On Live-Tweeting Death and Dying

There is a social media clique that entertains itself with jokes about live-tweeting events such as root canals, hysterectomies, and marital counseling sessions. The jokes work if you agree with their subtext: that we’ve all gotten much too comfortable with sharing the intimate moments we used to shield with curtains and confidentiality agreements. Posting pictures of children and wedding kisses has proven to be the top of a slippery slope into instantaneous updates of which body part is being squished into which medical device, and transcription of conversations as if life were now vocalized in front of a court reporter.

Scott Simon has helped to plant a flag in a new frontier of sharing. The Saturday host of NPR’s Weekend Edition found himself summoned to his mother’s hospital bedside in Chicago at the end of July. From that perch, he tweeted details of her fatal decline to his nearly 1.3 million Twitter followers. He shared sweet moments, like their duets to the tunes of their favorite musicals; funny moments, like her lamentation that death was taking her so long because she’s “late for everything”; and practical moments, like his efforts to find an air mattress to sleep on beside her bed. At one point, he tweeted that he loved holding his mother’s hand, and hadn’t done so for far too long.

He tweeted that her heart rate was dropping. He tweeted that the heavens over Chicago had opened, and that his mother had “stepped onstage.” Patricia Simon Newman died on July 21, at the age of 84.

At that point, her son continued tweeting about her, only this time the subject turned towards her burial, and telling her grandchildren that she had died, and completing a change of address form for her with the U.S. Postal Service. “Wish I knew to where….,” he quipped.

There was an outpouring of response to Simon’s modern documentary of the passage from life to death. Many reported that they were crying along with him, while others were appalled that he would share such a private moment – in many ways, someone else’s private moment – with hundreds of thousands of strangers. Some even mocked him.

Simon insists that he tweeted with a sense of “proportion and delicacy,” and that he didn’t share anything that he thought she would be uncomfortable with. Even Simon’s critics acknowledged that perhaps the public diary-making helped him process his grief. One detractor admitted that no one was forcing him to read the tweets he didn’t want to read.

Therein lies, perhaps, the whole point. Twitter, and all social media, is what we make of it. It can be a source of banal updates, like those announcements that you’ve woken up or that you bought new shoes. It can be a vehicle for bonding, reunion, revenge, self-destruction, breaking up, reconciliation, and bullying. It can deliver the news, the weather, and the sporting event. It can bring the noise, the funk, and the funny.

Twitter is so utterly flexible that it is one of the few products that can be all things to all people. The trouble lies in successfully curating your space, in filtering through the filters to create the online community you want to live in. Even after you’ve found the right neighbors, though, there is no guarantee that the rules of your neighborhood association – which exist only in your brain – will always be followed. You might have chosen the Tweeter you’re going to let pass through the gates of your “follow” button, but you can’t choose his or her every tweet.

Would I tweet about my mother dying? Probably not. If I was holding my mother’s hand as she concentrated on breathing her last breaths, I hope that I would be present enough to grasp that hand with both of mine. I hope that I would not try to free one up so that I could one-hand a quick status update to let my “friends” know I was holding my mother’s hand as she concentrated on breathing her last breaths.

Simon chose a different route, and I don’t have the energy to judge him for it. I am sure he is not wasting any energy getting riled up over my tweets that quote my children or snarkily summarize my parenting frustrations. In fact, I don’t even follow Simon on Twitter, and he certainly doesn’t follow me. Even if we did have a mutual admiration society, I would skim past his death-tweeting in the same manner I skim past that comedian’s announcements about his bathroom activities and that actress’s lamentations that she can’t decide what to wear to the awards ceremony.

There are few rules in life, so there necessarily must be few rules in the manner we choose to document life. If we’re trying to do unto others as we would have them do unto us in the three-dimensional world, we should at least do that in the one-dimensional sphere.

Scott Simon needed to type his pain into the void. Give him the void. He’ll share it with you when you need to type about the smoothie you ordered at breakfast.

Featured image via Shutterstock.com

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