“Where’s the line between an Internet overshare and a compelling peek into human existence?” asked Jill Filipovic in Salon.com. NPR host Scott Simon delicately walked it last week by live-tweeting his mother’s death from her hospital room to his 1.2 million followers. The tweets began as casual references to her illness: “Watching ChiSox vs Tigers game in ICU w/ mother. Score not improving MY blood pressure.” But as her condition deteriorated, they took on a more poignant tone: “I love holding my mother’s hand,” he wrote. “Haven’t held it like this since I was 9. Why did I stop?” Then, more desperately: “Mother cries ‘Help me’ at 2:30. Been holding her like a baby since.” Finally, Simon tweeted that she had died: “The heavens over Chicago have opened and Patricia Lyons Simon Newman has stepped onstage,” he wrote.
I’ll admit, I found some of Simon’s tweets “genuinely touching,” said Justin McLachlan in MediaBistro.com. He obviously found the process cathartic, as did many of his followers, who shared their own experiences of grief online. Still, some moments should remain private, and death is one of them. Simon should have “flipped off his reporter’s switch” and spent the precious final moments of his mother’s life providing love and support. Instead, he spent them tapping away on his smartphone while she suffered beside him. Simon has set an unsettling precedent, said Justin Nobel in HuffingtonPost.com. “Live-death videos and photos inevitably will follow.”
So what? said Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon.com. “There isn’t one right or wrong way to let someone go.” Unfortunately, we Americans have let our “cultural squeamishness” about death dictate how we mourn—preferably privately and quietly. Simon gave us “an intense glimpse into an experience usually marked by deep secrecy.” In doing so, he used a modern medium to restore something we’d lost, said Meghan O’Rourke in NewYorker.com. Before the 20th century, mourning was a public act: People would bring casseroles, help to wash the body, sit shivah or attend the wake; some would even get to the deathbed in time “to witness the solemn and ecstatic moment of death itself.” But because most people today die in hospitals, we’ve lost that old intimacy with death. The “extraordinary response” to Simon’s Twitter feed suggests that many Americans hunger for that a fuller sense of mourning. Grief, we come to realize, “is the flip side of love.”
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