Death In The Time Of Twitter, Or, How We Grieve Now

NPR's Scott Simon has been live-tweeting his mother's death, raising the question: Where does death belong in an age when we can share anything with anyone?

The saying goes that you can't escape death. But on social media—and particularly Twitter—it can be just as difficult to escape the death of others.

Twitter is often the first place we hear news of a celebrity's death. It's where the doctor Kate Granger, who has terminal cancer, plans to live-tweet from her deathbed. It's where, last October, my feed overflowed with 140-character memorials to Steve Jobs, the vast majority of which came from people who never knew him personally.

But Twitter is also a place to share our deeply personal grief for the loved ones we know best. This is demonstrated by Scott Simon, the host of NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, who, for several days, has been live-tweeting his mother's death from her bedside at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Simon's eloquent, deeply personal tweets on the subject have brought several Twitter followers to tears over a woman they will never meet.

Jenny McCartney, a Telegraph columnist who reflected on the doctor Granger's decision to live-tweet her deathbed experience, best phrases the dichotomy of private and public expression, as it relates to death:

"The notion of death is so mysterious and enormous that, in many cases, it seems easier just to lock it away, although it has a way of escaping and sneaking up on our peripheral vision."

The question of how we deal with death now has become increasingly complex in an era when anything can be shared with anyone. We take to social media to announce our engagements, our babies, our new jobs. But should our thoughts on the dying remain a private affair? Is it fair to bring others into our own, deeply personal experiences with death through very public mediums? Are social media updates becoming another stage of the grieving process? Share your thoughts in the comments.

[Image: Flickr user Energetic Spirit]

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  • kathy kastner

    twittering from a funeral has come up several times in the tweetchats devoted to end of life issues, and it always sparks discussion. Since twitter has been essential in my own understanding of complexities of dying death, grief and bereavement, I applaud @nprscottsimon for letting us into his mother's last moments. Dying and death have become so mysterious to this generation of medical advancements, that we need to get reconnected to the natural progression of life. I say: let twitter be one conduit.
    Kathy Kastner

  • kathy kastner

    Twitter has changed my end of life experience - not specifically those of   although indeed very moving.
    A couple of years ago I discovered a tweet chat for hospice and palliative care medicine professionals, #hpm and was immediately taken with their grace and concern and commitment to a dignified and peaceful end of life. That I gleaned in between medical terminology beyond my comprehension. But the miracle of twitter communities focused on end of life issues, is they are generous in their willingness to help give this layperson the context with which to make informed decisions.
    I did a TEDtalk about this twitter-sparked journey that's changing my end of life - whilst I am still in excellent health  – and motivated creating - which was focus-grouped via #EOLchat (end of life chat).
    I now, I guest host #DWDchat (Death with Dignity) and have an app in development to help sort through decisions related to specific health conditions.
    All started with a tweet.

  • HeatherTN

    It depends on the person and what they want to share. Whilst it can be upsetting sometimes to read of experiences, it can also be of value and comfort. For example I have an inoperative non-maligant brain tumour which can still be fatal and has caused a lot of damage. Thursdays on Twitter for some is #braintumorthursday where a lot will share their experiences, facts, figures and concerns. I have found this inspiring, informative and I know then I am not alone. The same could be said for those who wish to share their experiences with the dying etc.

  • Guest

    I never posted or wrote about my grief.  It has been such a sad event that I have felt it too personal. It's been a year and half and I still cry every day. I sometimes wonder if I tell the world would it make the pain less? I believe it could relieve some of the loneliness that you feel with grief.

  • Wkerst

    I followed the tweets and found them profoundly moving. I was inspired to call my mom, remind my wife how much I love her, and remind my children to cherish their mother. I'm sure I was not the only one. Mr. Simon's generosity in sharing his grief was a good reminder that while so many of us are strangers in name we all very alike in our humanity. Empathy can be compromised if not exercised. In that sense, sharing a strangers grief can be quite a workout with dividends paid over time.