Goodbyes and Grief in Real Time

July 31, 2013 by Brian Stelter, New York Times

Scott Simon’s first Twitter message about his mother, dated July 16, squeezed a universal story involving heartbreak and humor into 21 words. He wrote: “Mother called: ‘I can’t talk. I’m surrounded by handsome men.’ Emergency surgery. If you can hold a thought for her now … ”

The ellipsis hinted that he’d have more to say later, and he did. “We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?” he asked on July 25. By then his mother, Patricia Lyons Simon Newman, 84, had spent several nights in the intensive care unit of a Chicago-area hospital. And Twitter users around the world were getting to know her, thanks to the short bursts of commentary by Mr. Simon, the host of “Weekend Edition Saturday” on NPR.

The tweets captured the attention of a significant portion of the social-media world for days.

Mr. Simon wrote on Monday morning that “her passing might come any moment,” and that evening it did, when she died after being treated for cancer. Borrowing from “Romeo and Juliet,” he wrote, “She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night,” and then stopped tweeting for half a day.

“When I began to tweet, I had almost no thought that this was going to be my mother’s deathbed,” Mr. Simon said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, after the outpouring of emotion — his Twitter audience’s as well as his own — had made national headlines. His mother, he said, had originally gone into the hospital for a blood test.

“As it got more serious, she was just so marvelously entertaining and insightful,” he said. “I found it irresistible.”

In the past he might have done that through a book or a recorded segment for his radio program. (Mr. Simon commented on the deaths of his father and stepfather in his 2000 memoir, “Home and Away.”) But the Internet enabled him to celebrate his mother and mourn her in real time, creating the sense this week that an online community was collectively grieving with him.

The online reactions were overwhelmingly positive; some people thanked Mr. Simon for letting them get to know Ms. Newman and described what she had in common with their own mothers. A smattering of online comments, he said, were critical, suggesting that sharing such intimate moments was inappropriate. “Exploiting his mother’s last days for ratings and fame,” read one comment accompanying an ABC News article about Mr. Simon’s tweets.

“Social media is most poignant when it gives us a window on stories that would otherwise go untold,” said Burt Herman, a co-founder of Storify, an Internet company that markets what it calls social storytelling tools. “The stories can be voyeuristic, like a couple fighting at a Burger King. But at their best, these stories give us a deeply personal view into life’s inflection points, whether it’s a revolution abroad or an intimate moment between a mother and son.”

Mr. Simon said he wanted people to know that “I wasn’t holding my mother in my arms and tweeting with my free hand.”

Sometimes Ms. Newman gave Mr. Simon, and by extension some of his 1.2 million Twitter followers, a reason to smile or chuckle: “Believe me,” she told him on Saturday, “those great deathbed speeches are written ahead of time.” Sometimes, she seemed to want Mr. Simon to share bits of advice. On Sunday, he encapsulated this thought from his mother: “Listen to people in their 80s. They have looked across the street at death for a decade.”

Mr. Simon resumed posting to Twitter on Tuesday; he jocularly recountedhow the couple who run a cremation service call themselves “posthealth professionals.” During the interview on Wednesday he cried while expressing thanks for the “love and support and prayers” from people. He said he had given precisely no thought to the societal implications of sharing his mother’s life and death.

But others have. “We have reached a point in the way we think about our lives where our stories of struggle and loss feel like they no longer belong solely to us,” said Joe Lambert, founder of the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, Calif. Being able to broadcast them, on Twitter or elsewhere online, “feels like a gift to those grieving in our families, our communities and as far as a tweet might reach.”

SOURCE: The New York Times