Belonging and Bowie

Like everyone else on the Internet, I’m going to say it too. David Bowie was extraordinary. Thankfully for me though, he hasn’t been my major life obsession. My main idol has already passed away. And luckily that happened before my time. But if he hadn’t and he died today I would be a mess. I would probably need days off work in an attempt to be able to function again. I wouldn’t be ‘a bit sad’, I would be 'kick-me-in-the-stomach-gutted'. And I never met him. I was never even alive when he was.

So how could I predict that such a grief response would occur then? Well let’s have a look at the power of David Bowie.

As noted so eloquently and thoroughly here, I too believe that David Bowie was so much more than a pop star. He was one individual who in 69 years was able to challenge societal norms and expectations in such a way that fostered hope, empowerment and belonging for so many.

Let’s say you came across Bowie in 1972 when you were an adolescent growing up in a regional community. Maybe you’re about 14 or 15 years old. Like all other adolescents, now and then, you’re going through this distinct and specific developmental stage in all its dramatic physical, cognitive and social glory. You’re trying to adjust to the changes of growth spurts, increased hormones, sexual maturation and are constantly preoccupied with your physical appearance. But most importantly you’re also entering a stage of pretty drastic cognitive change – known as Piaget’s formal operations stage. You’re no longer identifying as a child, but you probably don’t yet have the skills to cope with the adult world. But you think you do. So that’s incredibly frustrating. You’re searching for independence and wanting to be in control of your own decision making. You desire the ability to be the master of your own destiny and not have to answer to previously defined rules and restrictions. This is all very normal and part of the process of adolescence. As are the other tasks you’ve been dealt at this time: develop a sense of self and create an individual identity; embark on the process of self-determination; learn to develop appropriate relationships and form close affectionate bonds; develop a sexual identity; and, engage in the complexities of abstract thought. Phew.

What is most important during the period of adolescence though is the need to belong. This need is stronger in adolescence than it has been at any other point in your life. And because of the other adolescent needs of independence and freedom, it is vital for adolescents that this connection and feeling of belonging doesn’t come from inside the family unit. You’re no longer a child, after all. For most teenagers, and it certainly is the case for the other adolescents around you, this sense of belonging is found in the peer-group. You observe your school mates striving to fit in by changing their clothes, the way they talk, listening to the ‘right’ music in order to build a sense of belonging.

But you’ve tried doing all those things and it’s not working. For some reason it just doesn’t feel right. Maybe there’s something about you that is considered a little 'different'. It may be that you don't meet the gender expectations of the time. It might be that you’re gay or lesbian. It might be that you have a mental health condition. It might be that you enjoy cross-dressing. It might be that you’re really struggling at school. Or you're being bullied. Or there’s lots of family stuff going on at home that you’re really worried about. Or maybe you just really, really hate soccer/football/netball/enter-hip-sport-here. Whatever it is you feel different. You don’t feel that you belong. You have little sense of connection to others. It feels astronomically shit.

And not only does it feel bad, without this sense of connection, the prognosis is not great. Social isolation among peer-rejected teens has been linked to a variety of negative behaviours, such as delinquency (Kupersmidt & Coie, 1990). In addition, adults who had interpersonal problems during adolescence appear to be at much greater risk for psychosocial difficulties during adulthood (Hansen et al., 1995).One study found that fifth graders who were able to make at least one good friend were found to have higher feelings of self-worth at age 30 when compared to those who had been friendless (Bagwell, Newcomb, & Bukowski, 1998). Furthermore, positive peer relations during adolescence have been linked to positive psychosocial adjustment. For example, those who are accepted by their peers and have mutual friendships have been found to have better self-images during adolescence and to perform better in school (Hansen, Giacoletti, & Nangle, 1995; Savin-Williams & Berndt, 1990).

But, enter Ziggy Stardust. Bowie’s androgynous, costume-changing, rock star comes alive. For you, feeling alienated and disconnected from both your family (as a natural result of adolescence) and your peers (due to your 'difference') finding a connection with this creature through the images coming through Countdown into your living room is magical. He helps you to feel a glimmer of hope. That it might indeed be okay to be a little bit different. By all counts, he certainly is.

And so you grasp hold of the power of Bowie during your adolescence. You might feel brave enough to mimic his fashion. You might have some confidence to explore your feelings around gender and sexual identity. You go on and form connections with other individuals and communities who had felt disconnected from society because of the apparent societal norms. These people also felt different. You find belonging with them. Life gets better and you avoid the risks.

And now, all these years later Bowie is suddenly gone. You only saw him through the television set and the Internet. You didn’t get to see a concert. You haven’t listened to any of his albums in years. And yet, you feel kick-you-in–the-stomach-gutted. Is that okay? Most certainly it is.

You’re grieving. Grief is a natural response to loss. Any loss. To any thing or any person. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief is likely to be. Quite naturally you might be feeling sad, angry, anxious, shocked, regretful, relieved, overwhelmed, isolated, irritable or numb. Many of these reactions are a constant but instead come in waves and can be triggered by memories (e.g., songs) or occasions (e.g., seeing a friend who was also a fan). Everyone experiences grief differently and there’s no set time on how long it might last. But it’s grief.

"They've (celebrities) been a part of our lives. We see them on TV, they're in our living rooms, we feel we know them, and we incorporate them almost as though they're part of our families," says Alan Hilfer, Chief of Psychology at Maimonides Medical Centre in New York.

One of the problems with grief over celebrity deaths, according to Richard Harris, a psychology professor at Kansas State who studies civilian-celebrity relationships, is that "unlike real-life mourning, there is no social support for such grieving. People laugh at you for being emotional about the death of someone you didn't even know," he says. "Needless to say, this reaction doesn't help you work it through."

So what will help you through? Treat it like normal grieving. Because it is. Beyond Blue have some excellent tips and strategies which can be found here. Three main things are vital though - looking after yourself, letting others help you and most importantly allowing yourself the time to grieve and heal. It doesn’t matter that he was famous; to you he was something else. Cherish that.

If this raises concerns, or you’d like to chat to someone make sure you reach out:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

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