Since its inception, Twitter has proved an unparalleled medium for trivia and trolling. But a remarkable series of tweets posted by one man from the bedside of his dying mother has been praised for demonstrating that social media can play a poignant role in chronicling life’s closing chapter.
For the past fortnight Scott Simon, a broadcaster on the US National Public Radio network, has been staging a Twitter vigil for his terminally ill mother, who is being treated in a Chicago hospital.
More than 1.2 million people have been following Simon’s moving updates, which range from reflective observations on his relationship with his stricken mother, her painful cries for help and even darkly humorous asides on his plight.
On Monday, Simon recorded that his vigil may soon come to an end, writing: “Her passing might come any moment, or in an hour, or not for a day. Nurses saying hearing is last sense to go so I sing & joke.”
An award-winning broadcaster based in Washington, Simon’s tweets began when his mother underwent emergency surgery on 16 July.
Health experts said that social media could play a cathartic role for individuals who feel otherwise helpless as they wait at a loved one’s side.
“Mr Simon can’t leave his mother’s side and he doesn’t have access to his friends. This is an outlet for him. A way of releasing the misery he is going through,” said Dr Judy Kane, a trustee of Healthtalkonline.org, an award-winning website which helps patients and families share experiences of serious illness.
Dr Kane added: “He has shown that Twitter can help people derive a lot of comfort in these situations. They can say ‘Someone else is experiencing the same thing’.”
While social media is adding a new dimension to the grieving process, it has not always been employed sensitively.
A Denver newspaper experimented by having a reporter live tweeting the funeral of a 3 year-old boy. The results – “pallbearers carry out coffin followed by mourners…family members shovel earth into grave” – were condemned for being morbid and inappropriate.
Social media etiquette at funerals has also come under scrutiny after Alec Baldwin’s wife Hilaria was accused of tweeting during James Gandolfini’s funeral. The pregnant yoga instructor’s feed included requests for ideas about wedding anniversary presents and notes about a forthcoming television appearance during the service for the Sopranos’ star at a New York church.
Micro-blogging by the bereaved is becoming a fact of life, said Dr Kane. “People will increasingly bare their chest in this way. I trained as a GP in a different era where that didn’t happen.We didn’t even talk about cancer then, it was the elephant in the room.”
Dr Kane added that for those in Mr Simon’s situation: “I don’t think there’s any substitute for real friends by your side.”
Getting families of the terminally ill to confront the reality of an imminent death is a difficult task, which the use of social media may assist with, said Myra Johnson of Together For Short Lives, the charity for children with life-limiting conditions and those who care for them.
Ms Johnson said: “There are so many taboos about death and dying. People find it hard to express how they are feeling. Some may find it therapeutic to talk to a more anonymous audience rather than friends or families.”
However broadcasting daily updates of a dying friend or relative carries risks too.
“The concern might be that you don’t have any control over the responses,” Ms Johnson said. “Mr Simon has had wonderful, supportive comments but it’s possible with social medial that you could receive back something which is devastating for the family.”
Twitter can also save lives if medical professionals are able to identify cries for help and intervene. Paris Jackson, troubled 15 year-old daughter of the late Michael, had foregrounded her unhappiness and depression through a series of posts before a suicide attempt in May which landed her in hospital.
Tweets from Scott Simon @nprscottsimon:
"When she asked for my help last night, we locked eyes. She calmed down. A look of love that surpasses understanding."
"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."
"Thought that my mother won't get another glimpse of the city she loves is unbearable. My wife, from France, points out—'She is seeing Chicago in the faces of the loving, tough, & kind souls working so hard for her in the ICU.' She's right."
"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."
"Was my mother saving this line? My family flies in. My wife & I joke about me sleeping in the ICU ('All the beeps! Can't you med people keep it down?') Tell my mother I'll see my wife downstairs, back in 10. Mother says, 'Have a quickie!'"
"Breathing hard now. She sleeps, opens eyes a minute, sleeps. I sing, 'I'll always be there, as frightened as you,' to her."
"Mother groans w/ pleasure--over flossing. 'When they mention great little things in life, they usually forget flossing.'"
"I think she wants me to pass along a couple of pieces of advice, ASAP. One: reach out to someone who seems lonely today."
"And: listen to people in their 80's. They have looked across the street at death for a decade. They know what's vital."
"Oh, and: Oh earth, you're too wonderful for anyone to realize you. It goes too quickly."
"City is cool, bright, & lovely this morning. My mother touches a splash of sunlight w/ her fingers. 'Hello, Chicago!'"
"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."
"ICU seems to be staffed by good, smart young docs who think they know everything, and wise RN's who really do."
"When my mother woke briefly I sang her My Best Girl. She replied w/ You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Broadway in the ICU."
"Derek, mother's kind & wise nurse, says 'Get some sleep. Mothers like to see sons sleep.' But I hold her hand while I can."
"Wake up, see my hands shaking. Mother holds them, murmurs, 'Goodnight Sweet Prince.' Morphine, but no sleep for her."
"Mother asks, 'Will this go on forever?' She means pain, dread. 'No.' She says, 'But we'll go on forever. You & me.' Yes."
"I don't know how we'll get through these next few days. And, I don't want them to end."
"Mother called: 'I can't talk. I'm surrounded by handsome men.' Emergency surgery. If you can hold a thought for her now..."