Death in 140 characters

On the day when my brother died this April, I went to Twitter and wrote to my twenty- something – thousand followers:

So all of these people on Twitter knew about my brother’s passing, even before I was able to share the news with our Aunt Patsy in Ballarat.
Was it wrong or right for me to turn to social media in that intense time of grief? Disrespectful, unthinking, oversharing?
Just what did I think I’d get out of it? Was it for him or me, or… I’ve been thinking lately about all of that.
Now, perhaps, I have the answer.
I ask the question because, like more than a millon people on Twitter, I followed @nprscottsimon and his 140 character messages as his beloved mother took her last breath and died.
Simon is a presenter on the American public radio station NPR. In an article in the New York Times, his colleague Will O’Leary explained to all those who hadn’t been following, just how events unfolded.
“On 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,’ wrote O’Leary.
The tweets – some blackly funny, others bittersweet – garnered an amazing response (even the “Today” show’s Katy Couric retweeted them) and some wondered was it morbid, inappropriate?
The last few tweets were heart-breaking. It was as if we all had been at his mother’s bedside.

For me, sharing news of my brother’s death was for two reasons: a simple form of communication – not unlike setting an announcement on a Royal Easel – and also because my family is scattered now, I longed for the touch and affirmation of a crowd.
It’s perhaps the oldest of human longings, to be held and comforted in times of grief. And even though the murmurs of understanding and expressions of condolence were “virtual”, they were no less uplifting for that.
In fact as I read all the sweet, kind and compassionate messages on that morning of my overwhelming loss, they really did my heart good and so I tweeted, and I meant it:

It’s utterly fascinating to me that I lived through a time (was it the ‘70s?) when all sociologists warned us that the “nuclear family” would certainly be the death of us. Our increasing mobility and wealth meant we’d all be living in little boxes in sterile suburbs. We’d live an isolated, desperate exsistence and probably die alone.
And yet, defying those predictions, we humans came up with technologies that see us connected now more than ever in human history. Even in the poorest places on earth, we have embraced the mobile phone. And that phone is designed for only one thing – to talk to other humans.Then, being the communal beings we are, we devised social media so we could talk to others we’ve never even met.
Billions of messages, beyond counting, are sent and posted every day in social media. We share our joys and disappointments, the most mundane of happenings, the urgency of political uprisings and of course, the daily news.
And while we focus on the rude, threatening and bullying, we sometimes forget all those messages that are sent in kindness. How many that simply say: “ I love you” and are answered with “I love you too.”
So, really, why shouldn’t death be a part of it ?

As O’Leary writes: “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.
“It’s our equivalent of the ringing of church bells in the town square, for better or for worse.”
So maybe on that day when my brother died, I too rang the bell.
And I’ll never forget those who looked up from what they were doing and took a moment to tell me they’d heard the chime and noted my dear brother’s passing with a message of respect.

When has social media been a help to you?

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