Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Uncomfortable Conversations:  
Living and Dying by Social Media

I’m not sure I want anyone to see me die, unless I’m 93, my long, gray hair is brushed smoothly to the shoulders of my favorite nightgown, and I pass peacefully of old age or a quick bout of pneumonia. My mom’s nursing colleagues call pneumonia “a dying man’s best friend,” hastening the process with only a delicate rattle at the end of a stethoscope. Whenever and however it happens, I’m just not sure I’d like a standing-room-only kind of audience.  My guess is I won’t have much to say about the matter.

My grandmother waited to die until after we had left the I.C.U. the evening of January 15, 2000. A snowstorm had hit Chicago that evening making travel dicey at best, so my mom and I said our tearful goodbyes and started down the snow-packed road.  After four long days standing vigil, we blared Irish folk music to keep us awake and to celebrate the woman’s life that ended as soon as we pulled out of the parking garage. “Sometimes they just wait for the quiet,” the nurse had said earlier, glancing around the room full of my extended family.
Kara Tippetts is a 38-year-old local Colorado Springs woman spending her last days at home after a two and a half year fight with Stage IV breast cancer. She has authored two books, the most recent of which is called “The Hardest Peace:  Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard,” written “to appeal to us all as we meet the bitter edges of life on this side of eternity” (mundanefaithfulness.com). Kara maintains a widely read blog called “Mundane Faithfulness” that receives over 10,000 views daily (krdo.com).  She has over 50,000 followers on her Facebook page (Facebook.com), and nearly 2,000 Twitter followers (Twitter.com).

(Photo courtesy of Jen Lints via americanconservative.com)

Each of her blog posts are linked to Facebook and shared by thousands who make comments like “thank you for sharing your beautiful life and heart with us all” and “you have touched our lives and I can't wait to meet you in Heaven!” (Facebook.com). When she is able, Kara reaches back to her followers, some battling cancer themselves, admitting that while the journey is hard, “there is going to be grace for this” (Facebook.com). Last October, Kara reached out to another young woman facing death, Brittany Maynard.

Brittany was a 29-year-old woman from California diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and six months to live in January of 2014. She and her husband relocated to Oregon, “one of five states (including Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico) that authorize death with dignity” (thebrittanyfund.org). Instead of the disease ending her life, Brittany swallowed a lethal combination of drugs on November 1, 2014. But, not before partnering with Compassion and Choices, “the leading nonprofit organization committed to helping everyone have the best death possible” (compassionandchoices.org). Brittany believed so strongly in assisted suicide, she spent the last months of her life setting up the website TheBrittanyFund.org, making videos with over eleven million views on YouTube.com, and doing interviews with CNN and People Magazine, lobbying for legislation like the Death with Dignity Act for all states.

(Video courtesy of YouTube.com)
While Kara and Brittany never met in person, a month before Brittany took her own life, Kara wrote her a letter.  Originally posted on Ann Voskamp’s blog “A Holy Experience” (aholyexperience.com), Kara pleaded with Brittany not to take the life-ending pill saying, “Yes, your dying will be hard, but it will not be without beauty” (dailysignal.com). Whether or not Brittany even knew about the letter is unknown. Nonetheless, Kara’s heartfelt warning went unheeded.

We may agree or disagree with Brittany Maynard’s video messages in support of legalizing assisted suicide or struggle with Kara’s decision to chronicle her decline from advanced stage cancer on Facebook. To most Americans, death and dying is still taboo.  According to lifeintheusa.com, a website of American culture, “The American attitude towards death, in cultural terms, is one of denial.” But, this new generation steeped in social media can’t avoid the uncomfortable conversations about what their living has meant and what their dying might really look like.  Death doesn't just happen in jam-packed hospital rooms.  Now it's part of the public domain.

I can’t help but think back to Grandma’s crammed hospital room, my extended family taking turns telling stories, breaking into laughter, and then crying tears into our collective bucket. Maybe those last moments were for us, not her, but I will cherish them forever. My grandma was never on Facebook, but if she were, her last post would have read, “Love you. Be careful driving home. Heading home myself.”

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