Journalist Scott Simon was on the other side news recently, when he shared intimate details about the final days and moments of his mother's life with his 1.3 million Twitter followers. (YODCOX!/flickr)

Call me old-fashioned, but the last thing I’d want by my deathbed is a narrator.

In case you missed the story, NPR’s Scott Simon recently made the decision to broadcast his mother’s final days from her hospital room, one tweet at a time. Now, I’ve no doubt there’s ample precedent: These days, people update their followers in real-time about anything from labor contractions to hiccup remedies. But Simon has 1.3 million followers, and these tweets captured some serious attention across the Twittersphere.

First, a necessary caveat:

This is not a piece about Simon or the quality of his grief or anything else related to his sad circumstances. Rather it is a commentary on what seems to me to be a disturbing phenomenon in our society, whereby our communication technologies are increasingly commandeering what have historically been intimate human experiences.

According to The New York Times, Simon did not begin his deathbed vigil with a “project” in mind. When he began tweeting he did not know his mother’s hospitalization would end in her passing. His first tweet [below], a quick missive from the ER, was presumably a one-off — not freighted with the intention of more to come.

But more did come. More than a week’s worth, in fact, during which time Simon’s mother continued to decline. And while his tweets were often heart-rending, I could not help but come away from the experience of reading them with a disturbing combination of sympathy and horror.

Yes, we are writers. And yes, whether we write novels or blogposts or stand-up jokes or tweets, we are doing what we somehow need to do — processing our world through our words. Most of us will go there for succor when we need to, and many will feel unburdened by the very act of capturing the experience — pinning it down to the sheet like some kind of rare, exquisite butterfly. For me, it is one of the greatest blessings of being a writer, a metaphorical safety-valve through which pain or grief can magically release. One has only to think of poet Donald Hall’s “Without,” a tribute to his dying wife Jane Kenyon:

Scott Simon posted this photo of his mother, Patricia Lyons Simon Newman, with the following caption, "My mother, enthralled as her son conducts interview at @WBEZ," May 21, 2013. (Twitter)

Scott Simon posted this photo of his mother, Patricia Lyons Simon Newman, with the following caption, “My mother, enthralled as her son conducts interview at @WBEZ,” May 21, 2013. (Twitter)

The hour
we lived in, two decades
by the pond, has transformed
into a single unstoppable day,
gray in the dwelling-place
of absence.

But here’s the thing. I have been through the kind of vigil Simon describes, with several loved ones now. I have lived in that weird, insulated, windowless time-capsule, marking time according to blood work and respirations and the slow, hideous purpling of toes. I have logged the long hours in hospital chairs, chain-drunk its lousy coffee. I have breathed the smell of death. And I have no doubt that I am not yet done, that there will be more such vigils in my future, the hardest yet to come. But I also know that I will need to be present: clear-eyed; open to the raw, weeping edges of life.

Because there is a difference, I think, between being in the moment — participating in it fully — and stepping outside to report on it. The issue goes way beyond the deathbed vigil. Think of that video you just had to have of your kid celebrating his 5th birthday. These days, people tweet pictures of their dinner before they eat it, as though broadcasting their food trumps the act of enjoying it. We spend hours trolling our Twitter feeds instead of opening our eyes to the toddler quietly tugging at our sleeves.

To me, it is all an issue of timing. Of reflection versus reporting. I want to believe that Donald Hall wrote his poems in the evenings, when his wife was sound asleep, not thinking about his phrasing in the middle of a particularly painful blood draw.

While his tweets were often heart-rending, I could not help but come away from the experience of reading them with a disturbing combination of sympathy and horror.

So yes: The biggest part of me is not so much appalled as saddened by this new iteration of public over-sharing. I do not direct any of this at Simon himself: I know the impulse to reach out, to share the burden, even if that takes on new meanings as time goes by. I am not even specifically railing against Twitter, although it does strike me as a particularly insidious and intrusive form of communication. What I am most concerned with here is the fact that technology has once again afforded us a way to distance ourselves from the very substance of our lives — to put some other “thing” between us and our loved ones. For me, Simon’s experience simply affords an opportunity to pose a wider-angle lens on what is changing in our increasingly fragmented, technology-bound experience.

Twitter, I would maintain, is a zone. A place that is decidedly not where you are. A state of mind in which you’re always looking out for the next 140 character windfall, something you can scavenge out of this experience or that, like a photographer so intent on a picture that he neglects to take in the scene.

Wherever it is, whatever it is, it’s not a place I want to be when grief comes to call.


Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the name of poet Donald Hall. We regret the error.

Tags: Family, Relationships

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Debra

    Hmmm….there is a lot of down time while sitting in a hospital room with someone who is very sick. I think tweeting might have made Scott feel more connected to the living some how.

    • Rachel MA

      Yes. I agree with the author’s general premise that we allow electronics to interfere with actually living life too much but in this instance it might well enhance the experience by allowing the grieving party to process feelings.

    • Julia C. Campbell

      I COMPLETELY agree.

  • Ruth Shaver

    I think that Scott’s live Tweeting of his mother’s declining days brought us back to the simple humanity of living with someone as he or she is dying. It was commonplace 100 years ago for people to die at home, surrounded by loved ones; only very recently have we begun to restore that experience as one of many normative examples of death and dying. I hope his sharing helps many people be less afraid of walking on the path with their loved ones in their final days.

  • Lisa Borders

    I completely agree, Kim. I didn’t read the tweets, despite many links posted, because I found the whole idea disturbing and voyeuristic.

  • Melissa

    Was death, historically speaking, an “intimate” experience? I think death, like so many other fundamentally human events, was typically much more public before we began hiding it away behind hospital curtains, ashamed and afraid. Initially, I shared Ms. Triedman’s reservations about Scott Simon’s recent Tweets, but ultimately, I have decided something that takes us out of our comfort zone of turning inward behind locked doors, hiding the things we fear under the guide of intimacy, may in fact not be such a bad idea.

  • Sandra

    Being at the side of your loved-one while they are dying is an honor and a privilige. Caring for them, protecting them and letting them know how much you love them brings so much peace to you both. I have sat vigil with my only sister and my father and I never texted or posted or tweeted on word during that time. That being said, it is both heartbreaking and beautiful and the same time, and how one choses to express that is a very personal choice. Scott Simon chose to share that experience and I believe that is what he felt was best for him at the time.

  • rs986

    People have been writing about deathbeds since people have been writing: It is, like birth, one of the most seminal events in one’s life. I found Scott’s tweets to be a holy, gracious, glorious honoring of his mother and of the experience.

    And as someone who has been involved with hospice work for many years, any lifting of the shadows of ignorance and fear around death is, in my eyes, a good thing.

  • Grace Mattern

    I have sat with loved ones as they were dying, and found all kinds of expressions of grief in those moments, from actually writing to talking to laughing. We can’t judge how others choose to process their grief. Moreover, as someone who has encountered first hand our culture’s often impenetrable wall of death-denial, I found Simon’s tweets about his mother’s death refreshingly direct and their resonance with such a wide audience reflects our collective hunger to get real about what happens to all of us — we die. I applaud Scott Simon sharing his death vigil experience with others.

  • Adrienne

    While it is true that our electronic age of oversharing has taken away some of the human experience of living – the authors point about not being present at the 5YOs bday party because they are so eager to make sure they get a good video is spot on – I don’t think that Scott Simon’s tweeting during his mother’s final days is a good example. What he did was share his process and his mother’s to some extent – and I think he did it in a way that was personal, beautiful and important in removing the veil we’ve put around death. I think the crux of this conversation is important and one that is fair to dissect and review – but the example used isn’t right.