Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton 94.1 Lumberton 99.9 Southern Pines 89.9 Chadbourn
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Fed up with flaming and unfriending, snark and shade, when discussing hot button issues like politics, religion, guns, LGBTQ rights and more? Then it’s time to join The Civilist with the Washington Post’s Steven Petrow as he and his guests take on the issues you care about. Petrow’s guests are Red, Blue, and Purple—and his focus is on how to talk together, not who’s right or wrong. He’s determined to make American kind again.Ask your question:Call 919 -263 - 0929 or leave a voice message at

The Civilist: To Tweet Or Not To Tweet When You’re Sick, Even Dying

Kilmartin at The Stand in August 2016.
Lisa Gansky
Comedy writer Laurie Kilmartin tweeted about her father's battle with cancer, as well as his death.

Steven calls on the wisdom of cancer bloggers who found real-life support systems online. Guest experts Anne Strainchamps and Joshua Johnson return to weigh on on gay PDA at a conservative wedding, cutting in line at the airport, and how to handle that “nasty” relative who's always looking for a fight.

This email came into my inbox from a reader seeking advice about how to maintain privacy in this age of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other social media platforms, especially when it comes to those who are sick or may be dying:

 “I read that a stand-up comic tweeted from her father’s deathbed as he fought lung cancer. I know people tweet about everything these days — but really, isn’t this crossing the line? Don’t the sick and dying have any privacy?”

A quick Google search confirmed that the comic in question was “Conan” writer Laurie Kilmartin, who in 2014 tweeted about her father’s last days from his hospital bed to her tens of thousands of followers. By turns, she was sacred and profane, funny and sarcastic.

Her tweets were laced with her trademark humor  and authenticity (“Hard to leave Dad’s side. I am drawn to him like a moth to a flame — that’s about to go out”). In my view they were loving and honest expressions of a very emotional experience.

When her father, veteran Ron Kilmartin, died from lung cancer following six rounds of chemotherapy and a week of radiation, she tweeted:

Many questioned Kilmartin’s humor, including one follower who posted that he was trying to "figure out what's funny about ur (sic) dad dying." Kilmartin, acknowledging her learning curve, responded: "I'm trying to figure out what isn't."

But now to the question: Of course the dyingshould have privacy, and family members must respect that — but each of us has a different definition of our “personal zone of privacy.” From all that I read, Ron Kilmartin knew and approved of his daughter’s real-time updates about his condition, and he gained solace from the heartfelt messages sent to him.

When I asked my Facebook followers what they thought, I heard plenty:

  • “Communication about these difficult and private matters actually helps people because then they know what to expect. It’s not an uncommon situation to be in and this can help us all learn from each other, as well as support the woman tweeting (which is her way of saying she needs support!)”
  • “Isn’t this just one more version of things like CaringBridge? People form their community of shared grief in myriad ways.”

Still others were not convinced, as evidenced by these posts:

  • “If you need support (as anyone would at such a difficult time) reach out to your friends, not the Twitterverse.”
  • “Who sits at their father’s deathbed and tweets? The man is in poor condition, not looking to recover, and this woman’s response is to ‘plug in’ and advise the Internet what’s going on?”

My advice? With the internet and social media times have changed, as have notions of privacy. In making a decision about how public to go about illness, intent, respect and permission must be your trump cards.
When used properly, social media can bring us together, teach us, and help us through difficult passages.

Steven Petrow is a respected journalist and the go-to source for modern manners, as cited by The New York Times, People, Time,and NPR. Known as "Mr. Manners” until Miss Manners threatened to sue him for trademark infringement, Steven’s often humorous, but always insightful advice has made him a nationally recognized expert. In addition to his five etiquette books, Petrow writes the "Civilities" column for the Washington Post as well as "Digital Ethics" for USA Today. Previously, he penned The New York Times's "Civil Behavior" column, "Digital Dilemmas" for Parade magazine, and "Medical Manners" for Everyday Health.
Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
Related Stories
More Stories