How Social Media Is Changing The Way We Approach Death

Death has long been taboo in an American culture that values youth, but an open conversation online can increase our enjoyment of life and understanding of its eventual end.

For a week last month, Scott Simon, the popular radio host of NPR's “Weekend Edition Saturday,” stayed by his mother's side in a Chicago hospital as she died. She ate and slept little, and spent her final nights singing show tunes with Simon and holding his hand. “We can get through this, baby,” she told him at one point. “The hardest part will be for you when it's over.”

I know these intimate details because I, like more than a million others, followed Simon on Twitter when news that he was sharing his hospital experience went viral. From July 22 to 29, @nprscottsimon tweeted about everything from the kindness of ICU nurses to the hassle of finding something comfortable to sleep on to his mother's tear-inducing deathbed wit.

Since his mother's passing, Simon's tweets have stirred up a national debate on social media's place in mourning and the appropriateness of making a matter as personal (and morbid) as death so public. The consensus seems to be that as social media-savvy generations age, death will creep its way onto platforms like Facebook and Twitter more and more. But questions remain. What will this do to us? How does talking more about death change the way we approach it, both when it’s close at hand and during our everyday, healthy lives?

Pictures of death as public as Simon's violate a century-old American taboo against the topic, says Lawrence Samuel, author of Death, American Style: A Cultural History of Dying in America . According to him, a handful of factors throughout the first half of the 20th century—World War I, the 1918 flu epidemic, modern medicine and the decline of religion—turned death into “this horrible little secret we have, instead of being the most natural thing in the world. Denial became the operative word, because death is oppositional to our culture's defining values, like youth, progress, and achievement.”


How Social Media Is Changing The Way We Approach Death - Paul Bisceglio - The Atlantic
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Ordinarily I'm usually not fond of private moments being displayed publicly, I personally tend to be very private although not especially secretive. Having said that however, I'm kind of thinking this social media usage to bring someones last days or moments into the public realm might not be such a bad idea. Providing it's not overly exploitative of course. The reason is that I really think we don't spend enough time talking about death, or more specifically about end of life. In terms of wishes, wants, care plans etc. And many don't really know beyond some vague peripheral knowledge what's really out there and available to assist us at that time.

Just reflecting on my own personal experience with it, planning out end of life care 'on the spur of the moment' is stressful, overwhelming. Frankly you have so many people bombarding you with information half the time you don't know what to think, what your saying yes or no to, it's absolutely insane. People plan their death to be sure, prepaid funeral and burials are very common, but very few take the time to plan how they want to live in that last stage beyond some perhaps casual mention of 'don't leave me on a machine'.

If we don't spend more time talking to our family and friends about this, we won't be involved in a discussion on a community or national level either. And that's important. So pehaps by having these people share their experiences we might me more inclined to open up the discussion amongst our own circle. Then maybe we can all stop being so afraid to talk about it.

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