He was 57 years old. His death is sudden, shocking, and for many, devastating.
Any time a revered person dies, the established stages of grief seem to launch into hyperdrive. The second the news drops, final and cutting to the quick, the ripples start to spread. Soon enough, the grief feels magnified, becoming an ever-complicated web of shifting memory, gutted despair, muddled controversy over their worth, stark regret. Maybe there will even be some joy.
But as the deceased begins to settle into the past tense, a couple of questions remain: Why did this person matter so much? How hard are we allowed to grieve, if we're just one among so many?
When I found out David Bowie had died, for instance, I reached out to the two people I know who loved him most: my college friend M, and my father. They couldn't be more different from each other, but they both loved Bowie's relentless commitment to his own space oddity, which opened their minds, blew them apart, and put them back together again as something a little different. A little shinier, maybe.
When I asked M how she was doing, she responded with a flurry of confused texts: "I don't know," "I just couldn't stop crying," "am just gutted." Then, a little sheepish: "I am more upset than I should be about a celebrity death?"
I immediately told her she could mourn however she wanted, but I didn't quite have the words to convey why — until I saw this tweet:
Thinking about how we mourn artists we've never met. We don't cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.— Juliette (@ElusiveJ) January 11, 2016
And that's it. That's it, completely.
Great artists give voice to both the huge emotions that threaten to consume you and the fuzzy ones lying in wait in your periphery, indistinct but just as urgent. Great artists reach into their own hearts, brains, and guts to wrench out what's most vital and hold it out for you to grasp. Then you can decide what — if anything — it means for you.
After Bowie's death, as I scrolled through my Facebook and Twitter feeds (where so many now go to mourn), I saw hundreds of posts dedicated to the Starman, to Ziggy Stardust, to the Thin White Duke. No two tributes were the same. And, fittingly, the same is true today of Prince.
Even if multiple people posted about the same song, their reason for doing so varied wildly. My friends and celebrities alike talked about how Bowie and Prince expanded their horizons and made them feel less alone. They talked about how they created thrilling, limitless universes they could visit on demand, within the comfort of their headphones. They talked about how much they meant to them — how much they helped them get to know themselves.
Grieving en masse might intensify the initial reaction, but every single response to a public figure's death is an individual one. We all experience art from our own singular place. That's true whether you're hearing the joyful, soaring chorus of Prince's "I Would Die 4 U" or the fierce zip of Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" for the first time. It's true whether you're feeling an ecstatic jolt at Michael Jackson's "Thriller," clutching your face to keep from smiling too hard at Robin Williams's performance in The Birdcage, giving in to the chills inspired by Heath Ledger's smile in 10 Things I Hate About You, or closing your eyes and letting the smoke of Amy Winehouse's voice curl around you and squeeze, just a little too hard.
Or maybe you don't quite recognize any of these experiences. After all, they're mine. In these moments, I learned a little bit more about myself thanks to people I never met and never knew beyond the art they presented to the world. But I'm still grateful they passed through my solar system, even if their orbits were worlds away — and so, I suspect, are you.
Updated to reflect the death of Prince.