Scott Simon, His Mom, and Twitter: A Very Public Death

Jul 31, 2013, 4:06 PM, Posted by

Scott Simon is a popular radio host on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday. His mother, Patricia Lyons Gilband, a former actress, died July 29 at 7:17 p.m., in the intensive care unit (ICU) of a Chicago hospital. But you might already know that, if you are one of Simon’s 1.2 million Twitter followers, because he has been live Tweeting her final days since July 23.  

Judging by the many articles, comments, retweets, and reactions bouncing around the web, Simon’s 140-character dispatches from the frontline of death have been moving and inspirational for most—and gag-inducing for some, who believe death should be a private affair. Having lost a parent and a spouse—and both died in an ICU—I’m with the first group.

Watching a loved one die is a wrenching process that few of us are adequately prepared to face. We struggle to express our feelings, and our friends and family struggle with how to appropriately comfort us. By eloquently sharing his own experience in real time, Simon takes us on a remarkable journey through the experience of death in a high-tech hospital ward that helped many of his readers deal with their end-of-life experiences. His tweets were at times grueling, at times funny, at times discomforting, at times instructive.

Bless all ICU nurses who are getting people through pain & anxieties tonight.

All hospitals should have roll-out chairs in ICU rooms so loved ones can spend night w/ patients & not sleep on floor.

I am getting a life's lesson about grace from my mother in the ICU. We never stop learning from our mothers, do we?

I consider this a good sign: mother sez when time comes, obit headline should be Three Jewish Husbands, But No Guilt.

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.

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.

As a Washington Post article noted, Simon might have been more eloquent, and circumspect, if he had waited a few months to write about his experience in a more traditional format. Then he would have likely gotten nothing but praise—as did Joan Didion’s book on her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, which won the National Book Award, or David Goldhill for his Atlantic cover story on the death of his father, or Michael Wolff’s New York Magazine cover story on his mother’s long decline, or Charles Ornstein’s ProPublica story on his mother’s death, or Christopher John Farley’s Wall Street Journal account of his father’s death—to name but a few first person accounts by professional writers.  By contrast, Simon’s tweets horrified many.

I, however, hope this very public window into death will get more of us to stop being quite so squeamish about the end of life. Too often we are unprepared for the final days, our own or our loved ones, and that lack of preparation only increases the pain. We don’t like to talk about how we want to die, what extraordinary measures, if any, we would want, or what options are available.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has invested $148 million in improving end-of-life care procedures in the U.S., yet still far too many people suffer unduly in their final months or weeks.  Surveys have shown that more than half of all Americans have not made their end-of-life wishes known to their families. The Conversation Project, started in 2010 by former Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman and other concerned people, is trying to change that by offering guidelines and other tools to facilitate that all-important talk. Simon’s tweets might help some people decide the time is now, before the ICU takes over, to start the conversation.  

So thank you, Scott. Thanks for sharing, for virtually helping so many people cope with their own grief, and for getting us to think about death, dying, grieving. For getting many of us to call our parents while we still can.