Using Technology to Express Care, Support, and Sympathy

After reading the article by Bruce Feiler in The New York Times published on June 10, 2011, titled ‘You Look Great’ and Other Lies, I starting thinking about how people are now using technology to express their thoughts of care and support during an illness or thoughts of grief and sympathy after death. Mr. Feiler’s article lists six things you should never say to a person who is sick and four things you can always say. He went into more detail in a radio interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation on June 14, 2011.

Technology can help us communicate efficiently over long distances, and it can help us spread a message to multiple people simultaneously. For example, we can use technology to send updates about a family member’s or friend’s illness, prognosis, treatment progress, and so on. We can use e–mails, text messages, Web pages, blogs, Facebook updates, Twitter updates, photos, and videos. There are even specialized services like Caringbridge that you can use as a hub to share information and support during a person’s illness. These technology tools can be useful for the family to share information quickly and efficiently, and social media tools can be used to connect, interact, and express support not just for the patient but also for the caregivers and other family members and friends throughout the process. And, as I’ve mentioned before, Facebook allows family members to leave the person’s Facebook account open as a memorial even after death so family members and friends can share thoughts and memories.

But, I think there’s a risk that technology also can depersonalize the care, support, grief, and sympathy—both for the patient and for the family member or friend expressing those thoughts. Having experienced a long–term medical illness in my own family, I appreciated all of the thoughts and communications from family members and friends, whether they were expressed in person, by telephone, by e–mail, or even by text message. But Mr. Feiler’s article points out that some people using the phrases and expressions in his article “are just falling back on a mindless cliché.”

My concern is that, while technology allows us to communicate over great distances, technology also keeps us at a distance from each other. In other words, being physically present to express feelings can have a profound emotional component that that I think is missing when we use technology. My guess is that may be the exact reason why people choose a telephone call, e–mail message, text message, or other technology to express their thoughts—because many people would like to avoid the emotional component. But that’s also one of the key points I take from Mr. Feiler’s article—many of his phrases to avoid are superficial comments and platitudes, and one of his recommendations is that “simple, direct emotion is the most powerful gift you can give a loved one going through pain.” I think this point also applies when we use technology to express care, support, and sympathy—express your emotions rather than avoiding your emotions.

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