For Whom the Bell Tweets

The Facebook pages of dead people are creepy places, like virtual gravestones that lack the death date after the hyphen. The dead’s last status updates, most recent pictures and walls filled with posts made by (now regretful) trolling friends sit in intangible permanence, awkwardly. As real life and social media life increasingly merge into one seamless bazaar of the living, death leaves an awkward stain in the digital flurry – a corpse attracting flies in the corner of the party.

 Americans hate death.  We take pills and eat kale to prolong our lives, and inject toxins into our foreheads to look like we have longer than we do. When our parents’ breath starts to smell of death, we send them away, marking our calendars to visit once a week out of filial guilt. Generally, death is best quarantined in nursing homes, hospitals, and cemeteries.

 So when NPR host Scott Simon started live tweeting his mother’s death this summer, it shook the Twittersphere. Far from an isolated morbid location, Twitter is teeming with ideas and clattering keyboards: journalists, activists and professionals shouting over one another to express opinions and dispense information. Death on Twitter is of the AP bulletin variety: “5 dead in suicide bombing in Kabul,” “2 flight passengers missing, assumed dead.” But Simon’s expression of death on Twitter was far from the removed reporting deemed acceptable for the public sphere: it was intimate, like he purposefully left his curtains open so the world could watch him undress.

            I didn’t notice the tweets at first, since they started small -- a note about an emergency surgery for his mother sandwiched between commentaries on the news. As Simon’s mother took a turn for the worse in her ICU bed, however, his Twitter feed was exclusively taken over by updates about her last days. Twitter, myself among the legions, eavesdropped as Simon and his mother serenaded nurses with Broadway tunes, watched baseball, flossed, and decided on a headline for her obituary (“Three Jewish Husbands, But No Guilt”). I checked his tweets like my own Facebook newsfeed without knowing why; it was addictive in its seeming subversion, the sole Twitter account I followed that felt living even as it confronted death.

            Eventually, Simon tweeted, “Heart rate dropping. Heart dropping,” and then: “The heavens over Chicago have opened and Patricia Lyons Simon Newman has stepped onstage.” After almost two weeks of tenderly morbid tweeting, Scott Simon had filled the newsfeeds of over one million followers with dispatches from his mother’s deathbed. It was a refreshing torrent of death – not defiance, but simple acceptance.

Simon’s extreme openness left many tweeters’ feathers ruffled: if there is a line between life and death in social media, he most definitely crossed it. But his public grappling with loss reminded me that – like every other milestone in life, from births to graduations to weddings – passing is best with company. If social media is a reflection, or more likely an extension, of our physical lives, the absence of human mourning online is stark. In a space where we share with millions the contents of our breakfasts and our brains, the taboo against sharing the experience of a loss seems dissonant, even strange.

Patricia Newman’s twitter-broadcast death was something of a last hurrah. She dispensed advice through her son, cracked jokes, and doted on her nurses: the dispatches from her deathbed depict her with the raw dignity of death.  And on media platforms where impersonal reports of killings are commonplace, the story of a woman who went softly was a breath of life.

-The Not-So-Grim Reaper