The online series A Good Death is a CBC News co-production with students from the Graduate Program in Journalism at Western.
As with most things in his life, Derek Miller, one of the earliest and best-known bloggers in Vancouver, took his fight with cancer online. When he got the bad news, he wrote about it on his blog, and when the news was even worse — that his colorectal cancer had become terminal — he published that online too.
So, unsurprisingly, when he died on May 3, a posthumous blog post he’d written in advance went online the next day.
"Here it is. I'm dead, and this is my last post to my blog," he begins the message, which quickly went viral, drawing in eight million hits over the week that followed. Later, he adds: "We all knew this was coming."
Indeed, it was late last year when Miller was told he had about a year to live, and the 41-year-old began preparing to die, blogging about it. Already, he had been writing about his cancer, about his life, about his wife and kids. Even about his dog. He had been connecting with people all over the world, from friends, to strangers to everyone in between.
In March, less than two months before his death, Miller wrote to CBC News about dying online.
"I've found my interactions with friends, family, acquaintances and even total strangers online much more useful than any of the support groups, therapy sessions and other more traditional ways of processing being a cancer patient," he wrote in an e-mail, unable to use his voice any longer.
Miller wasn’t alone in using social media to help him through the dying process. There have been, and continue to be, others like him — men and women of all ages turning their dying moments into moments in the spotlight.
According to tech expert Adele McAlear, social media is, on the whole, very beneficial for dying people. "The liberty the internet affords people, to be able to really reach out and be outside of their physical space, be outside of their physical body and whatever limitations that body might have — it’s a wonderful thing," she says.
McAlear runs the website DeathAndDigitalLegacy.com, where she shares writing and research on the subject of death in the digital age. "This is still a bit of the wild west," she explains. "The one thing I’ve discovered in my research is that there is no common denominator here."
Like birth, she says, death is a very individual experience and people relate to it very differently. "So what might be normal to one person might be terribly offensive to somebody else."
"51 hours left to live"
But something that happened in March may have been neither, when online support flooded in for an alleged dying cancer patient. Posting on popular social news website Reddit under the alias Lucidending, a self-described 39-year-old told the online world that he’d lost his battle with lymphoma and would be ending his life in two days, thanks to Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.
The post, titled "51 hours left to live," garnered almost 10,000 comments. When one user asked how he planned on spending his final hours, Lucidending replied, "I'm going to live. This is as close to travel and meeting new people as I can get now. I'm sorry if that sounds dumb, but this is my world tour."
The first response to this: "Greetings from Victoria, Australia. Glad you could drop by."
The second: "Ireland checking in!"
"Japan says Hello."
"Toronto says Eh!"
Hundreds more like this followed. Lucidending had gotten his world tour.
And yet speculation followed: Was he really who he said he was? Was he really dying? With no real name given, with no picture or real contact information, some users remained skeptical — including a few who criticized him for not responding to private messages.
According to tech analyst Carmi Levy, "silence can be a very big problem in the world of social media."
"Social media is a bit of an accelerator," he says. "It speeds up the rate at which we communicate, but it also raises expectations that, if they’re not met, drive speculation."
That’s one of the downsides. The plus side is that people are able to reach out more efficiently than ever before, he says, "in the history of humankind."
And for the weak and dying, efficiency can be crucial.
Levi believes that social media is only going to become more accessible and more a part of our daily lives. "I expect it to literally transform the process of death and dying over the next number of years," he says.
If he’s right, that means many more will follow in the footsteps of Derek Miller and talk publicly about personal issues.
In his e-mail, Miller wrote that his openness about cancer had been good for him, good for his family, and good for his friends. It had been good for people all over the world, he said, including the ones who only knew him through his blog.
"Even my kids started blogs, and created Twitter accounts, and my oldest is on Facebook—because they see the value in them, and in being able to get things off their chest," he wrote.
Miller too was able to express his deepest feelings online. In his final post, he says to his children, "know that I loved you and did my best to be a good father."
And to his wife: "I loved you deeply, I loved you, I loved you, I loved you."