James Rebhorn’s viral obituary and how we deal with death in the digital age
The Internet reacted with compassion this week when a moving self-written obituary by actor James Rebhorn, who died March 21, was published online. In it, the “Homeland” actor (among his many roles) reflected on his life, thanked his mother for teaching him that “hospitality is no small thing” and encouraged his daughters not to mourn him for too long so that they can get on with all their good work in the world.
News sites, including the L.A. Times, wrote about Rebhorn’s obituary, and it took off on social media too. Deadline Hollywood’s posting has been shared on Facebook by more than 32,000 people, and that’s just one media outlet.
What’s most incredible is that the 65-year-old thought to take control of his obituary so that he might have the final word after a long battle with skin cancer.
As the Rebhorn story highlights, death, grief and life-struggles are becoming more public than ever. Just last week, the New York Times wrote about a generation of digital natives who send messages of condolence via text message, or who ask for picture texts to avoid going to the morgue, and grieve by expressing themselves on blogs and YouTube.
And it’s not just millennials who are sharing their stories and grief publicly. These days the departed are more present than ever. My 61-year-old father, for example, has a series of photos with his late brother posted on his Facebook page. We’re both comforted when we see them. It’s an act of remembering as well as connecting with a certain narrative in his life. My aunt, in her late 60s, regularly posts tributes to my grandmother who, in her words, “kicked the bucket” years ago. It’s nice for her children and my cousins to see these glimpses of our lost family member.
Social media is often critiqued for its selfie-centered ethos, but the technology-fueled information age isn’t always egotistical. You can share your own stories as a way of giving. And it’s through witnessing one another’s personal journeys that the commonality of our experience as human beings can be revealed.
We cannot make cancer stop killing people. We cannot live forever. And yet those of us who have some experience with grave illness or death can now communicate in real time, to a massive, unseen audience, about its challenges, its heartbreak and even its unexpected gifts. Yes, it’s daunting. But it can also serve as a nudge to remind us of life’s realities, which include decline and death. Speaking up, instead of remaining silent, is a way to confront our fear and diminish its control over us.
In her book “Living Fully, Dying Well,” Tina Staley, who has worked with end-of-life patients as a social worker for 15 years, writes: “We go to great lengths to avoid or sidestep death.... Everybody sees it, everybody navigates around it, but nobody mentions it. Many patients come to me with a great hunger to talk about their own death as a result of this avoidance.”
So let’s begin the hard conversations around grief and death. Let’s begin diminishing this fear that we all carry with us.
James Rebhorn, thank you, for so eloquently leading the way.
Sophia Kercher is editorial director of reimagine.me, a new online magazine, community and education program aimed at helping those who have been touched by cancer.
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