The brevity and sequentiality of Twitter eerily evokes the reality of time, allowing us to witness an event. Watching someone die brings us powerfully in touch with how brief—yet intense—each life here is. The tweets, which felt almost aphoristic (a mere hundred and forty characters each), underscored one of the strangest things about being with someone at the end of her life: the surreality of time, the way that time bends and distorts, becomes material. Suddenly, we are aware that the sunny summer days won’t go on forever. Our time is limited. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, and yet the most elusive.
The extraordinary response to Simon’s tweets also suggests a hunger on the part of Americans for a way to integrate death and mourning into our lives—a hunger that is being met by social media. Facebook and Twitter are changing the way we mourn—rescuing America from a world where grief was largely silenced and creating, instead, a kind of public space for it. As I observed in The New Yorker in 2010, and in my book “The Long Goodbye,” in the twentieth century, we had forgotten how to mourn. Having lost the old intimacy with death—living longer, dying in hospitals—we turned it into something “shameful and forbidden,” as the historian Philippe Ariès argued, in 1977, in “The Hour of Our Death.” And so death and its aftermath became something to “heal” and “get over.” Americans adopted a kind of muscle-through-it approach, exemplified in the TV series “24” by the female President staunchly (and, we’re meant to think, appropriately) telling her aide, after her son’s death, “Grief is a luxury I can’t afford right now.”
Before the twentieth century, though, private grief and public mourning were tied together. Your mother died, and your neighbors brought casseroles and sat Shiva or stayed for the three-day wake. Often, the mourners washed the bodies themselves. Funerals (and final illnesses) took place at home. Death itself was hardly private; in the nineteenth century, people used to come and stand in your room, waiting to witness the solemn and ecstatic moment of death itself, as evoked by Emily Dickinson’s deathbed poem “I heard a fly buzz when I died”: “The Eyes around - had wrung them dry - / And Breaths were gathering firm / For that last Onset - when the King / Be witnessed - in the Room - ”
So Simon’s Twitter feed was not an imposition of his mourning on others, not some kind of gruesome exhibitionism. It was simply a modern version of what has always existed: a platform for shared grief where the immediate loss suffered by one member of a community becomes an opportunity for communal reckoning and mourning. As the novelist Marilynne Robinson once said, suffering is a human privilege. Grief is the flip side of love. Mourning has become an all too isolated experience—but Facebook and Twitter have become a place (strange as it may seem) where the bereaved can find community, a minyan of strangers to share their prayers.