David Bowie died yesterday. Being a popular icon for decades, many people – including me – expressed sadness about his passing.
These days we live our lives on social media. We share the news not only of our own lives but of those in the public eye, too. Some are moderate in what we share, while others are less so. Yes it can be annoying but it does not give anyone the right to tell us who has the right to tell us what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and what we ‘should’ be doing, especially relating to the natural emotions of sadness and grief?
Of course, there is always nonsense of some sort going on on social media. I became aware of a couple of journalists who, it seemed, had got fed up with what they saw as ‘insincere’ grief, and that “grief should be private.”
Examples of ‘insincere grief’ and those who were deemed to be ‘over the top’ were given, but these are irrelevant.
We don’t have the right to judge anyone else’s grief, whether you are grieving for someone you know or for someone you have never met.
And grief can be whatever expressed however you choose.
There was even a segment on the BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show today with one of the journalists concerned. One of the questions posed was about whether fans have a right to grieve as though Bowie was a member of our own family.
If you were a fan of @DavidBowieReal, do you have the right to grieve for him as if he was your relative? #r2vine pic.twitter.com/BDUsTTC8j1
— BBC Radio 2 (@BBCRadio2) January 12, 2016
Who says people have been grieving for him as if he was their relative? How much is ‘too much’ grief?
That question also assumes there is one standard definition of ‘family’. There are many people who, sadly, do not have close family and music provides a comfort, companionship. Even for those surrounded by a loving family music – and by extension the artist performing it – becomes a part of the family because they are a part of the experience, the memories, the milestones.
It is part of the soundtrack to their lives.
Music has a special place in the hearts of many. It stirs to many emotions – from happiness to sadness and everything in between. The songs often provide that soundtrack to our lives (the good parts and the bad), and the lyrics have meaning that we can have particular symbolism.
I’ve been a Bowie fan for many years, and felt sad when I heard the news. Since Hugo there is one song of his that has a special place in my heart. If you know anything about me and Hugo, there are no surprises for figuring out that song is Starman. The chorus (the last line in particular, for my Boogie Woogie Hugie) gives me tingles:
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me:
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie
It’s not just what music means to us personally, we have shared experiences with music. We can relate to each other through music, talk about the first time we heard a particular song, or when we bought a certain album, or how going to a gig felt. Isn’t it therefore natural when someone as legendary as David Bowie dies we take to social media to pay tribute to the contribution that person has made to our lives, and to share our sorrow that everything we have of theirs is it, there will be no more.
We normal folk, us mere mortal non-celebrities just don’t have that sort of response when we die. That does not mean that any human being is less than important than another.
Yes it is outrageous that the death of celebrities – however venerated they are – gets far more coverage than the lives of innocents lost through war and other atrocities overseas.
But this is more about our perception of grief.
One of those journalists said that the outpouring of grief for David Bowie’s death must be insulting for his family. I think it is the arrogance of these comments that annoys me most of all: that these women somehow know best, that they can tell others what they should be doing and feeling. It feels very self-righteous.
It is entirely possible that his family might feel comfort from knowing how loved their husband and father is, how much he has touched the lives of so many, inspired so many, and how his legacy lives on his music. I don’t know, and the point is you don’t either and nor do those journalists.
From my own personal experience of grief, I feel immense pride that my little Hugo, who lived for just 35 days and weighed no more than a tin of baked beans has touched the lives of so many, that he continues to inspire people, and that his legacy lives on.
We can never assume anything about anyone, least of all about grief.
The discussion seemed to represent our reticence to talk about death, bereavement, grief openly (for anyone, not just the passing of celebrities). To not get too upset, too emotional. Or to express any emotion at all, maintain a stiff upper lip. To not entertain the reality that we are all mortal.
You can’t give a label to any expression of grief, or put it on a scale because it is entirely subjective. Some people are naturally emotional, some naturally stoic. What feels like a modest to one might seem uncaring to another. While endless amounts of tears feels appropriate to one, someone else might call it over-the-top.
You also don’t know how you might respond until it happens.
There is one positive to come out of these discussions about ‘appropriate’ expressions of grief – the fact that we are talking about it at all.
But let’s remember to be respectful about how people express their sorrow. There is no better or worse, there are no points to be won, and there is no scale to mark people’s grief on.
We need more openness about bereavement and grief. And just as a challenging or taboo topic in a soap opera can raise awareness and get people talking about it, surely the conversations surrounding the passing of a celebrity can help improve our (mis)perception of grief, too.