By now, everyone has heard the news of David Bowie’s death of cancer at 69 years of age.
Bowie’s death came two days after his birthday and the simultaneous release of his newest album, Blackstar, and so many fans and Bowie aficionados likely received this news after a few days of appreciating the new album, revisiting old favourites and generally appreciating the oeuvre of a man whose work, words and aesthetic profoundly changed them in some way.
When I first read the news of his death, the first thing I felt was shock.
The second thing that I felt was appreciation.
Let me explain:
Bowie is one of the most famous and widely known musical artists to have ever lived, and if he was living with cancer for 18 months without it being public knowledge, it was very deliberate. This means that he, his family, and his colleagues had to make several complicated arrangements to ensure their privacy, and it also means the folks who were a part of Bowie’s inner circle had to respect that desire for privacy. In other words, a number of factors had to be in place – human, bureaucratic, legal, and more – in order for Bowie to confront his death in the way he wanted.
The more I learn about things like his final photoshoot, the deliberate timing of the release of the video for Lazarus, and the tone of Blackstar, the more I appreciate what a good death looked like for Bowie, especially given how much labour, organizing and effort had to be expended in order to make this good death happen.
In the weeks to follow, we will likely learn even more about Bowie’s final months and his approach to dying of a terminal illness, but in the meantime, what can we learn about how to die from Bowie? What can we learn about how to make a good death happen for ourselves?
Here’s another way to think about it: How can we emulate, in a meaningful way, the worldview and courage of a man that was so widely admired and loved?
I’ll be going into more detail in subsequent blog posts about my encounters with the following topics, but it seems to be Bowie’s good death consisted of several basic components or actions that we can all practice ourselves. These components are:
- Accepting death: Although Bowie may have undergone treatment, at some point he must have made the decision to accept he would die of cancer, and once acceptance took place, his death would have become a fact over which he could have some modicum of control. We cannot control that we die, but there are many parts of how we die that we can begin to manage if we are able to address them early enough and with the necessary support.
- Support: Speaking of support, it is very difficult to go through the process of confronting and planning one’s own death and dying without some sort of support network. In Bowie’s case, this was likely a combination of family members, including his wife, Iman, a professional network of palliative care and other doctors who could have assisted with pain management and comfort at the end of life, and the collegial network that was equipped and willing to make sure Bowie’s wishes were carried out. This network looks different for every individual, but it is crucial that those you wish to be close to you, and are in a position to help you, are informed of your wishes in as much detail as possible. This enables them to execute any wishes you may have and also relieves them of the emotional and mental burden of doubting whether what they are doing is in keeping with your wishes in the first place.
- Documentation: Between his medical care, his disposition wishes, and the complicated legal, financial, professional and artistic networks required to ensure that albums, videos and photographs are released according to schedule and in accordance with the artist’s wishes, I can only imagine the stack of paperwork Bowie, his family and his colleagues would have had to tackle. That said, many hands make light work. It is likely there were some documents only Bowie could legally handle, but many other tasks could have been delegated to a family member, colleague or other professional with signing authority and knowledge of Bowie’s wishes. Documentation is the one aspect of death and dying people least expect and most underestimate, and it is likely to be something that overwhelms you if you aren’t prepared for it. Your support network can help you with this, but knowing a timeline also helps. What needs to be signed immediately? What can wait, and for how long? In other words, in the face of the documentation side of death and dying, taking small bites and, yes, starting as early as possible is the best way to avoid additional anxiety.
- Advance planning: Related to documentation and the support network, it is clear Bowie was able to approach his death and dying in such an organized, coordinated fashion only because he made ample use of the advance planning tools available to him. In terms of his legacy, it seems the news of his passing, the completion of his goals, and the release of his final albums while ensuring his privacy and getting time to spend with his loved ones were priorities to him. These priorities could only be enshrined in official terms, so to speak, by planning early, planning thoroughly, and planning in detail. Again, the majority of this would have been made possible only through the appropriate documentation and lots of help from Bowie’s support network, but it also likely began with Bowie simply sitting down and asking himself, perhaps several times, the following questions: “What do I want to accomplish before I die? Knowing I only have one or two years to live, what is important and meaningful to me? What do I want my death to look and feel like for myself, for my loved ones, and for the many people that I care about?” Advance planning is nothing more or less than the answers to these questions enshrined in some form of documentation, legally binding agreements, and even ephemeral forms such as frank, detailed conversations with the executor of your estate and your loved ones.
It takes a great deal of courage and dedication to tackle these components. However, in the end, the reward is self-determination and what we might call ‘a good death’ – a death that is arranged so it speaks to our values and that which we found meaningful and significant when we were living, and helps us to realize those aspects of ourselves in our dying.
Bowie was a hero to many, and it is clear the arrangements he made to connect with the world through his music and ever-changing aesthetic prior to his death have been received in the spirit in which they were intended. He worked hard to say goodbye in a way that made sense to him, and if you wish to pay tribute to him in some small way, what better way to tip your hat to the man than working towards the same courage and effort when it comes time for you to die?
For myself, I can’t think of anything Bowie would have appreciated more than people finding, following and committing to their own unique passion even in – perhaps especially in – the face of death.
Diana Samu-Visser is a PhD candidate in the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western. Her research focuses on narratives of death and dying in the 21st century. This piece originally appeared on her blog, chthonicboom.com/.