Deathbed tweets test way Americans confront mortality
WASHINGTON—For several days now, US public radio personality Scott Simon has been live-tweeting from the deathbed of his 84-year-old mother—and in the process, challenging a great American taboo.
Conventional wisdom in the United States holds that process of dying is an intensely private affair, not for public view, but Simon chose to freely share his thoughts and emotions with his 1.26 million Twitter followers and indeed the entire world.
In bursts of 140 characters or less, the prolific host of National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” praised the nurses caring for his mother Patricia Lyons Simon Newman in the intensive care unit of a Chicago hospital.
He relayed his mother’s last witticisms. He put up mobile phone photos of her hospital room and the cityscape beyond its window. And as life inevitably gave way to death Monday, Simon, 61, duly recorded the moment.
“Heart rate dropping. Heart dropping,” he wrote at @nprscottsimon.
And then: “The heavens over Chicago have opened and Patricia Lyons Simon Newman has stepped onstage … She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night.”
Less melodramatic was the morning after: “You wake up and realize: you weren’t dreaming. It happened. Cry like you couldn’t last night.
“Worst: telling our daughters. Oldest was flinty, youngest sobbed. But guess which one cried long into the night.”
The tweets kept coming as the week went on, with Simon musing about the crematorium staff (“delightful company!”), his mother’s wigs (“Any idea of a cancer group that could use them?”) and how to tell the post office to cease delivering her mail.
“So much flotsam in the wake of a life,” he sighed.
Reaction to Simon’s online stream of consciousness in the face of mortality ran from glowing praise to downright outrage.
“I think what Scott Simon shared is wonderful and personal,” read one online comment under a Washington Post story about Simon’s Twitter vigil. “Maybe not for everyone, but neither is any art.”
“Ghoulish and disrespectful,” stated another comment, this time in the Los Angeles Times. “Nothing to do with his poor dying mother. It’s all about HIM.”
Simon’s real-time expression of grief reflected not only the omnipresence of social media, but also the irrefutable demographic fact that time is literally running out for the baby boomer generation.
The US Census Bureau says baby boomers—those born between 1946 and 1964, including Simon—numbered 76.4 million last year, or about a quarter of the population.
By 2060, when the youngest boomer will be 96, they’ll only be 2.4 million, or 0.6 percent of the entire projected US population.
In the meantime, boomers and their offspring are dealing with the demise of their aging parents and grandparents.
In 2011, those aged 65 and over accounted for nearly two-thirds of all deaths in the United States, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control.
‘Period of death’
“We are entering an unprecedented period of death,” writes cultural historian Lawrence Samuel in his just-published book “Death, American Style,” which chronicles how death in the United States came to be “un-American.”
Prior to the 1920s, he argues, death was a widely shared community event—think Irish wakes or New Orleans jazz funerals. Then the individual became the focal point of society, pushing mortality into the shadows.
“It’s our last taboo. It used to be sex, but now it’s much more death,” Samuel, the author of several books on facets of American popular culture, told Agence France-Presse in a telephone interview Thursday from his home in Florida.
“It’s opposite to a lot of our defining values as a country—things like youth or progress or achievement—you’re not achieving anything anymore when you’re dead—or having vitality and energy,” he said.
In that sense, “death is very un-American, especially if you’re a baby boomer and embrace those values in a big way.”
That said, Samuel underscored the way in which the Internet has altered the way Americans grieve, with such innovations as online memorials and live webcasts of funeral services for the benefit of far-flung dearly beloved.
He put Simon’s Twitter vigil in the context of a “grief memoir” literary trend that has seen best-selling authors such as Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates write intimately about their own brushes with mortality.
“What is different is that it’s Twitter, rather than a book,” he said. “It has all the advantages, and disadvantages, of being in real time and in little nuggets.” Elizabeth Luth, a sociologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey who studies the gap between the way people expect they’ll die and the way they actually do, wasn’t surprised by the emotional response to Simon’s tweets.
“I feel the reaction is as much a reflection of people’s own relationship to thinking about death, or experiencing the death of a loved one, as anything else,” she told AFP.
She added: “Certainly I’d say social media has given (grief) a new platform for expression.” On Thursday, Simon was still very much in expressive mode.
“Someone I’ve found difficult to like sent me such a nice note on my mother I forgot why I didn’t like him,” he tweeted. “Thanks Mother.”
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