Arts and music fans were shocked to wake up this morning, only to be greeted with the shocking news of David Bowie’s death. The music industry has changed immensely since Bowie came to prominence. He was a very gifted and chameleonic rock star and performer; it’s unlikely we will ever see the likes of him again. In my experience, people react with a variety of emotions when someone famous passes, and it can be hard to know if what we are feeling is “right.” In this post I would like to address both issues about death and grieving, as well as an important lesson that we can all take from David Bowie’s life and art, fan or not.
On one hand, we may feel superficial mourning the death of a famous person. After all, David Bowie had a family, children and others who likely had a real-life, loving connection with him. They will be mourning him in a different way, obviously, but I do not believe that his being mourned by people who were touched by his art diminishes that in any way. And art (especially successful art) is a very personal expression. If it moved us, it likely touched us in a “soulful” or “spiritual” way, so it makes sense that when the artist passes, we feel sadness, despite not having a real, personal connection with this person.
When I am talking to a client about a loved one passing, I often ask them to consider what can be done to keep this person alive via memories. “After all,” I say “now they only live in your heart and in your recollections.” This question is very easy to answer with an internationally successful artist like David Bowie, as his art has inspired disparate artists from Kanye West to Lady Gaga to Phish. His influence is literally impossible to miss. This question may not be so easy to answer when we lose people who we love in our real lives, especially if we are used to regularly interacting with them, perhaps seeing them or interacting with them daily. So I ask clients to consider the following: “If your loved one could see you right now, what would they want to see you doing? What is the positive impact they had on the world and how can you keep that spirit alive?”
I also want to address something that I found very inspirational about Bowie, which was his ability to completely throw himself into a character or a persona. When clients come to me looking to make a change, it can be difficult, especially at first. For instance, a client might want to learn to control their temper. However, as they learn to react to in a more healthy, positive, fashion, it may feel “weird” or “unnatural” at first. Sometimes people may feel that they are somehow untrue to themselves, as if by not blowing up or being angry, they no longer are respected by others. I often tell them “you have to fake it ‘til you make it.” This attitude sums up what I feel to be the major artistic lesson of Bowie’s life. He seems to have thrown himself 110% into the characters that he inhabited, perhaps most famously Ziggy Stardust. This is why we, as audience members, were so mesmerized by his performances. They seemed to be real—he fully inhabited the persona. I am suggesting that this type of commitment is sometimes necessary to make a change. “Fake it til you make it,” may need some modification. Perhaps we need to be asking ourselves “What Would Bowie Do?” The answer is, he would play the character to the hilt. When you’re ready to make some changes, perhaps you need to do the same thing. When you believe it, others will, too. And before long, your new, more healthy characteristics will be the “real” you. Perhaps it was the “real” you all along, but you were just scared to show it. Perhaps this is a new layer. Either way, by embracing change, I suggest that you are honoring the spririt of the legendary, charismatic David Bowie.
Rest In Peace, Starman.
Mike McMahan is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Antonio, Tx.
Therapy Goes POP
Perspectives on therapy and mental health as viewed through the lens of popular culture