Broadcasting Bereavement

Starting July 21, when his mother entered the ICU of a Chicago area hospital, until she died eight days later, NPR’s Scott Simon live-tweeted her passing to his 1.3 million followers. Meghan O’Rourke believes the outpouring of interest in the public grieving “suggests a hunger on the part of Americans for a way to integrate death and mourning into our lives—a hunger that is being met by social media”:

Simon’s Twitter feed was not an imposition of his mourning on others, not some kind of gruesome exhibitionism. It was simply a modern version of what has always existed: a platform for shared grief where the immediate loss suffered by one member of a community becomes an opportunity for communal reckoning and mourning. As the novelist Marilynne Robinson once said, suffering is a human privilege. Grief is the flip side of love. Mourning has become an all too isolated experience—but Facebook and Twitter have become a place (strange as it may seem) where the bereaved can find community, a minyan of strangers to share their prayers. Yes, it might seem strange to stumble upon announcements of death or the intimate details of dying amidst updates about summer trips to Costa Rica, Anthony Weiner’s escapades, and the arrival of a new puppy. But this strangeness is the strangeness of the real.

Will more and more people tweet from hospital rooms? It’s possible. It’s already common on Facebook, where people often announce that a loved one is in the hospital or has died. While some have bemoaned this—the Social Q’s column, in my recollection, once pronounced that Facebook was not the place to announce a death—it doesn’t feel morbid or inappropriate to me. It’s our equivalent of the ringing of church bells in the town square, for better or for worse.

Dreher, who blogged his sister’s Ruther’s fight with cancer, and then wrote with brutal honesty about their relationship in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, wonders when a writer who deals with such intimate matters crosses the line into “mawkish exhibitionism”:

I don’t think Simon crossed the line — I loved his tweets, actually, and think they honored his mother artfully and compassionately. I hope I didn’t cross the line either, but it’s a hard line to discern, especially when you are in the middle of intense emotions. This is a particular risk for writers and journalists, like Simon and me, who tend to process experience through writing. Often I don’t know what I think about something until I have written it down. If a tree falls in the woods and I fail to write about it, at some level I think it hasn’t happened.

The overwhelming majority of the world isn’t like that, and finds that sort of thing weird and alien. As my wife often reminds me, for writers, everything is material, but it’s not like that for most. Truman Capote was genuinely shocked when his closest friends dropped him after he repeated, under a veil of fiction as thin as onion skin, scandalous gossip he’d heard over lunch. He couldn’t understand why they didn’t realize that he was a writer, and this was material for him. That was inhuman of Capote, but I understand his confusion, and have to fight it in myself. Perhaps I don’t fight it enough, I dunno.