David Bowie’s death a few weeks ago unsettled me—not the death itself, but the phenomenon that followed it. Initially, as my social media feeds filled with pictures and quotes and song links, I was uncomfortable and annoyed. Then I started to feel like a sociopath—the world was letting out this great, collective gasp in mournful unison.
Why wasn’t I?
It’s not like I didn’t try. I put up a few different elegiac Bowie pictures, but took them down soon after. It just felt icky. The fact was, I wasn’t grieving. Sad? Sure. But not grieving. And so it felt like I was trying to co-opt his death and make it mine in a way that it wasn’t. I was using this awful thing (though there are things way more tragic than the death of a 69 year-old man who lived an incredibly full and exciting life) to get…well what was I trying to get? Attention, I guess. Isn’t that always the point of a social media post? Whether it’s for personal or professional reasons, posting something on social media is us waving our arms back and forth, trying to signal to people that we need some attention. Look over here. This is where I am. This is what I’m doing. This is how I’m grieving.
I’m not trying to deny the very real impact that Bowie had on so many people. When a true artist dies, a loss is felt. That’s the legacy that greatness leaves behind—people have been affected by its existence. So the impulse to reflect and mourn with other people who were similarly affected is only natural. And I certainly understand the need to articulate one’s experience—to make it mean something in a coherent way that can then be shared with others. Shit, I’m a memoirist. That’s literally what I want to do when I grow up. But that’s not what was happening. People weren’t articulating their own experience—they were claiming ownership of a grief that wasn’t theirs to claim.
Grief is finding out that your child has a terminal illness. Grief is recovering from molestation or losing your mother or dissolving a marriage. Grief is bitter and guttural and ugly—it’s a loss that slices you right down the fucking middle, and leaves you that way for a long time. Grief is private and it’s not the same thing as nostalgia, and to fail to acknowledge that is to demean real, personal tragedy.
But let’s set grief aside for a moment. For argument’s sake, let’s say that everyone knew that to apply the term “grief” to the situation was inaccurate at best, and that all anyone was trying to do was process something personal—something that spoke to the sadness of losing a piece of oneself. Maybe all anyone wanted to do was to say out loud, “This reminds me that time passes no matter what, and one day I’ll die too—and that is absolutely terrifying.” My question is, were we really coming together to say that, and listen as others said it? Or were we just reacting to something that felt uncomfortable—and please God, don’t let us feel uncomfortable?
It’s the kernel of the entire thing—the question about whether social media is fostering intimacy or just allowing us to avoid it in our real lives. Did posting a picture on Instagram replace the phone call that we might have made 15 years ago to the person with whom we used to get high and listen to Bowie? Would the grieving process have been stymied if, upon hearing the news of his death, we put on a Bowie album and looked at old pictures and feared death on our own, instead of online?
We live in a time when we have a wildly exaggerated view of our importance—when every passing thought seems worthy of sharing. And it’s one thing when those thoughts are about our own lives, but when they’re about someone else’s death, the constant chatter begins to seem a little masturbatory to me, just as it did with the Paris attacks in the fall. Seeing all those romantic pictures of the Eiffel Tower being shared, all those heart-shaped hands coming together and overlays of the French flag—it just felt wrong.
We wring our hands so immediately and publicly nowadays, that we’ve become experts at ingratiating ourselves into tragedies—either to convince ourselves that the death of someone belongs to us in a way that it really doesn’t, or to tell ourselves that we’re helping when we really aren’t.Here’s what I think. I think we live in a world with true evil in it, in bodies that are mortal, and without any true feeling of safety. I think people are taken from us indiscriminately and often without warning, and it’s all too unfair and too awful to bear sometimes, and the powerlessness is so maddening we could scream. And so we grope around for ways to make ourselves feel better. But maybe we shouldn’t. As I said after the Paris attacks, maybe we’re not supposed to feel better right away. Maybe we’re supposed to grapple with the ugliness and fear—and all that mortality— and be able to sit still in the discomfort before we run to our computers for some instant gratification.
Some posts make me horribly sad: A detailed status update about someone’s current battle with depression. A post about news that arrived that morning of a friend’s suicide. An update about a recent decision to get sober. People are so quick to experience fundamentally private things in public now, and I can’t help but think that that’s diminishing our capacity to feel—to face our fallibility and then confront the discomfort that follows.
I just wonder—as we continue to disclose more and more, are we leaving anything real for ourselves?