When my mother died of vascular dementia eight years ago in the nursing home where she and my father resided, I was not by her side.
Dad was there, of course, and my older brother was frequently on the scene. He called my other siblings and me with updates, but beyond our small circle, it was a private vigil.
When my mind wandered during those days, I sometimes thought of how much impact her decline had on those of us following it and how little it had on everyone else.
But now journalist Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, has pushed the deathbed vigil into the realm of viral social-media event, sparking both praise and criticism.
A Bedside Vigil With a Worldwide Audience
Simon attracted international attention for the series of tweets he posted to his 1.2 million Twitter followers from his dying mother’s bedside in the intensive-care unit of a Chicago hospital. The messages began in earnest on July 23. On July 25, he tweeted, “I am getting a life’s lesson about grace from my mother in the ICU. We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?”
As the week went on, more users flocked to Simon’s feed, driven by praise for his impromptu project from media outlets ranging from AARP to Esquire magazine to Buzzfeed.
When his mother died on July 29, Simon tweeted, “Heart rate dropping. Heart dropping,” and then, “The heavens over Chicago have opened and Patricia Lyons Simon Newman has stepped onstage.”
Simon’s tweets, while holding to the platform’s famously restrictive 140-character limit, still successfully introduced readers to his mother (“Watching 42, mother remembers Leo Durocher made passes at her twice: ‘Once as a Dodger, once as a Cub.’ Who’s the all-star?”) and the ICU staff (“Derek, mother’s kind & wise nurse, says ‘Get some sleep. Mothers like to see sons sleep.'”) And through it all, he and his mom displayed both resolve and wit. “I know end might be near as this is only day of my adulthood I’ve seen my mother and she hasn’t asked, ‘Why that shirt?'” Simon tweeted at one point on her final day.
Popular technology blog GigaOm’s post about Simon was headlined, “NPR host’s live-tweeting of his mother’s last moments shows the power of 140 characters.” At one point, Simon posted, “I am not sure my mother understands Twitter or why I tell her millions of people love her–but she says she’s very touched.”
Moving, or Oversharing?
Some of Simon’s attempts at gallows humor may have fallen flat and a few of his late-night musings may have seemed maudlin or even cliché, but most of his fans were supportive. Typical responses, among hundreds posted on his Twitter feed, read, “@nprscottsimon’s tweet stream is breaking my heart. Wishing him and his mother peace”; “You’re a good son for being there for her”; and “Humbled and deeply moved by raw emotion of @nprscottsimon’s tweet stream.”
“It’s fashionable to roll one’s eyes at oversharing in public,” Monica Hesse wrote in The Washington Post. “Oversharing is crass, a symptom of a society with ego and without boundaries. But reading about a grown man crumbling over the bed of his dying mother apparently penetrated the hard shell of the Internet. It was reminding people what it meant to feel, and to be bare, and most of all, to have a mother.”
Others weren’t so sure that Simon was doing the right thing, either as a journalist or a son.
“Some moments maybe should still be private, right?” blogger Justin McLachlan wrote on the media-industry blog Fishbowl DC. “Live-tweeting a death is … well, we’re not quite that comfortable with it yet and we’re not sure we ever should be. Sometimes it is OK to flip off the reporter switch and just be with your loved ones in a time of pain and grief. Losing someone close to you is hard enough as it is. Do you really want to share the moment-by-moment with a million people like you’re just filing some story?”
A commenter on McLachlan’s blog agreed, responding, “He’s tweeting her final moments. How dignified. I mean, I hope that my children respect me enough to throw me in the ground and not let the whole world know about my undignified final moments.”
The reality is that many of us already live-tweet big events, like birthday parties, concerts, graduations and even weddings. “But the intimate intricacies of dying represent a scarcely charted frontier,” Hesse wrote. “Prolonged and sustained displays of personal emotion are frowned on.”
Larry Samuel, author of the book, Death, American Style, told Hesse, “It’s the last taboo that we have.”
How We Mourn Today
Simon’s tweets, and the door they appear to have opened for others to share similar moments with their online followers, may represent just the most recent shift in a lengthy back-and-forth between private and public mourning in the United States. Before the 20th century, Matt Pearce wrote in the Los Angeles Times, death was much more public than it is today. Funerals, for example, often took place in the deceased’s home.
“We have many more opportunities to visit the dying person” today, Deborah Carr, a sociology professor at Rutgers University, told Pearce, and the rise in popularity of hospice-care services has even brought some deaths back into the home. “There’s much greater acceptance of death today,” Carr said, “largely because more and more people have seen death.”
The question that any of us who read Simon’s tweets have to ask ourselves is whether we could have done what he did. I don’t think I could have, not because of any old-fashioned sense of propriety but the feeling that my own parents’ deaths — my father died almost two years ago — were quiet moments I simply could not imagine resonating outside my own family. As with any Twitter project, there is a measure of ego in Simon’s tweets. Remember, this is a platform initially driven by fans following their favorite celebrities.
On the other hand, amid all the social-media noise, some moments of clarity and even universal truth resound. I was reviewing Simon’s series of tweets with a critical eye, until I came upon this one: “I love holding my mother’s hand. Haven’t held it like this since I was 9. Why did I stop? I thought it unmanly? What crap.”
If that sentiment alone inspires more middle-aged men to hold their mothers’ hands or to tell their moms how much they love them, then I’d say it was all worth it.