09/06/2013 12:15 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2013

Death and Dying: Living and Dying in 140 Characters

"Heart rate dropping. Heart dropping."

In 36 characters, a grieving son captured on Twitter one of the most complex and universal human experiences -- the death of a mother.

NPR radio host Scott Simon made international news in July when he tweeted over the span of several days from his mother's deathbed -- opening a bright, beautiful window of connection with 1.2 million followers that illuminated a normally taboo subject.

As a veteran caregiver working with people in their final days, I am always looking for ways to connect the natural acts of death and dying to the act of living. I applaud Simon for doing just that.

Telling one's story is an essential part of the human connection that is so vital for both living and dying. Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and blogs have become immediate and natural venues for telling that story. As I explored in an earlier post, electronic conversations that humanely and lovingly chronicle the intimate act of dying can help reduce fear and stigma that surround death and dying.

Some critics have seen exploitation or trivialization in social media communiqués from the realm of death and dying. While there is room for caution whenever the internet meets privacy concerns and whenever technology noses into our most profoundly human moments, I find that in the right hands social media is an appropriate and responsive venue for gathering community around us in a time of need, loss and reflection. (That is, provided it is not your only venue -- human contact is vitally important in times of grief and mourning.)

One caregiver of aging parents writes on the AARP website that she asked her parents how they'd feel about her tweeting at their deathbeds. "If it's going to make you more comfortable and help you get through as a form of venting, I say, 'Go for it,'" answers her mother. (Her savvy mother dismisses Simon's critics, saying, "He just needs an Internet hug.")

Beyond Character Count
Some see Twitter, and its regimental word count, as necessarily superficial communication. But Simon's tweets were about character rather than character count. First, there was the character of his mother, which he was trying to preserve and honor even as her physical presence waned. Then there was the character of their relationship, mother and son, who delighted and comforted each other to the end.

Mother asks, "Will this go on forever?" She means pain, dread.
She says, "But we'll go on forever. You and me."

This, the relationship with a loved one, is often what we mourn in death. Simon has created a beautiful memorial of that relationship. There are, of course, many ways to do this. We all tell stories and share memories, whether at a deathbed vigil or memorials after a death. Some of us create memory boxes or photo albums to have a physical reminder of a relationship that bloomed in life. Twitter, which lies somewhere between the fleetingness of the moment and the permanence of the written word, is surprisingly well-suited (in the hands of someone like Scott Simon) to capturing thoughts and feelings as a loved one passes from life to death.

If we were to read Simon's series of haiku-like musings about his mother in the pages of a magazine or book, we would marvel, I am sure, at how eloquently he rendered the life and death of his beloved mother.

Remembering the "Social" in "Social Media"
While death of a loved one is an intensely private event, it also an intensely communal experience, one in which we benefit greatly from the love and support of others reminding us of the continuum of life and the social fabric that holds us. Many cultures and religions weave community participation into mourning rituals -- from Jewish families sitting shiva to jazz funerals in New Orleans. As families are increasingly spread out and may drift from cultural traditions, we are seeking and creating new venues for connection that reflect how we live, die and mourn today. Helping people stay connected to what brings them well-being is an important part of our work at VNSNY Hospice and Palliative Care. New technologies help us achieve that more and more every day.

In Simon's case, the grace, respect and love with which he portrayed his mother transcends technology. It is his words, and the sentiments behind them, that resound in our hearts. He is writing a love poem to his mother, and power to any poem that has a readership of 1.2 million.

I agree with Scott Simon's friend and NPR colleague Peter Sagal, who directed his own Twitter followers to the deathbed vigil. "It is a remarkable and moving moment. Pay attention."

Perhaps this is the most essential way to honor a death: paying attention.

Have you turned to social media to share a death in the family -- or to console someone else in their time of need? Share your story.

For more by Jeanne Dennis, click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.