For Jessica Ghawi and Alex Sullivan, life’s final minutes were about anticipation — not for anything life-altering, just a few hours of entertainment.
But their thoughts, as shared through tweets from two of the 12 killed in Friday’s early-morning mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., have become a focal point for thousands of Americans openly contemplating a fundamental curiosity: For people about to die, what are the last moments in this world like?
Such minutes have typically been intimate, once reserved for one’s own confidantes or, at least, a select few who might be nearby. But as Twitter and other social networks become real-time databases of human thought and interaction, the unfiltered conclusions of some human lifetimes are being cast into the public sphere for the entire world to see.
Among the billions of posts made each day on social nets, users regularly gravitate toward final postings by celebrities and others who have died. The Aurora victims have become the most recent example.
Sullivan was celebrating his 27th birthday at the start of a weekend when he planned to also mark his first anniversary with his wife, Cassie. He tweeted shortly before the movie: “(hash)TheDarkKnightRises (at)Reel_Nerds oh man one hour till the movie and its going to be the best BIRTHDAY ever.”
Once his death became public, the tweet morphed into a springboard for a steady stream of people noting its significance and sharing sentiments. As new tweets rolled in, they came from different people but many comments were universal; things like: “RIP,” ”So sad. Last tweet,” or teary emoticons.
For Ghawi, a 24-year-old aspiring sportscaster who worked under the name Jessica Redfield, the public words in those last minutes are her bantering with a magazine hockey writer about being among the first to see the highly anticipated Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
“You aren’t seeing it tonight?!” Ghawi asks Sporting News hockey writer Jesse Spector on Twitter.
“Nope,” he replies.
Ghawi then jokes that Spector is a loser, and he retorts that that’s why she’s tweeting and not at the movie. Ghawi replies with her final tweet, in all caps: “MOVIE DOESN’T START FOR 20 MINUTES.” It was, though she of course didn’t realize it, her last public statement.
But as it was retweeted and favorited thousands of times and cited by reporters worldwide to help piece together portraits of her personality, it also, in a way that wasn’t possible a few years ago, connected her to countless people seeking to know her as more than a victim of one of the worst mass shootings in American history.
The unknowing candor shown by Ghawi and Sullivan make the glimpses they gave us even more honest. It underscores that few of us know when death will arrive. And in a world where social media has become so deeply ingrained in our shared culture so quickly, we also have little control over which random slice of life might serve as our final exclamation.
Anyone who’s used social networks knows they’ve revolutionized the way we communicate. But few sign up for accounts thinking they can change how we think about life and death.
“I hate that this was a last tweet,” tweeted Brad Kovach, a 22-year-old computer science student at the University of Wyoming, in response to Ghawi’s last tweet.
Kovach said in an interview that the exchange gives us a joyous snapshot of Ghawi, but probably not the goodbye Ghawi would have picked if she knew she was speaking to the world for the last time.
But he acknowledged being uncertain about what’s a fitting final tweet.
“I’m thinking if that was me, I wouldn’t want that (message) to be me. At the same time, I kind of do, I just want it to be a very positive expression,” Kovach said. “Hopefully, your life doesn’t end in tragedy and I guess there’s no preparing for that.”
For Spector, who ribbed Ghawi once more after her final tweet before the horror unfolded, her last statement is haunting. “It’s impossible to comprehend, and worse because Jessica isn’t here to tweet the right thing,” Spector wrote in a column hours after her death.
Roberta Cohen, a grief specialist who runs a firm that responds to traumatic events all over Texas, said people who generally don’t think about their own deaths are jolted by occurrences like the Colorado shooting because they can relate to the victims and what they were doing before they died.
“An event like this breaks through that denial and gets us to look at life-and-death questions,” Cohen said.
Even if they’re not profound statements, people are touched by final comments, more than they are moved by deliberately reflective, insightful statements made in times when nothing significantly changes afterward, she said.
Twitter and other social networks make it easier for those comments to spread quickly. For some, tweets by those killed — retweeted and appended by others, are the first time they put a name to who died.
“It’s a pretty amazing concept that we can see what people are thinking just moments ago, and moments later their lives change,” Cohen said.
It has happened before, most notably with the famous.
—Andrew Breitbart, the conservative blogger and publisher who died in March after collapsing while walking near his home, used his last tweet to apologize to a follower for calling him a “putz.”
—Dr. Frank Ryan, a well-known plastic surgeon from Beverly Hills, veered off a cliff in 2010 just minutes after tweeting a picture of his dog looking out toward the ocean from a sand dune.
—Heavy D’s final tweet late last year became as memorable as his rap hits when he wrote simply: “BE INSPIRED.”
It goes beyond postings from the famous and highly publicized, though. Months of Facebook updates by a mother who died soon after giving birth to a son resulted in a memorable 2010 Washington Post story told through her posts. Her final post, less than 12 hours before she died, told of her fear at being transferred to another hospital for more evaluation and testing.
These glimpses, pecked away by fingers or thumbs in fleeting moments and amplified only when their significance becomes known, are spurring people to more publicly share spontaneous thoughts about moments of life and death. All it took here to open the floodgates were a couple 140-character messages, and the knowledge that the people who wrote them had died — mere moments or hours ago — in a very public tragedy.
Those brief glimpses still don’t give us firm answers. But that’s not quite the point.
“It really kind of intensified my whole emotional response to the whole tragedy,” Kovach said. “It definitely just reminds us that even if our only common thread is that we both have a Twitter account, we’re still humans and we’re in this together.”