When Strangers Mourn

RickmanBowie

Facebook elevates the loss public figure into a global events for widespread mourning. When David Bowie and Alan Rickman died the week of January 10, we posted our favorite video clips of Bowie singing and Rickman acting. On our Facebook walls, we wrote mini-essays about their impacts on our lives. We wondered aloud how two beloved people could have had died of cancer at age 69 within only a few days of each other. We said many other things, too, and shared visual icons (some of us changing our Facebook profile photos to honor one of them).

The mourning occurred on other social spaces, too, but nowhere was the sense of loss felt so heavily as on Facebook, where each time we checked our newsfeeds, a Facebook friend was sharing another memory.

I think Facebook mourning is good. Facebook gave me a place to discuss my reaction to David Bowie’s death and reach out to others who were touched by his passing. Facebook also helped me appreciate the magnitude of Alan Rickman’s loss. I had always appreciated Rickman’s acting talents and was personally inspired by his portrayal of Snape in the Harry Potter movies, but I did not appreciate his widespread impact until my Facebook friends posted their own reactions as well as reflections written by those who knew him personally. Good for Facebook and for those who were moved to share.

But on January 14, something happened that underscored how personal a public death can become: I participated in a face-to-face conversation about David Bowie among strangers. I’m talking about the type of sharing that forces you to look someone in the eye, take a risk and make a statement, wait for a reply, and build upon the other person’s words with your own additional insight.

I was a music resale shop near my home southwest of Chicago. I asked an employee about how customers were reacting to Bowie’s death. He confirmed what I expected, which was that sales of all things David Bowie had skyrocketed throughout the week.

Then he added, “It’s a shame about his death.”

I replied, “But what a way to leave the world, turning your mortality into art.”

I had in mind Bowie’s newly released album Blackstar, especially the song and video “Lazarus,” which contains clear references to his death, which he knew was coming when he wrote the song.

The employee smiled. I hadn’t mentioned Blackstar by name, but he knew what I was talking about.

“I love Blackstar,” he said. “Isn’t it ironic that one of his more avant-garde albums is Number One on the charts?”

A young 20-something guy thumbing through vinyl records jumped into the conversation. He volunteered that he first learned about Bowie not through his music but his visual style.

“You make your first impression from what you see right in front of you,” he said.

The employee and I both agreed and began comparing our favorite David Bowie personas with the 20-something guy, such as the glam-rock Ziggy Stardust and the elegantly wasted Thin White Duke.

Our conversation continued with other customers sharing their favorite Bowie songs and memories, including a man who had seen Bowie four times in concert. He remembered how surprised he was when, during his 1974 tour, Bowie began to introduce songs from an album (Young Americans) that Bowie would not even get around to releasing until 1975. The fans had come for hits, and instead they got songs they didn’t know. Typical David Bowie: not afraid to challenge, even confuse, his audience.

The irony was not lost on me: I was sharing memories about someone I had never met with people I had never met.

As the conversation wound down, no one vowed to exchange Facebook contact information. We didn’t even share our names. We just shared the moment.

I relate this story not to belittle the conversations that occur on social media, especially Facebook. After David Bowie died, you better believe I was posting my reactions on social spaces such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and I am grateful to others who have done the same.

But the strongest gauge of an event’s impact is something we cannot measure effectively: the number of people who are moved to share their reactions with strangers face to face. It takes more guts, and more effort, to open up in person, especially with someone you don’t know. You can’t post a remark on someone’s Facebook wall and return to binge watch Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. You have to take a chance that your remark will be met with stony silence and perhaps a bemused “And just who the hell are you?” look.

Occasionally a news event sparks this kind of public sharing among strangers. Shocking disruptions such as 9/11 have that kind of impact, and sports milestones do as well (the latter usually more so on a local level.) But how many times have you seen the loss of a public figure inspire the experience I had in that resale record shop? I would love to hear your stories.

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