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Finding Strength and Healing Through the Holidays

This is a guest post from Sona Mehring, founder and CEO of the global nonprofit organization CaringBridge.org

Whether the holiday song in your head is the Andy Williams classic, the version by Garth Brooks or the Staples office supply commercial, we are, indeed, approaching “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” And while my window on the world could easily be closed – or even boarded up – to “the hap-happiest season of all,” the opposite is true.

As founder of CaringBridge, the nation’s most established social networking platform for people immersed in difficult medical journeys, my exposure to the struggles of patients, family caregivers and loved ones seems reason enough to just skip the holidays. Instead, I feel inspired. Across more than 550,000 CaringBridge websites that have received 2 billion visits over 18 years, I am awed by the power of hope and compassion that shine through a health crisis. In moments of celebration – a clean MRI! –and in the terrible times, too, I have come to believe in the gift of healing.

Of course, healing is a less dazzling gift than boxes with bows, Hanukkah gelt and Kwanzaa zawadi. But who wouldn’t prefer health over sickness? Home over hospital? Cookies over chemo? One CaringBridge site authored by a woman whose husband had a brain tumor recurrence six months after their wedding, wrote that they “just wanted to be people. Not people with cancer.” Or stroke, heart disease, infection, traumatic injury, premature birth, surgical complications, organ failure …

But for those jolted from “normal life” into roles as patients and family caregivers, sharing their stories often creates a healing effect. And while the impact of responses of sympathy and encourage menton outcomes is not clearly defined, the love and hope that friends and family want to give becomes an empowering force. A business executive who launched a site after his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis as a “form of self-defense,” merely to organize the chaos of sharing news, said he was amazed by the healing their social network provided.

I can’t pretend to explain the gift of healing, but I experienced it when I created the first CaringBridge site in 1997. My dear friends, JoAnn and Darrin, had endured a life-threatening pregnancy and devastating loss of their newborn daughter, Brighid. I never imagined what Darrin’s overwhelmed and exhausted request for me to “Just let everyone know what’s going on,” would become. I also never imagined the sea of caring people at baby Brighid’s memorial service whose waves of love and support had surged through the Internet to comfort her parents. On that day, I saw what healing looks like.

As a software engineer by trade, I naturally seek data that will also show what healing looks like. And there is some research:

  • 88% of patients and family caregivers who responded to a Forrester Research study sponsored by CaringBridge said connecting with family and friends had a positive impact on healing.
  • Social support was identified as the strongest of four factors contributing to positive health and treatment outcomes by a Robert Wood Johnson and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute study (social support: 40%; health behaviors: 30%; clinical care: 20%; physical environment: 10%).

But mostly, I have given myself over to not being able to measure magic. A CaringBridge author fighting mantle cell lymphoma described being surrounded by loved ones with healing strength as “emotional sustenance.” Is there any better gift?

As a nonprofit CEO, I am thrilled to imagine the healing aspects of CaringBridge as a lifeline. But as a mom, daughter, sister, aunt, niece, cousin and friend, I am adamant that no one should navigate a health journey alone. This requires “leaning in” to wrap your arms around something you’d rather run from. It can take the form of hot dish-delivery, making pillows from t-shirts of a loved one, or the stiff-and-awkward hugs for which Minnesotans are famous. It also means saying something – anything – when there are no words.

Any time you can give – or receive – the gift of healing this holiday season, do it! The gifts come as much from taking time to express encouragement as they do from pausing to take in encouragement. My hope is that for a brief minute,you, too, may experience the essence of the “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

Sona Mehring

Sona Mehring

About Sona Mehring:

Sona founded CaringBridge, the first and most widely used social networking site focused on communicating with loved ones during a health journey, at a time when the Internet was just becoming a household name.

Sona is frequently recognized and honored for her passion and visionary leadership. In 2015 Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal honored her as a top CEO in technology with the Titans of Technology Award. In 2014 The Women’s Health Leadership TRUST named her one of the top 35 Women Leaders in Minnesota Healthcare. In 2013 Minnesota Monthly placed her on their list of the 75 most influential people of the Twin Cities. She was named one of 2011’s “Most Influential Women in Technology” by Fast Company.

 

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