A FEW years ago, my sister — who is younger and cooler than I am — introduced me to the TikTok app. Since I was known as a churchgoing bookworm, my family were surprised when I spent an entire Christmas transfixed by the short videos that the app’s algorithm offered me.
A woman making lasagne in a farmhouse kitchen, and her seven children artfully entering the frame; a self-described “middle-aged, mid-sized Mom from the Midwest” choosing clothes for work; someone recording every mile of a marathon run; someone else strumming a guitar: I found myself drawn into these little open windows into other people’s lives.
When I had been using the app for about a year, I came across Poppy. Poppy was a baby with an extremely rare genetic condition that affected the functioning of her brain. Poppy’s mother, Kaylee, set up the family’s TikTok account to document their journey with Poppy, whose life expectancy was between three and five years. The tagline of the account invited viewers to join in “Poppy’s happy and loved life”.
I began to look forward to my updates on Poppy. She loved water, and, if she was restless, her mother would get into the bath with her several times a day. Eventually, TikTok Creator Funds and donations enabled the family to buy a hot tub for their back garden, where they could all join Poppy in her love of floating and splashing.
Poppy was significantly visually impaired, but her mother carefully set up visual exercises for her — yellow ribbons arranged in front of a black and white canvas — to help her to experience traces of colour.
One video shows Poppy trying her first ever Christmas biscuit, unable to bite or chew, but able to smell and taste as her mother patiently holds it to Poppy’s lips for several minutes.
THEN, one day recently, I opened the app to a devastating message from Poppy’s parents. After an illness and a stay in hospital, Poppy had died, aged 15 months.
I was unnerved by how grief-stricken I felt, given that I had never met this child or her family. As I cried, I wondered whether I had made a mistake in voluntarily following Poppy’s story. Perhaps this was one of the less discussed ills of social media: that they draw us into sorrows that are not our own. My sadness felt somehow hollow or tokenistic, given my remove from the realities of Poppy’s situation.
But, as the days passed and I continued to remember Poppy, I began to think about it another way. Following Poppy had reminded me of the fragility of human life and the bravery and tenderness of human love. Despite the dispiriting stories that we see in the news, and the distracting grind of modern life, there are thousands of families who resist the pull of futility and despair and, instead, in small acts of daily heroism, insist that life means something. That “something” is love, even in the face of death.
In this way, Poppy drew me closer to Christ. Her family’s daily devotion to Poppy was the ultimate form of praise: caring for the precious, the vulnerable, and deciding that the message of Poppy’s short time on earth would be love, regardless of her inability to thrive in the ways by which society usually measures progress.
When Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them; for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” he must have meant that, in their dependency, innocence, and precariousness, children show us something of what it means to be human: emphatically, the importance of relying on one another and on God. Poppy was a symbol of what it means to be human in its most fundamental form.
I AM glad that social media led me to Poppy. If there is anything to be gained from these social networks, amid some of the more serious challenges that they present, perhaps it is a greater awareness of the many small ways in which the Kingdom of God is making itself known — in the making of daily bread, the playing of a piano, the raising of a voice, or the tender nurturing of a small life that will be taken far too soon. If we only look, there are signs of the Kingdom all around us, revealing themselves even in the unlikely content of an internet app.
Indeed, I’ve continued to watch as hundreds of followers have showered Poppy’s family with gifts and encouragement to help them honour and remember their daughter. Amid the tragedies, the risen Christ triumphs, not by erasing pain, but by drawing us to Him and to each other as we encounter it, and, ultimately, overpowering our suffering with love.
As for precious Poppy, may light perpetual shine upon her; and may we all be stirred by the love shown to the smallest and most vulnerable among us.
Megan Dent is a freelance journalist.