David Bowie: The Collective Grief of A Very Public Loss

David Bowie: The Collective Grief of A Very Public Loss//List Maker Picture Taker
A tribute to the late great outside a cafe, Portage Grounds, in Chicago.

It’s been an emotional week for all of us. Between the news of Bowie dying, and then Alan Rickman, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been wanting to stay inside and cry my way through a Labyrinth/Harry Potter viewing marathon (with Ziggy Stardust playing in the background on repeat).

After the news of David Bowie’s passing broke and, soon after, that of Alan Rickman, my Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with tributes to the two. Many people, myself included, expressed their shock and sadness in the form of pictures and video clips that spanned decades long careers. I’m not sure what it speaks to most: the way an artist’s work has the ability to connect and unify otherwise perfect strangers or the need we feel to participate in something bigger than ourselves. I think both responses are perfectly valid.

I remember the first ‘celebrity’ death that really affected me. I was ten years old, and the headline in that morning’s edition of our local newspaper was “Princess Diana Dead in Paris Crash.’ Obviously, she was not a celebrity in the traditional sense. She wasn’t an actor or a musician and looking back, I can’t recall having given her life much consideration before reading that headline. I was really only aware of her through my mother’s issues of People magazine, which had covered the scandal of her divorce from Prince Charles extensively. She may not have been an actress, but she was, much to her misfortune, a very public figure and the world collectively mourned her death.

Like millions of other people, I watched her funeral somberly, sitting alone in front of my television set. And, like so many others, I cried. Real tears. I was only ten, but the grief I felt that day was as real as any I’d felt before. Not because I knew her personally, or even knew that much of her up to that point, but because I’d drawn parallels between my own life and that of the sons she’d left behind. My father had just died a few months before, and in some way that I was incapable of articulating at that point in my emotional development, it felt easier to process my grief through the death of a stranger than to really confront my own personal loss.

In 2004, more than a decade before his own death, David Bowie gave an interview with Esquire Magazine in which he said, “Confront a corpse at least once. The absolute absence of life is the most disturbing and challenging confrontation you will ever have.” He doesn’t expound on the statement, but then he doesn’t really need to. Death is the perfectly scary reality we all will face eventually, and often, when someone in our periphery dies, we are left to confront not only our own mortality, but also the losses we’ve suffered throughout our lifetimes. When a celebrity dies, we have the added layers of reconciling the death of the actual person with the longevity of their surviving work and public persona – the very thing that connected us to them in the first place is a bittersweet reminder of the loss.

Except for those closest to him, no one even knew that Bowie had cancer. He released his final album, Blackstar, on his birthday, mere day’s before his death. His own knowledge of his limited future makes his choice of words and imagery on the video for the album’s single, Lazarus, all the more poignant: Bowie, as a blind man, writhing in a hospital bed as he sings: “Look up here / I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen/Everybody knows me now.” Even the poetry of the title itself is a reference to the Biblical miracle of a man rising from the dead. While Bowie had kept his illness secret from the public, his final album was clearly the work of a man writing the final chapter of an already beautiful artistic legacy. This, he knew, was what he had to leave the world.

What are your thoughts on the public outpouring of grief after someone famous dies? And on a Bowie specific note, what will you most remember him for? 

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