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'Facebook strangers helped me cope after both my parents died during COVID'

Diane and Jim Barron, Lucianne Fitzgerald's parents.
Diane and Jim Barron, Lucianne Fitzgerald's parents.

Mark Zuckerberg's company has impacted our online lives in numerous ways. Launched in October 2010, Facebook Groups has grown to become an enormous hub of online communities - with 1.8 billion people using millions of groups as recently as 2020. On the day of Facebook's 20th anniversary, Yahoo News UK spoke to Lisa Bailey, who set up a group to support those struggling with grief during one of world's most significant, traumatic periods in our recent past - the COVID pandemic, and two of the women who benefitted from her community.

When Lucianne Fitzgerald lost her mum and stepdad to COVID just weeks apart, more than 500 people sent messages of support and condolences, many of them battling a similar loss.

Fitzgerald had never met any of her newfound support network in real life, but had become part of an online community of people coping with the symptoms - and grief - of coronavirus.

A day after her mother's death, Fitzgerald posted in the Facebook group 'Shining a light to fight coronavirus', writing: “On the 1/11/20 I lost my stepfather to covid and now I’ve just lost my mum to it as well. 17/11/20 it hurts my heart.....we’re in the uk they’re in the states and me and my brothers can’t even fly over.”

The group was formed in March 2020, and by April that year, it had 200,000 members. Founder Lisa Bailey, 32, from Staffordshire, told Yahoo News she had felt an ‘overwhelming’ need to find some sort of support system for all the people who were grieving during COVID because she remembered how it felt losing her mum in 2019.

When so much of the world came to a standstill after lockdowns were imposed, Bailey's Facebook group was suddenly there for so many. She said she had created it as there was nowhere for people to go to once they had lost someone, especially those who lived alone. “I can honestly say within about an hour, I had about 10,000 people joining it.

Lucianne Fitzgerald's post announcing the death of her step dad and mum in the Facebook group
Lucianne Fitzgerald's post announcing the death of her step dad and mum in the Facebook group

“My phone was constantly going off.”

Within weeks, the group constantly had posts coming in from people announcing the deaths of friends and family. Fitzgerald told Yahoo News she flew to the United States for her own parents' funerals and was faced with a hefty price to pay for the funeral itself and the travel expenses. She said: “My mum had emigrated to America, so I had to fly out there, and they just locked down.

“I had to do a double funeral, sell a house and the business, absolutely everything.”

Fitzgerald applied to the US embassy for permission to fly over; four months later, they finally got the green light. She had last seen her mum in person three years previously when she was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. Her mum beat cancer and went into remission, however, while in hospital for COVID, the doctors found that it had returned. Diane Barron died at age 71, and Jim Barron died at age 69.

Fitzgerald said: “They said if she had survived, they'd have given it 12 weeks, three months, and she would have passed away from cancer. It was cruel to let her go on. It was a big decision for me to make having to switch that machine off, knowing that I was killing my mum.

“I think that's where I struggled. I've not really said that to anybody, but to say yes, switch off the machine, you're actually ending her life.”

Her mum’s last words to her were, “I love you”, Fitzgerald said: “Never would have believed that was never gonna speak to her or see her again.”

She’s getting married this summer and always hoped her mum would be there in person for the day she eventually got married: “I've been saying to my fiance overnight that I was a bit tearful, and I secretly struggled knowing that she's not going to be here to attend my wedding.

She said: “I've got a lovely big wedding in August and no Mummy here to be there. When l think about it, my heart hurts a bit."

Over time, Bailey became close to Fitzgerald, partly because her story stuck with her as time went on. Fitzgerald later went on to become one of the admins of the group to help Bailey with the stream of messages they were receiving.

Samie Jane Miller and her dad
Samie Jane Miller and her dad

Bailey said people in the group would often thank her for creating it: “They just think you're amazing for what you do and how you help other people - but then people also don't realise how much they helped me.”

Another of those in the group is Samie Jane Miller, 49, from Sheffield. She was introduced to the community by her sister after they lost their father, David. He was admitted to hospital on 4 February during the first wave of the pandemic.

He had collapsed on the floor and though the family initially thought he only had a urine infection, he subsequently tested positive for coronavirus. A week later, he started to improve and was moved to another hospital, but he subsequently deteriorated.

Miller and her family were notified that only one person would be allowed to visit him in person to say goodbye - coronavirus restrictions at the time did not permit visits but there were trials to try and relax that. but were not allowed in the UK at the time.

Miller said they were “grateful” to have been given that time, as it had been heartbreaking to think of him dying alone in his final moments. He eventually died, three weeks after being admitted, aged 66.

The family's experience was one that so many were going through at the time. Only 10 people were allowed to attend the funeral.

To help her cope, Miller looked at the Facebook group every day and often messaged when people were sharing their vulnerable thoughts in a bid to give support to others: “The fact that when you normally lose somebody, you can all get together and support each other. I couldn't even give my brother a hug. It was horrific.”

Like Fitzgerald, she received messages from Bailey, too, which she found amazing given the number of people in there: “It was a really good support network, and it still is," said Miller.

For many, the coronavirus pandemic was such a traumatic period - one filled with loss, isolation and grief - that there is little desire to dwell on it. But for many others, the community and support they have found in the 'Shining a light to fight coronavirus' Facebook group is such that they still return to the page over and over again.

And while the group is not as busy as it was, for Bailey it is still a constant in her life, and for many like her: “I go to it for support because, even as an admin who created the group, I go through things in my life, and sometimes it's just nice to get reassurance from people and just to see nice comments and nice things being said.”