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NPR host’s live-tweeting of his mother’s last moments shows the power of 140 characters

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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

29 Responses to “NPR host’s live-tweeting of his mother’s last moments shows the power of 140 characters”

  1. This was beautiful and powerful! I truly proves how social media after all is used by humans for humans!, and we have a need to communicate for empathy, likes, sales, inform or whatever you wish to, this is a deep article in many ways, thanks for the share!

  2. It just proves the frailty of our humanity, and the need to connect with our loved ones always. lost my Grandpa and i sat at his deathbed in ICU for about 3 weeks, i can really relate with his posts.

  3. Wow, a powerful post on a powerful subject. Very controversial and I’m not sure what side I fall on, but surely we need to normalise death more, help reduce the fear of it? I wonder if people would feel differently if it were live tweeting at a wedding?

  4. I first heard about Scott Simon while watching the news. There were several comments made that tweeting in this situation was in appropriate. It is not as though he was not in the moment or careing for his mother. I agree that sometimes the use of social media, twitter, facebook etc. CAN take us out of the moment. However, what Scott Simon did was beautiful. He has documented the last moments of his mothers life in a way that we can all relate. Everyone has lost moments in their lives, pictures they wish they had taken, letters they wish they had read but Scott Simon will forever have these last moments with his mother.

  5. Many are uncomfortable when it comes to the subject of death. However, death is apart of life. People use Twitter to post pics of their dinners and chronicle their daily lives. So Scott Simon is no different. The great thing about social media is it shows how powerful sharing can be. I’m sure he has touched many people with his tweets about his dying mother and that I have no problems with. Great Post!

  6. I love this- I completely agree that Twitter is a powerful medium. I work in marketing/social media and honestly I think in 140 character sentences now about everything I experience. But on a more serious note, I think its a great way to reach out to people and build community when you otherwise couldn’t. It’s literally interrupting conversations but in cyberspace, where people are less shy and can gather around common interests easier because they don’t have the physical person to make assumptions about- it helps break down barriers between strangers. Although obviously can never replace the personal feel of face-to-face, one on one interaction.

  7. Many of us for some reason don’t like to think about DEATH..Though it is logically a normal and guaranteed part of LIFE..It is hard to let go of loved ones; even when they’re in physical PAIN..Still we selfishly want to hold them here; even though moving onto greener pastures is what is best for them..I think the part that makes us terribly human is that we have an issue grasping the UNKNOWN..How this man could possibly distract himself from the moment to write; is amazing..I’m a highly emotional person & can’t imagine being able to do that..But doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate reading words from someone who could. Death is a topic not written about enough..I only just returned from a family member’s funeral..Being that I’ve not attended many funerals; it was a family-bonding-learning-experience..It will probably forever remain a tough topic for the living to wrap their brains [email protected] 2 thumbs UP for posting this!

  8. There are times, so personal and so overwhelming, we simply need to springboard our feelings, thoughts and emotions. Years ago our family was at our mothers bedside when the life support systems were shut off. We had each other. I cannot imagine being alone in such a moment, on either side, patient or supporter.

  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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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!

  12. 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!

  13. jcmejo

    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.

  14. Cheryl Archer

    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.

  15. 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