Yesterday, January 10th, David Bowie (nee. David Robert Jones) died in Manhattan after an 18 month battle with cancer.
Yesterday, one of the greatest outpourings of grief I have witnessed in my lifetime flooded social network feeds, news stations, radio waves, and the whispered disbelief of my friends and associates.
And I wept.What does it mean, to share in public grief? A recurring expression in yesterday’s posts: “I know I should not feel this way, but…” I saw it over and again; sheepishness, if not embarrassment, for mourning the loss of someone you have never met. I heard people call themselves foolish, silly; I heard them chastise their own tears (and on a few occasions, the tears of others). But to grieve is our greatest responsibility to those who have touched us nearly, and it does not matter the means of that connection. I have no words I can add to Bowie’s homage that have not already been said (and better) by others, but in the hopes that I can, by these means, bestow a sense of permission for grief–I will share two stories.
#1 Dora-Gray was a remarkable woman, born to a remarkable woman. Her own mother served as the only doctor, surgeon, and midwife to a wide swath of wild West Virginia (without a license, impossible to procure for a woman, and a poor one). Dora-Gray never had the opportunity to be a doctor, herself, though she aspired to it. Instead, she spent her life in lifting others by whatever means available to her. When she died, perfect strangers came from all around to mourn her passing. People she’d never mentioned–most of them, she probably scarcely knew. But they grieved a force in the community, someone who left them with deep impressions that far outweighed their personal connection to her. No one ordered them out of the funeral home. No one shamed them for their tears.
#2 A gawky, hawkish child with no friends and few outlets found herself possessed of an intelligence she’d been shamed for owning. Described as a witch-kid well before Harry Potter made that “cool” and harassed and bullied for reading books in the playground, she retreated inside her own head. She chose an interlocutor who made sense to her–someone weird, and smart, and creative. And weird. That was important. David Bowie. She spoke to him often. It promised her that growing up and getting out was possible, and that she needn’t shed her uniqueness or her brains in the process. He was, by many measures, her only friend. Also, he sang. And sometimes wore tights.
Dora-Gray was my grandmother. The gawky child is me–but I suspect it’s also many others, who took strength from Bowie’s unapologetic way of living, and living large. Most of us never met David Bowie. But we met his art, his music, his persona (re-made continually). Perhaps we constructed a version of him in our heads that would not have matched reality, but it’s nonetheless a part of that reality, a legacy, the best legacy of an icon unmatched in this, the previous, and possibly the next generation. If a spare word from a kind woman was enough to shift worlds for others, then the five-decade career of a man who spoke through multiple mediums and media, who stood for something greater than self, should not surprise us. If strangers could grieve openly at the casket of my grandmother, then we can–should–feel the sudden void of Bowie’s passing. If he influenced you, you are right to grieve and human to do so. If he did not, you should not feel pressured to take part, but be careful of those who mourn. It’s advice for all griefs observed.
Some people become more than people to us; they are symbols and immovable, immortal in their way. You are not foolish for mourning the loss, when that loss is a part of you. You should not feel compelled to compare this grief to others, or to chastise yourself if you find it as great a pain as losing someone whose life touched you most nearly. [Caitlin Doughty (Order of the Good Death) wrote yesterday about that very thing.] I will always have the part of David that lived in my own head. I can still, though, feel shock at his passing as I might the loss of a distant friend. Grief is privately processed as well as publicly practiced. It is healthier to share in it, in whatever way supports you best. For me, the stars look very different today. [Space Oddity]