Sharing the shock: why we turned online to express our grief

John
John Gushue
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When Ed Sutton, the Roman Catholic priest who celebrated the funeral mass for Allison Maher, was preparing earlier this week for the ceremony, he learned as much as he could about the former Aquaforte resident.

Sutton didn't know Maher, who had moved to Mount Pearl to be closer to her job in the offshore oil industry. A week ago, she and 16 others were killed when the Cougar Helicopters shuttle they had boarded crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Surf's up - When Ed Sutton, the Roman Catholic priest who celebrated the funeral mass for Allison Maher, was preparing earlier this week for the ceremony, he learned as much as he could about the former Aquaforte resident.

Sutton didn't know Maher, who had moved to Mount Pearl to be closer to her job in the offshore oil industry. A week ago, she and 16 others were killed when the Cougar Helicopters shuttle they had boarded crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

To prepare for the funeral, Sutton learned as much as he could about Maher. He learned at her wake that Maher had a wide circle of friends, that she was a bit of a livewire, and that, in just 26 years, she had no problem getting to know people.

Then, Sutton was introduced to the virtual network. At that point, last weekend, a Facebook group dedicated to Maher's memory had drawn more than 8,000 members.

"I just stopped to think of all the lives she touched," Sutton told my colleague and friend, CBC Television reporter Chris O'Neill-Yates.

That group, at this writing, has almost 15,000 members. Two groups formed on the Cougar crash itself. One, as of Tuesday evening, had more than 48,000 members; another had more than 37,000.

Those are awesome numbers, particularly given that most joined in such a short period of time. They came together with the same feeling; as Father Sutton put it, "just sharing the shock, the disbelief."

I was in an unusual position over the last few days. I was largely glued to my computer at work, writing and editing stories for CBC's regional website. The demand for information seemed to insatiable - more people read the first story than would read our regional site's entire output over four or five average days.

Thousands of people logged on to watch the first livestream we carried, of a briefing involving officials from search and rescue, Cougar and one of the platform operators. We set up a chatroom through a program called Cover It Live; we were astonished that as many people logged in for that first briefing as CBC got for U.S. president Barack Obama's visit last month to Ottawa. At that point, people were craving information - anything they could get, and in real time.

For some, it might have been a glimpse into the confounding whirl of information that reporters must sort through in a time of crisis. In those early hours and days, we had been given what turned to be wrong or incomplete information on important elements, from the flight number to the time of the mayday call to the location of the crash site. This is not uncommon during moments of crisis, when what we think and what we know are both changing continually, but a lesson for me is that this whole process is now much more public than before.

On Friday, as the grim reality set in, people turned to the web not so much for information, but for emotion.

We needed to connect, and many found that connection online. For all the chatter there's been about whether social networking sites have genuine meaning in people's lives, I only need to point to what we've seen in the last week.

As busy as I was, I found myself captivated by what people had to say; the personal details from friends and relatives were moving, as were eloquent thoughts or raw emotions from complete strangers.

I was almost breathless when I looked through photos posted to one group, showing pictures of lives of ordinary people. There were class photos, family portraits, candid snaps of casual gatherings. My heart broke when I saw the picture of one passenger as a little boy, proudly standing next to his dad after an apparent hunting trip.

Many, if not most of us, have been dealing with this tragedy by talking about it. But we've been talking with each other, not just with our mouths and ears, but also with our fingers and eyes. It's been a poignant and I think helpful way to connect, and to cope.

John Gushue is a news writer for CBCNews.ca in St. John's. E-mail: surf@thetelegram.com. Read past Surf's Up columns and daily updates at his blog: johngushue.typepad.com.

Organizations: CBC

Geographic location: Mount Pearl, Atlantic Ocean, U.S. Ottawa St. John's

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Recent comments

  • Jeff
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    Great column.

  • Danielle
    July 02, 2010 - 13:22

    The letters, message posts, phone calls and cards will no doubt help and be a sense of comfort in mourning the loss of these 17 people.
    This tragedy has struck close to home for many of us Newfoundlanders but also for so many others across the country who didn't even know any of the victims. In times like these it truly shows how compassionate and supportive people are.

  • Tara
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    I would just like to take this opportunity to express deep sympathy to all the families involved in this tradegy...our thoughts and prayers are with each and everyone and to also thank NTV News for the rebroadcast of the memorial service...I did not have the opportunity to watch it last evening and due to the rebroadcast was able to see it this morning..such a great service and what a great way to offer prayer and support to all the families and friends involved...thanks NTV and all the best to the families and friends.....

  • Jeff
    July 01, 2010 - 20:21

    Great column.

  • Danielle
    July 01, 2010 - 20:06

    The letters, message posts, phone calls and cards will no doubt help and be a sense of comfort in mourning the loss of these 17 people.
    This tragedy has struck close to home for many of us Newfoundlanders but also for so many others across the country who didn't even know any of the victims. In times like these it truly shows how compassionate and supportive people are.

  • Tara
    July 01, 2010 - 19:49

    I would just like to take this opportunity to express deep sympathy to all the families involved in this tradegy...our thoughts and prayers are with each and everyone and to also thank NTV News for the rebroadcast of the memorial service...I did not have the opportunity to watch it last evening and due to the rebroadcast was able to see it this morning..such a great service and what a great way to offer prayer and support to all the families and friends involved...thanks NTV and all the best to the families and friends.....