbing writing.

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