Tuesday, January 12, 2016

In the Heat of the Mourning: On Grief, Gratitude and David Bowie

Let's be clear about something right from the top:

Coming to terms with the death of your favorite artist is not the same thing as mourning a friend or loved one. It is incredibly easy to confuse the two, but the experiences are fundamentally different.

In the aftermath of David Bowie's death, I've spent the past two days considering this. Like thousands upon thousands of other people, Bowie's work and influence meant the world to me, so I've tried very hard to be honest with myself about what I am currently feeling.

When you lose a friend, family member, or even a pet, you grieve everything about them. You miss their weird habits and odd mannerisms, and fear for a future in which you will have no more shared experiences together.

I've always found that this is the most profoundly painful aspect of grief: realizing - sometimes for months and for years - all the things that you will no longer do together.

You ache for the silly jokes you shared, and the satisfaction you'd get from making that person smile.You hurt each time you cross a life milestone without them. And you yearn to make things right for all of the times you never said or did what you should have when you had the chance. So often, you just wish you could sit in the same room with them one more time, and feel complete again.

When someone you love dies, you long for the coexistance you once shared.

But when your favorite artist dies, something different happens. 

You don't really mourn the person -- no matter how much you might be temped to believe that you do. You won't be missing your lost time together or your shared experiences, because you didn't actually share anything together.

You won't really mourn their art -- especially if it's a musician -- because the art lives forever, and you can always revisit it. And it will always be wonderful -- perhaps even more wonderful over time.

Still, something deep inside of you hurts like mad. And it's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is.

I believe that this pain is deeply rooted your own path to self-discovery, and the role that the artist's work played in it. 

There is absolutely no shame in believing that an artist's work has changed your life. Great art can challenge you to broaden your horizons and try new things. It can force you to reconsider preconceived notions. It can overwhelm you with a beauty that you didn't realize was possible. And it can validate feelings that you've never before been able to process. 

This is why, when our favorite artists die, we are so often overcome with inappropriately personal feelings of sadness and loss. And most of all, we feel a deeply disorienting sense of muted gratitude.

I believe that this is what hurts most: never having the opportunity to thank the artist for making your world more vivid and wonderful...to show them that their work brought you happiness or solace when you most needed it. To tell them that they may not realize it, but that they made a difference.

To that end, the experience can closely mimic that incompleteness that follows the death of a loved one. 

But it's not quite the same thing. In fact, practically speaking, it is nearly nonsensical; under what circumstances do we ever meet our idols? When I envision what might have happened if I'd ever met Mr. Bowie, I practically recoil in horror as I consider the things I might have said. The influence of our favorite artists may be acute and profound, but our relationships are probably best left to be one-dimensional.

Still, I can't help but to feel that same sadness that I could never thank him. 

I was very fortunate to experience a tremendous amount of personal growth as I studied Bowie's work. His approach to identity helped me become comfortable in my own skin for perhaps the first time, and it taught me how much control I have over how people perceive me. I learned something important about the thin line between the grotesque and the exotic, and that helped me partially overcome the body image issues that have stuck with me since I was a scrawny little boy who was unable to defend himself. I have so much more gratitude for that than I can even express.

Of course, it is now impossible to thank him. It probably always was.

But I can tell you what is possible:  

I still remember who it was who turned me on to Bowie. It was my friend, Miguel. He was an awesomely charismatic high school classmate, a reformed "problem child" who'd done some truly crazy stuff at a young age, and had lived to tell the tale.

I remember how he approached me one afternoon and poked a finger into my breastbone.

"You...Major Tom. That's who you are," he said, grinning. "You look like David Bowie. You know that, right? People tell you that, right? That's who you look like."

Then he walked away, and my fascination with Bowie was born. All because of one cool kid with a strange and sudden observation.

I can't thank Bowie. But, tonight, I can thank Miguel.

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