Narratives of death inside social media circles can touch our humanity and inspire a sense of belonging with a complete stranger. Even though our gaze into the painful experiences of another person is distant and virtual, the sheer ferocity of loss expressed is a poignant reminder of the extreme fragility of all life. Death awakens us from our slumber and imparts knowledge from which there is no possibility of retreat.
The Feeling of Death Inside Social Media
Aging means that we are here for an unknown amount of time, and then we disappear.
Losing a parent is a difficult experience that most of us must endure. When we lose a loved one, we feel how wild and fierce life can be.
Scott Simon generated a great deal of attention when he used Twitter to share his experiences at his mother’s deathbed. What he has done for us is quite remarkable and courageous. The public attention he generated was astounding. His Twitter account currently has 1.2 million followers.
We are all hungry for real-life experiences that are expressed through integrity, sincerity, and authenticity. We might not expect to find these qualities in a series of textual vignettes called tweets. As we will see, the language of brevity can reveal powerful insights that reach deep into our identity.
Simon’s mother, Patricia Lyons Simon Newman, died in a Chicago hospital on Monday July 22, 2013 at the age of 84. Regrettably, I was not a real-time follower of Simon’s Twitter feed in the days leading up to his mother’s death.
Tweets about Death
Words are sometimes hijacked by technological metaphors. For example, our understanding of human memory is often skewed by a preference for computer memory.
A tweet is a natural and beautiful chirping sound made by a bird. When we walk in nature, we are surrounded by the musical language of birds, and the confluence of their tweets and chirps accompany us along our way. In nature, tweets contribute to the literature of the earth.
Twitter is a technology, and a tweet is a text-snippet limited to 140 characters. Tweets are silent, or announced by a repetitive digital chirp. Some tweets include pictures as well as links to other websites. On the Internet, tweets exemplify the language of brevity.
Below is a selection of Scott Simon’s tweets – NPR’s Scott Simon Tweets From His Mother’s Hospital Bedside and my own reactions to them.
Sharing the personal and intimate details surrounding death remains controversial. A hospice worker felt that Simon’s actions prevented him from being “fully present” during his mother’s death. She claimed that he was not “100% emotionally there for his mother.” The criticism is not surprising, but I believe it to be misguided.
I did not use technology while I spent time with my mother during her final few days. I did phone and send text messages during those moments I was not in the room with her. Regardless, how is it possible to not be “fully present” or “100% emotionally there” as a parent lay dying? The criticism points toward qualities that are idealised and unrealistic.
We need to reintegrate death and mourning back into our lives. In her article Tweeting Death, Meghan O’Rourke describes the possibility of using social media as “a platform for shared grief where the immediate loss suffered by one member of a community becomes an opportunity for communal reckoning and mourning.”
From what I have read, Scott Simon was as present as anyone could be during his mother’s death. I would suggest that his presence was deep, concentrated, and reflective. Being fully present means being with emotions we cannot begin to understand and feelings that want to knock us off of our feet.
A writer never stops writing.
Connecting our Experiences
As I read Simon’s tweets (in bold below) on his mother’s death bed, I felt an immediate sense of connection. I entered into a silent “conversation” with Simon about a profoundly difficult moment in both of our lives.
- “I just realized: she once had to let me go into the big wide world. Now I have to let her go the same way.”
As a parent, we must eventually let our children go out into the world to embrace their own independence. As a child, we must eventually allow our parents to return to the earth. Letting go is a fierce necessity, and this is why we grieve.
- “If we only truly realized how little time we have…”
The painful realities of life are the ones we need to keep close in. If we do not, we risk living an unlived life. This is the source of regret.
- “Our children want to know if you’re dead forever. I tell them yes. But I wonder about that too.”
What remains behind after a loved one has passed? Open discussions about death and dying with young people are essential. Who is helping them with this?
- “I am getting a life’s lesson about grace from my mother in the ICU. We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?”
Three years after my mother’s passing, I still hold private conversations with her spirit. Her absence has revealed a new form of presence in my life. She is gone now, but she has never left me.
- “When my mother woke briefly I sang her My Best Girl. She replied w/ You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Broadway in the ICU.”
We listened to “In the Mood” and other big band tunes as my mom lay dying in her final moments.
- “And: listen to people in their 80’s. They have looked across the street at death for a decade. They know what’s vital.”
Cherish your parents. Spend time with them – offer them your complete presence. They possess wisdom. One day they will be gone. And then where will you be?
- “She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night.”
Every human being throughout time has had some kind of imagination about what happens after death. I don’t know where my mom has gone, but she shines in the midst of a dark night.
- Mother asks, “Will this go on forever?” She means pain, dread. “No.” She says, “But we’ll go on forever. You & me.” Yes.
The spirits of our departed loved ones inhabit us. They are not ghosts within, they inhabit our thoughts, feelings, and actions. We are never alone
- “The heavens over Chicago have opened and Patricia Lyons Simon Newman has stepped onstage.” I watched and held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath. The silence and stillness that followed was paralyzing. I looked for her in disbelief. I went into shock. Lost. How do I move forward now? An era had ended.
Death brings us together, and extends an invitation to meet inside the crucible of our own humanity.