I've had it up to here with the grief police

As Bowie fans mourned his loss on social media this week, the grief ombudsman came out in force. Who are they to judge, asks Sali Hughes

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By Sali Hughes on

As everyone knows, David Bowie died this week. Rarely have we seen such widespread grieving, such blanket media coverage, such a high level of tweets and Facebook posts relating to the loss of an artist. While people congregated in Bowie’s birthplace of Brixton, yet more on Heddon Street, featured on the Ziggy Stardust album sleeve, to grieve their idol, most took to social media to express their extreme sadness - myself included.

Sadly, so too did the usual grief ombudsman, waiting in the wings with clipboards, ready to pass the feelings of others through rigorous quality control, before noisily finding it lacking. As much as I struggle to understand these people, I think the gist was that the grief was over the top, the talk of crying was fake, the mourning was insincere, the claims of fandom were fake and lemming-like, that Twitter was infuriatingly overwhelmed with tributes, that Bowie - a literal stranger - simply could not have meant that much to anyone outside of his inner circle of family and real friends.

To me, it would seem wholly inevitable that Twitter would have tunnel vision this week. Because the thing that those who’ve lost a loved one understand is that it is enormously comforting to see others mourn that same loss. You want to fill the church, to have to butter eight dozen ham baps, because that lets you know you’re not alone, that your loved one will be missed, that you’ll have a wide array of anecdotes and experiences to share at the wake. When someone you loved from afar dies, the same applies to social media. Of course fans who are spread so widely around the planet want to swap YouTube clips, stories of their first gig, and share their sadness with others.

I cried real, fat, wet tears when I heard about Bowie’s death at 7am on Monday...My face was like a dripping tap for about 30 hours, and that's the truth

It’s just another function held in the village hall of Twitter. The usual LOLcats and media links are pushed to the side like trestle tables to make way for an enormous virtual wake. Maybe that’s just not your day on social media (when the great Terry Pratchett died, I had nothing to contribute, so I logged out and did something else while his devoted fans did their grieving), maybe you have to mute a few tweeters along the way. That’s fine, but keep your own counsel rather that act as some self-appointed grief umpire for a nation. It’s an exceptionally bad look.

Apart from being spectacularly rude and shamefully cynical, the sneery grief police also rather missed the point. Because despite what the doubters would have you believe, you don’t need to be a Bowie mega fan to feel the loss. Someone challenged me on whether I was entitled to feel so broken on Monday and I was halfway justifying myself by pointing out I’d seen Bowie live nine times starting at just 12 years old, that I own every album, know every track listing, and that he’s been a constant musical companion and hugely important figure throughout mine and my two older brothers’ entire lives, when I realised that actually, what does it even matter? If you once got sweaty to the point of delirium to Let’s Dance, if you and your mates associate Changes with leaving university, or you played Absolute Beginners at your wedding, that’s enough. If your dad requested Wild Is The Wind for his funeral, or you belt out Life On Mars when drunk and near a karaoke mic, or even if you went to the V&A purely to porn over some jumpsuits, then you are allowed to feel loss. Anyone is allowed to feel anything. Whether you feel grief or not is not within the jurisdiction of you, or anyone else. Feelings just are.

Of course, your true feelings may be that you just weren’t a fan of David Bowie. Or you were indifferent, and are now baffled as to how so many people can be so touched by a person they didn’t know personally, how the death of an artist can feel similarly to the death of a friend. That might be inconceivable, even laughable, to you, and that’s perfectly okay. But what always is under our control is behaviour and our actions towards other people. Which is why, when you start berating people on social media for their perceived overreactions, or inauthenticity, what you are effectively doing is walking into a grieving person’s house and saying “Buck up! Why are you so upset about your dead friend? It's pathetic". It’s spectacularly rude, inappropriate and unnecessary showboating when people are feeling sad, and perhaps more constructive to ask yourself more broadly why the sadness of others makes you feel so angry in the first place.

Bowie made me realise that it was OK not to love Bros and Jason Donovan like my school friends; that there was a whole other world I was invited to join

I cried real, fat, wet tears when I heard about Bowie’s death at 7am on Monday. I cried when I turned on 6 Music, and continued in the same vein for the next three hours. I cried when I spoke to my brother, who was himself crying for the first time in 26 years, I cried during the BBC tribute, and I cried when I read Alexis Petridis’ tribute in The Guardian. My face was like a dripping tap for about 30 hours, and that’s the truth. My assistant cried, all my girlfriends cried, my sister-in-law cried, my nephew, raised on Bowie, said “everything just seems wrong now”. None of us was lying (though many of us were shocked by the strength of our reaction), we were just feeling.

In my case I was feeling the unexpected, even unimaginable, loss of an artist who made me realise that it was OK not to love Bros and Jason Donovan like my school friends; that there was a whole other world I was invited to join. He gave me the album, Lou Reed’s Transformer, that first showed me music could be something bigger, more complex and resonant than a school disco playlist, and led me down a path of music nerdery that has enriched my life, experiences and sense of self in an immeasurable way. Bowie reassured me that the weird, misfit family I was teased so relentlessly for being a part of, was not only okay, it was pretty fucking cool. He told me that if I got the hell out of the valleys, I’d find more weirdos and that would be beyond fabulous. He told me to fly my freak flag with pride.

Like all truly masterful writers, he gave me words that summed up how I was feeling when I didn’t even know myself, and he gave me the euphoria of watching some transcendent live performance that I’ll never, ever forget. That’s what happens when you connect with great art and literature  - it becomes stitched into your soul’s hemline. That may not apply to everyone - and I’m genuinely sad for those who don’t understand. But there are millions like me, who in losing an artist, feel as though they’ve lost an entire world. You absolutely don’t have to understand that, but you really should respect that, and kindly stop being a dick.


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David Bowie

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