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A Grief Tweeted

NPR’s Scott Simon live-tweeted his dying mother’s final moments to his 1.2 million followers. The Washington Post notes that Simon’s usual Twitter feed was a grab bag, until his mother took a turn for the worst:

But then something happened. Something either moving or melancholy, something raw and painfully naked, which led Simon’s feed to be retweeted by Katie Couric, Esquire magazine, the AARP, the “Today” show, the normally sharp-edged BuzzFeed. Which led perfect strangers to tell Simon that he had made them burst into tears. Which led readers to think about good deaths and good lives.

My first thought on hearing that a man had live-tweeted from his dying mother’s bedside was to recoil at the invasion of privacy. But then I read Simon’s tweets about his mom, and it’s undeniably beautiful and moving and every other good thing. Monica Hesse, in the WaPo:

It’s fashionable to roll one’s eyes at oversharing in public. Oversharing is crass, a symptom of a society with ego and without boundaries. But reading about a grown man crumbling over the bed of his dying mother apparently penetrated the hard shell of the Internet. It was reminding people what it meant to feel, and to be bare, and most of all, to have a mother.

As many of you know, I blogged much of my late sister’s Ruthie fight with cancer. I did so with her permission. She was modest and didn’t really like the attention, but she became persuaded that by sharing her journey, she was helping and inspiring others. It was very, very important to her that people not think that cancer is only a sad, gloomy thing. It can also occasion moments of extreme grace, of love, of compassion, of profound humanity. That’s what she lived through, and that’s what she also inspired. I didn’t live-blog her demise — she went suddenly — but had she died slowly and regularly, as Simon’s mother did, I probably would have done exactly as he did, except with a blog, not with Twitter.

And, as readers of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming know, I did write in the book in excruciating, you-are-there detail about the day Ruthie died, a narrative I reconstructed based on extensive interviews with people who were present and witnessed it. Readers should know that I allowed everyone in the family, and some of those closest to Ruthie, to read the manuscript and approve it before I turned it in to the publisher. If anyone felt that it violated privacy, they did not tell me. I would have edited it at their request if they had. That chapter, I’m told by many readers, is difficult to get through, for obvious reasons, but the intimacy and rawness of the narrative makes the love and solidarity among the community on that terrible day far more vivid.

Some readers have asked me, with honest concern, if I didn’t go too far in the book, exposing not only painful details of my family at its most vulnerable (e.g., my brother-in-law sobbing at his dead wife’s bedside, keening over his aloneness). I think it’s a fair criticism, and also a fair criticism of Scott Simon’s tweets. Other readers have expressed similar concern about how raw (that word keeps coming up) the emotional aspect of the overall narrative is. Should I really have talked in such detail about the personal struggles my sister and I had? they ask. Again, I credit their point of view, but I think the story had to be told that way. My father, after finishing the book, phoned me and said, “You told it just like it was.”

I feel vindicated in this editorial choice by the e-mails I receive every day from people, talking about how the book’s detailed intimacy and refusal to mask pain in euphemism or to suppress it for the sake of a false propriety made it far more real to them, and, to borrow a phrase from Hesse’s piece, reminded them what it meant to feel, and to have a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, in all her complicated realness. This came in today:

I have never attended an author visit until your stop at Barnes and Noble in Dallas. Something drew me to hear what you had to say. Having finished a year of cancer treatment(chemo,surgery,radiation) I prayed that you might say something to help my healing process. The last year has taught me to be very aware of what happens around me. I believe God has reasons for most of it. So I enjoyed your talk, purchased the book, and you signed my copy. Unfortunately I left feeling like the experience was not meant to send me any profound “message”. Last week we went to my favorite spot, Florida. I took out your book and met Ruthie. UNBELIEVABLE! Yes there was a reason I met you and your message touched me so deeply! As you wrote on my cover…love your family, love your life…I do and will! Thank you for sharing your story and helping me become a stronger appreciative person! I will recommend your book to many.

It’s hard for me to express how much e-mails like this mean to my mom and dad, who are still grieving their daughter, and who will for the rest of their days. It tells them — it tells all of us — that real people, perfect strangers, read Ruthie’s story and find healing and meaning in life. That, in turn, helps them cope, and heal, from what happened to Ruthie. Had the story not been told in the way it was told, it wouldn’t have pierced so many hard shells.

On the other hand, one risks mawkish exhibitionism. I don’t think Simon crossed the line — I loved his tweets, actually, and think they honored his mother artfully and compassionately. I hope I didn’t cross the line either, but it’s a hard line to discern, especially when you are in the middle of intense emotions. This is a particular risk for writers and journalists, like Simon and me, who tend to process experience through writing. Often I don’t know what I think about something until I have written it down. If a tree falls in the woods and I fail to write about it, at some level I think it hasn’t happened. The overwhelming majority of the world isn’t like that, and finds that sort of thing weird and alien. As my wife often reminds me, for writers, everything is material, but it’s not like that for most. Truman Capote was genuinely shocked when his closest friends dropped him after he repeated, under a veil of fiction as thin as onion skin, scandalous gossip he’d heard over lunch. He couldn’t understand why they didn’t realize that he was a writer, and this was material for him. That was inhuman of Capote, but I understand his confusion, and have to fight it in myself. Perhaps I don’t fight it enough, I dunno.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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