NPR's Scott Simon has been riveting his 1.2 million Twitter followers over the last few days with Tweets from his mother's bedside in the ICU, complete with images of her environment and thoughtful introspections on her life and the nature of illness and death.
He's not the first or the last to turn to social media to process a complex emotional experience -- I'm reminded of Allan Mott's piece here about the comfort he found on Twitter when his mother was dying -- but he's certainly a very high-profile individual, which changes the nature of the stakes a little.
For the past several days, I've been supporting a friend while his grandfather was hospitalized with pneumonia and the family waited for the inevitable; the call finally came at 10pm on Monday night, while we were seated around the table with a fire quietly flickering away in the woodstove. An odd sort of quiet calm came over us: now it was over. The next day, there would be business to manage, but for the time being, it was done.
Everyone processes grief and emotions differently, and I am one of those people who tends to retreat into my shell rather than reach out in times of stress. When my father went into the ICU after a severe myocardial infarction last year, I made a few brief mentions on Twitter, but mainly focused on trying to manage the minutia of dealing with a hospitalized family member while working and handling the details of trying to simultaneously be in two places at once when they were two hours away.
There isn't a right or wrong way to deal with grief or the fear you experience when confronting the reality of aging and the fact that as you get older, your parents get older too, and with age tends to come death. Simon's Twitter discussion is fascinating both because it's a broadcast of a fundamentally very intimate and intense experience, and because it's such a baring of a radio personality's personal life.
Watching Scott Simon's mother pass live on Twitter was a strangely surreal experience as it paralleled with the emotional and physical journey of my friend's grandfather in an ICU thousands of miles away; but it was also a fascinating and intense glimpse into a changing world.
I'm reminded of Professor David Oliver, who spent years instructing students in patient care before being diagnosed with Stage nasal pharyngeal cancer. He could have chosen to take a leave of absence or retire from teaching altogether, but instead he took a different tack: he chose to use his death as a valuable learning opportunity for his students, offering them a chance to work directly with someone who was willing to talk openly and frankly about death.
Likewise, Professor Randy Pausch took a similar approach when he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and countless others have contributed their deaths to documentaries, university instruction, and other very public settings where their most intimate moments are revealed to strangers. Some even contribute their bodies, allowing people to study them after death as well as in their terminal moments.
This sharing creates a strange intimacy, but it also demystifies death, which many people find utterly terrifying; as my friend put it one night when we were waiting for a call from the hospital that didn't come, “I am more terrified of death than anyone else I know.”
Which is not an unreasonable fear; death is, after all, the Great Unknown, the thing none us fully understand or know. Something about watching the experiences of others, whether they're sharing their own deaths with us or speaking intimately about the deaths of people they love, makes death less of an abstract and more of a concrete in our lives.
I was saying to another friend the other day that as I grow older, everyone around me seems to be dying. My friend, a man in his 70s, started laughing.
“Wait until you're my age,” he said, and I thought of his friends dwindling away one by one, leaving him closer to alone in the world with each passing day.
As a relatively young person, though, even one with health problems, I still tend to think of myself as immortal, someone for whom death will be a long time coming. And I tend to ascribe the same traits to the people around me, even those who are aging and will be facing death sooner rather than later; I still have living grandparents, for example, who will eventually not be living. Likewise, my father is obviously not likely to outlive me, even as many of my contemporaries are dying because I spend a lot of time in the disability community, and we sick people tend to have an obnoxious habit of dying.
Some of us even broadcast our own deaths to the world; Doctor Elizabeth McClung of Screw Bronze! wrote about her own death and was deeply mourned by the online disability community when she passed earlier this year. Her posts were frank, brutal, and often difficult to read; they didn't turn death into a mystical rite of passage or a cathartic moment, but something messy and unpleasant, painful and infuriating.
The motives behind Scott Simon's decision to broadcast his mother's death to the world were undoubtedly complex; as a journalist, obviously he understands the value of a good story and the power of social media, but there's more than that to the narrative that unfolded on Twitter as he watched his mother slowly slip away. There was also a certain connection with his followers, for those who reached out to support him in a moment of intense emotion and need.
As Allan put in in his piece about his mother's death:
The next day was the most profound lesson in community I’ve ever had. As friends and family paid their respects at my parents’ home, the Internet as I know it came together to remind me that even in the deepest possible sadness there can be laughter, meaning and joy.
There's a reason my friends in the internet have become such an important part of my life that I think of turning to them as readily as I think of turning to my friends in meatspace; even as I sit typing this at the table of my friend on the night of his grandfather's death, watching him make the phone calls he needs to make, I am reminded of all the support the internet has provided for me in times of need, and I am, as I so often am, awed by the response to Simon's emotional Twitter journey.
For Simon, this is a compelling use of social media, but it's also a personal journey -- and I hope it helped him find peace in what was undoubtedly one of the most trying times of his life.