Bridge Over Troubled Water

Everybody has a CaringBridge story. Now its founder put together a book of some especially inspirational ones.

Sona Mehring
Portrait by Eliesa Johnson

Everybody has a CaringBridge story. Here’s mine. In the spring of 2010, my boss was battling leukemia. Brian Anderson was the editor in chief of this magazine for more than 30 years. I know Scandinavian people—I’ve lived in Minnesota my entire life, and I went to St. Olaf—and there was nobody more Scandinavian than Brian. Most readers knew him through his cheerful monthly editor’s note. He brought this Keillor-meets-Newhart sort of buttoned-down Lutheran pastor rhythm to descriptions of family vacations and restaurant visits gone awry. His voice was relentlessly light. And that was Brian. Although there was no question that this was his magazine, he cut off any drift toward smugness with gentle self-effacement. (He could be aloof, but not Anna Wintour aloof; there was something quintessentially Minnesotan about his loftiness.) He seemed to always be amused. He had this geeky chortle that ended with this satisfied sigh that would highlight meetings. I heard he used to be a magician, and that seemed about right.

But his CaringBridge site? Man, it was real. In the face of mixed phenotype acute leukemia, his jokey patter felt graceful and noble. Brian’s voice was always likeable, but his Keillor-at-the-nightclub routine felt like a revelation when it applied to his final plans. “I assure you my service will be a celebration of life you won’t want to miss,” he wrote in his last CaringBridge entry. “I plan to be there.” Brian lost his battle with leukemia, but there was something about his words that felt triumphant. I will never forget them. It gives me hope that I can be that brave or at least that honest someday.

Sona Mehring started CaringBridge in 1997 to help her friend JoAnn deal with an extremely difficult pregnancy and birth. She had no idea that 16 years later, more than 450,000 people would be enabled to share their stories through her website, keeping friends and families, colleagues, employees, and sometimes even complete strangers out of the dark and in the know. It’s changed the way we support each other when faced with the greatest adversities. It’s not hyperbole to speculate about how CaringBridge has changed the way we heal and the way we mourn. Now Mehring has put together a book, Hope Conquers All: Inspiring Stories of Love and Healing from CaringBridge, a kind of greatest hits of CaringBridge narratives. “People’s stories are always so powerful and personal and unique,” Mehring says. “So powerful that they should be shared beyond the CaringBridge community.”

How did you pick the stories for the book? The first list had over 100 on it. One of the things we wanted to look at was the diversity of the stories. We didn’t want every story to be a cancer story. We didn’t want every story to be an end-of-life story.

The cancer stories were the most difficult for me. I alternated between feeling engrossed and exhausted. I had to take breaks. It’s intense. We didn’t want it to be all rainbows and unicorns. Because people are angry, and these experiences are life-changing, and people do grapple with those things.

Once you got the list down to 100, what was the next step? I think we ended up interviewing about 30 families and using 24 in the book.

JoAnn and Baby Brighid.

In May 1997, Mehring’s friend JoAnn was hospitalized with a life-threatening pregnancy. Mehring was inspired to create a website to “let everyone know what’s going on.” Brighid was born three months prematurely and died only nine days later. Her name is incorporated into CaringBridge.

What could a book do for you that the Internet could not? Very early on, we had an opportunity to get on Oprah. But we got bumped because another guy had written a book. You want to have the “thud factor.”

Do the families get any proceeds from the book? No. CaringBridge gets the proceeds.

Did you have to angle for permission from any of the subjects? We consider the content of CaringBridge sites the author’s. So yes, we sought and got their permission to tell their stories.

One woman suffered a significant brain injury after a stroke. Was she asked if she wanted to be included? No, her mother is 100 percent legal guardian with power of attorney.

I keep thinking about my editor, Brian. He was such a Scandinavian guy. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but there’s something un-Minnesotan about CaringBridge. Do we need to be forced to share? When people get into that community, some of them will share more and they’re surprised by what they share. Some people find it therapeutic.

Writing can be unburdening. When I write, when I’m being really honest, it can be thrilling, almost scary. I think that when you bring people together, especially when they’re surrounding somebody to support them, in this trusted, protected environment, great things happen. Miraculous things happen. What’s different about CaringBridge as a social network is—Facebook, it’s all about you; with CaringBridge, you’re rallying a community around something in a time of need. It’s a different dynamic.

How have you positioned yourselves relative to Facebook? Facebook is definitely a competitor, but it’s also our best friend.

I believe they call that a frenemy. Frenemy! Right. In 1997, the first four or five years, social networking did not exist. Blogs didn’t even exist when CaringBridge came on the scene. So there was a learning curve where people had to start feeling more comfortable with getting online and sharing information and connecting to others.

Back then, were you an over-sharer or blogger-type person? [Laughs.] No! My background is technology. I love technology. I saw very early on with the Internet its ability to connect people no matter where they were. I am a very social connecting type of person. The ability to bring people together when they need it, anytime, anywhere—I was aware of that.

Do you throw a lot of parties? I’m definitely an extrovert. The various Myers-Briggs things you can take say, “When Sona throws a party, it’s not to be missed.”

Why did you decide to enter a congressional race against John Kline last spring? I’d rather not get into that. I really separate that from CaringBridge, so if this is an article about CaringBridge . . .

The article is about you, and you dropped out of the race after only three weeks. You said, “My heart is still with CaringBridge.” One thing I learned through my CaringBridge experiences is being able to make an impact and help other people is extremely compelling and something I’m drawn to. And that was another arena that I think there’s a lot of opportunity to improve. [Laughs.] As I looked at that it was frustrating that people aren’t coming together for a common good. And I wanted to be able to make an impact there. But I just realized that my ability to do that was going to be severely limited, and I knew the impact that could still be made with CaringBridge.