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Summary:

Scott Simon, an author and host of NPR’s Weekend Edition, has been posting messages to Twitter from his mother’s bedside in the intensive care unit of a Chicago hospital and the response has shown just how powerful Twitter can be.

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By now, we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing Twitter used as a real-time news delivery system for events of global importance like an earthquake or a revolution that we forget how powerful it can be when used in an intensely personal way by a single person going through a life-changing event. National Public Radio host Scott Simon has been providing a lesson in that over the past couple of days, as he has been live tweeting the last days of his mother, Patricia, who is in the intensive care unit at a Chicago hospital.

Some observers have questioned whether Simon’s use of Twitter during such an intensely personal time is appropriate, or whether it is somehow exploitative and crass — just as some questioned whether my live-tweeting of a friend’s funeral last year was appropriate. But I think what Simon is doing is a powerful statement not just about his own relationship to his mother and what she is going through, but also a moving commentary on death and the elderly.

In some ways, Simon’s use of Twitter actually makes what he’s been doing from his mother’s bedside a lot more personal than if he were broadcasting on the radio or doing a video report — something that would seem impersonal and gratuitous. The simple posting of short messages, reporting his mother’s comments on various aspects of her care or making observations about her life, is so much more human in a sense. And those messages are clearly resonating with his followers, since many have been retweeted hundreds of times.

Simon, an author and host of NPR’s Weekend Edition, has posted some humorous comments made by his mother, as well as a photo of the inflatable bed that he has been sleeping on in her room, and hasn’t shied away from talking about the emotional impact of losing his mother. In many ways, reading his feed is like listening in on a conversation — with powerful emotional statements mixed in with complaints about hospital food, or a description of Simon holding his mother in his arms for hours while she slept.

One commenter on a Wall Street Journal post about what Simon is doing didn’t see the purpose, saying: “Now death itself in real time is the subject of internet sponsored chatter. If the dying moments of your mother can now be the subject of 140 character publicly disseminated sound bites, then any regard for privacy, and any sense of awe of life’s end, has been seriously anesthetized.” Many of Simon’s supporters disagreed, however, saying his live-tweeting was allowing others to experience his mother’s passing through his eyes in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before Twitter.

As I said in my post about live-tweeting my friend Michael’s funeral:

“One of the key features of social tools like Twitter, at least for me, is their ability to transport us to different places and allow us to see things through another’s eyes, whether it’s a personal event like Michael’s funeral or a politically-charged situation like the Arab Spring. This ability to collapse space and time is something that we almost take for granted now — but it is an incredibly powerful phenomenon.”

Matthew Hall from the San Diego Union-Tribune has collected some of Simon’s tweets in a Storify if you want to see more.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / mathom

  1. At first I was apprehensive about this – it can be thought almost insensitive considering the perception we carry that social media takes you away from being truly engaged in what’s going on around you.

    However after reading through his heart-wrenching feed I really think this is a great thing. It’s great for personal ‘venting’ during a tough time, it’s great for support from thousands as he sits alone in a hospital room. It’s great for opening others’ eyes and making it okay to feel.

    This is a great post, thanks for sharing.

    - James

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  2. Cheryl Archer Monday, July 29, 2013

    As I read Scott Simon’s tweets, I often imaging him sitting in his mother’s hospital room late in the evening when the lights are low. Introspection comes easy then. Sharing these moments stands as an act of courage and of love for his mother. It was a chance to meet a truly remarkable woman, a chance that I am grateful for.

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  3. Lovely post. How we respond says a great deal about how we see ‘life’ and what follows it. Scott Simon has given us all a great gift.

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  4. Amazing what an impact 140 characters can have, isn’t it?

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  5. I lost my mother 15 years back , I was 22 then now I am 37. Just two days back I wrote a blog in which I wrote a letter to her , complaining about my failures and insensitivity in this world. I know she’s listening . And she got my message,it’s about trust that she’s alive . .. In me. Around me. Hugs, Simon!

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  6. I think his posts are beautiful and wholly appropriate. The way people communicate has evolved. But the means through which we communicate doesn’t take away the meaning of what we say. A profound observation about the nature of death as it happens to someone you love is no less profound when made in 140 characters on the Internet than it would be hand-written on a piece of paper. Scott Simon — thanks for sharing these moments with us. We can only learn from them!

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    1. Well Said!

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  7. Thanks for sharingI must admit, I was apprehensive about the use of Twitter or any social media in such a situation, However, after reading his heartfelt tweets I really think he got window to vent his thougths and feelings during a tough time. Four years ago I sat beside my Moms bed, and I remember taking time to text some of my close friends. The fact that he could share this on twitter, was a great way of not feeling so alone in the situation, getting support and feedback, and it’s very good that someone makes it ok to feel, ok to cry, ok to share.

    This is the best post I’ve ever read! Thanks again!

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  8. Only connect.

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  9. Sharing these intimate moments via social network sites is a good release, especially for those who find a support system through Facebooking, twittering, etc. I know a blogger who wrote about her mother’s last moments and received an award for her poignantly written blogs. Of course, that’s not the point. She had a ton of followers who became more than just followers, they were her support system and in many ways they related to her situation, too.

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  10. Absolutely incredible what impact 140 characters can have on people.

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