Tweeting Death

July 31, 2013,

scott-simon-290On Sunday, July 21st, the NPR host Scott Simon’s mother entered the I.C.U. at a Chicago hospital, following a surgery. She died on Monday night, at the age of eighty-four. In the week before her death, Simon began live-tweeting his mother’s final days to his almost 1.3 million followers from her hospital room. The tweets were poignant and haunting, and have brought Simon—already a mini-celebrity—a new level of renown. Total strangers read what he wrote and responded deeply.

The tweets began, it seemed, almost as a way to pass the time, to alleviate anxiety: “Watching ChiSox vs Tigers game in ICU w/ mother. Score not improving MY blood pressure.” They captured his mother’s wisecracking, fierce personality: “I tell my mother, ‘You’ll never stop teaching me.’ She said, ‘Well don’t blame me for everything.’ ” But as time passed, and her recovery seemed less likely, Simon’s tweets became meditative, almost ceremonious in their portrayal of the physical difficulty of dying and the impossible pain of saying goodbye: “Mother asks, ‘Will this go on forever?’ She means pain, dread. ‘No.’ She says, ‘But we’ll go on forever. You & me.’ Yes.”

Katie Couric, the “Today” show, and many others retweeted these and similar sentences. The brevity and sequentiality of Twitter eerily evokes the reality of time, allowing us to witness an event. Watching someone die brings us powerfully in touch with how brief—yet intense—each life here is. The tweets, which felt almost aphoristic (a mere hundred and forty characters each), underscored one of the strangest things about being with someone at the end of her life: the surreality of time, the way that time bends and distorts, becomes material. Suddenly, we are aware that the sunny summer days won’t go on forever. Our time is limited. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, and yet the most elusive.

The extraordinary response to Simon’s tweets also suggests a hunger on the part of Americans for a way to integrate death and mourning into our lives—a hunger that is being met by social media. Facebook and Twitter are changing the way we mourn—rescuing America from a world where grief was largely silenced and creating, instead, a kind of public space for it. As I observed in The New Yorker in 2010, and in my book “The Long Goodbye,” in the twentieth century, we had forgotten how to mourn. Having lost the old intimacy with death—living longer, dying in hospitals—we turned it into something “shameful and forbidden,” as the historian Philippe Ariès argued, in 1977, in “The Hour of Our Death.” And so death and its aftermath became something to “heal” and “get over.” Americans adopted a kind of muscle-through-it approach, exemplified in the TV series “24” by the female President staunchly (and, we’re meant to think, appropriately) telling her aide, after her son’s death, “Grief is a luxury I can’t afford right now.”

Before the twentieth century, though, private grief and public mourning were tied together. Your mother died, and your neighbors brought casseroles and sat Shiva or stayed for the three-day wake. Often, the mourners washed the bodies themselves. Funerals (and final illnesses) took place at home. Death itself was hardly private; in the nineteenth century, people used to come and stand in your room, waiting to witness the solemn and ecstatic moment of death itself, as evoked by Emily Dickinson’s deathbed poem “I heard a fly buzz when I died”: “The Eyes around – had wrung them dry – / And Breaths were gathering firm / For that last Onset – when the King / Be witnessed – in the Room – ”

So Simon’s Twitter feed was not an imposition of his mourning on others, not some kind of gruesome exhibitionism. It was simply a modern version of what has always existed: a platform for shared grief where the immediate loss suffered by one member of a community becomes an opportunity for communal reckoning and mourning. As the novelist Marilynne Robinson once said, suffering is a human privilege. Grief is the flip side of love. Mourning has become an all too isolated experience—but Facebook and Twitter have become a place (strange as it may seem) where the bereaved can find community, a minyan of strangers to share their prayers. Yes, it might seem strange to stumble upon announcements of death or the intimate details of dying amidst updates about summer trips to Costa Rica, Anthony Weiner’s escapades, and the arrival of a new puppy. But this strangeness is the strangeness of the real.

Will more and more people tweet from hospital rooms? It’s possible. It’s already common on Facebook, where people often announce that a loved one is in the hospital or has died. While some have bemoaned this—the Social Q’s column, in my recollection, once pronounced that Facebook was not the place to announce a death—it doesn’t feel morbid or inappropriate to me. It’s our equivalent of the ringing of church bells in the town square, for better or for worse. And it reminds us to think about the choices we make, the pleasures we take or forget to take in our own daily lives. This unexpected tweet from Simon was among those that moved me the most: “Mother groans w/ pleasure—over flossing. ‘When they mention great little things in life, they usually forget flossing.’ ”

SOURCE: The New Yorker