Aging and Death in the 21st Century

When I started reading last week’s Los Angeles Times story about Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday, tweeting his mother’s death, I was repulsed.

I was perplexed because I’ve enjoyed Simon’s smart, caring, humorous work. Is nothing sacred? What’s more private than a loved one’s death? Is there a worse way to add to one’s Twitter numbers than tweeting a parent’s final days? What, 1.2 million Twitter followers isn’t enough? Come on Simon!

By the end of the article my thinking had dramatically shifted. I was starting to understand, and even appreciate Simon’s decision. Still, my 28 Twitter followers* shouldn’t expect me to follow suit.

Some of Simon’s tweets—head tilt alert:

• Mother asks, “Will this go on forever?” She means pain, dread. “No.” She says, “But we’ll go on forever. You & me.” Yes.

• Mother called: “I can’t talk. I’m surrounded by handsome men.” Emergency surgery. If you can hold a thought for her now….

• My mother in ICU sees Kate & Will holding baby and tears: “Every baby boy is a little king to his parents. ” So I tear too.

• Mother cries Help Me at 2:30. Been holding her like a baby since. She’s asleep now. All I can do is hold on to her.

• I love holding my mother’s hand. Haven’t held it like this since I was 9. Why did I stop? I thought it unmanly? What crap.

• I don’t know how we’ll get through these next few days. And, I don’t want them to end.

• I know end might be near as this is only day of my adulthood I’ve seen my mother and she hasn’t asked, “Why that shirt?”

• I just realized: she once had to let me go into the big wide world. Now I have to let her go the same way.

• Heart rate dropping. Heart dropping.

• 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.

The Times praised Simon’s ability to “transform his mother’s pain into poetry.” “Death wasn’t always considered such a private matter,” Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University points out. “Before the 20th century, death in the United States used to be very public. People weren’t so isolated in the hospital; funerals were at home.”

“Social media,” the Times explains, “is playing its own role in reshaping the handling of death in American life, partially as a medium that functions as a gathering point for public mourners while giving grievers room to express themselves how they like.”

An advantage:

Many followers praised Simon’s openness for giving them the sense that they were not suffering alone. As one user put it, “comforting to know others are going through the same thing as my fam. May your mom pass peacefully, as I hope my father will.”

And a precautionary story:

The ongoing transition hasn’t arrived without friction. When the writer Susan Sontag died in 2004, her partner, the photographer Annie Leibovitz, documented the process, creating photographs that Sontag’s son later criticized as “carnival images of celebrity death.”

The Sontag take-away? If you feel compelled to blog, photograph, or tweet a loved one’s death, get their okay and immediate family members’ too. No surprises.

* The fact that I have 28 Twitter followers is among the net’s greatest mysteries. Too few peeps know just how brilliant my Twitter feed is. If there’s a tweet in the forest, and no one reads it. . . .

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