“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.” — Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
I’m a couple weeks past the media cycle, I realize, but I’ve been thinking about Scott Simon and his mother, and the brouhaha surrounding his live-tweeting of her death. I’ve read comments to the effect of, How ghoulish/exploitative! and others more passive-aggressively judgey (All power to him, but if my mother were dying, my first thought wouldn’t be to splash it on social media…).
But my favorite response was Brian Stelter’s article in the New York Times, “Goodbyes and Grief in Real Time,” which closes with
“‘We have reached a point in the way we think about our lives where our stories of struggle and loss feel like they no longer belong solely to us,’ said Joe Lambert, founder of the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, Calif. Being able to broadcast them, on Twitter or elsewhere online, ‘feels like a gift to those grieving in our families, our communities and as far as a tweet might reach.'”
While I protest the missing Oxford comma, this is very much in the main of how I feel.
Time was, mourning was a practice, with cultural traditions and strictures. Through those practices — widow’s weeds, withdrawal from society — your community recognized and supported you in your grief.
I don’t want to wear black 24/7, but in our isolation and privacy we’ve lost the very ballasts that can help keep us afloat when we feel as though our grief will sink us. Who could get to your door on days when you’re having trouble mustering the will to get out of bed? Or would even think to check on you? Because, gosh, hasn’t it been a while since you lost your mom/dad/sister/brother/child/dearest lovely loved one? And really, what help would I be anyway?
People don’t know. If they’ve never experienced grief, they don’t know — not how it breaks you open, nor how they can help put the pieces together again.
Twenty years ago, August 3, 1993, my dad died. Suddenly. We reeled with the shock and brunt weight of it.
And one of my clearest memories of the week that followed was of my cousins. They came over, gathered all our dirty laundry — 6 kids’ worth — and took it away with them. They returned with it later, all cleaned and folded… it was breathtakingly thoughtful.
They knew not to ask us, numb and dumbstruck with pain, how they could help. They just showed up and discovered for themselves what needed doing, and then did it, with no fanfare or calls for attention. And I’ve never forgotten.
So now we have Facebook. And Twitter. And new ways of sharing our losses, great and small. And we do. We post pictures, and obits, and the flurry of condolences comes.
This is not in any way a knock against those. I love social media, and those comments of sympathy and support help. Like cards, and flowers, they’re not nothing. Not by a long shot.
But in social media as in life, we’re not so good with the follow-up. We’re quick to let ourselves off the hook and leave it at that. If our friends don’t post about their losses, we don’t mention them. And the grieving sense that extended posting on sadness/hard days/DEATH will be seen as wallowing/attention-seeking. They post statuses of grief thereafter only on anniversaries, some holidays. As if those are the only acceptable days to be publicly bereft once the prerequisite amount of time has passed.
Which brings me back to Scott Simon.
It was so obvious when he began that he had no intimation of what was coming. He thought he was tweeting one more step along the way of his mom’s struggle with cancer. Because you always think you’ll have more time. You think it right up until the minute you don’t.
Reading his tweets, their gradual realization which reminded me so strongly of my mom’s last hours, hearing him speak about it on NPR, was tremendously moving. It did feel like a gift, this sharing of an intimate and painful time. This sharing.
It’s a verb we’ve absorbed into the internet ether, but sharing serves us. Every day on social media we’re writing the narrative of our lives. It’s a big part of how we tell our stories, about ourselves, to ourselves and others. When Scott Simon shared his final days with his mother, he allowed us to share his mother and share her loss, and share his grief.
And through it, feel our own — the grief to come, if we’re lucky, or the grief we carry already, if we’re not.
In a world that values the strong and happy over the vulnerable and bereft, nothing could be more generous.