David Bowie’s Dignified Death – And Why It Made Me Question Myself

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This isn’t like my other blogs. It’s not an update or a blog about an experience or treatment. Instead, it’s exploring something. This week, something happened that made me question my decision to go public with my cancer diagnosis. 


I woke up to the news David Bowie had died of cancer at 69. For music fans everywhere it will have been an extremely sad day, and I definitely felt it too – even if I must admit to not knowing much of his catalogue beyond the obvious stuff! But it wasn’t his death itself that made me question certain things – it was the way he handled it.

That’s because Bowie hadn’t told anyone about his illness. He had kept quiet for 18 months, released an album and then died quietly a few days later. It made me wonder whether that was the right way to go about it – apart from the death bit, obviously! But a few people on twitter who I follow certainly thought so.

Firstly, it’s important to say that I’m not the sort of the person who gets involved in the wave of emotion that finds its way onto social media when someone famous passes away. I understand why it happens, but I’m never too fond of the ‘I’m grieving more than you’ stuff that can go on. I’m also not a fan of the pretend grief that can happen when a celebrity passes away – not that it happened for Bowie, but it is reason why some celebrities ‘die’ prematurely while others die more than once.

Having said all that, it was when I logged into social media and read some of the reactions to his death that I started to question my own decisions related to the cancer I have, and how I have handled it.

For instance, a former local radio presenter – who I have so much respect for from my time in Journalism – tweeted: “Now that’s dignity. Knowing and not telling. God Bless #Starman #DavidBowie.” A colleague replied: “It’s a dignity we’d aspire to, but rarely achieve.”

Another journalist, Coventry City fan and ex-Sky Sports presenter Richard Keys, said: “What a wonderfully dignified exit David Bowie made. Never understood those who publicise their illness. Bowie was a genius and a gent. RIP.”

Both of these tweets had plenty of retweets and likes, meaning others agreed with their views. I searched for ‘Bowie’ and ‘dignified’ and found loads more with a similar outlook. The final straw came when a blog on the Spectator website was retweeted onto my homepage.


Its headline said his ‘dignified’ death was a reminder of the sanctity of private life. It claimed Bowie’s silence was a ‘Herculean’ effort but also went onto criticise those who chose to go public.

Here’s a flavour of the article: “Today, to be sick in private, to die in private, seems almost revolutionary. They say Bowie bucked trends (and in the process invented new ones) — well, he’s just bucked one of the most powerful and nauseating trends of our era: the victim-therapeutic complex which demands that we keep nothing private, that we advertise our failures and fragile mortality to a watching, sadness-hungry world.”

Pretty strong stuff, then! All of it made me think to myself – was I right to tell people? Should I have ‘kept my dignity’ and stayed silent? I did just that for more than 12 months before letting out the news on Facebook, but had spent a good portion of that silence trying to urge myself to go public.

I knew that old friends genuinely cared about my wellbeing, and I wanted people to have an explanation when they saw me in the street and wondered: “God, Matt looks ill doesn’t he!” I had reached the stage where cancer was affecting my everyday life too much for it to stay hidden any longer.

It took me a year to have what I thought was the courage to do it. A friend of mine has had cancer and hasn’t told a soul about it. I’ve often thought of how brave they are – keeping news like that to themselves and getting on with daily life. Yet, when I went public, their first reaction was to tell me how brave I was.

Strange how we see things differently.

I know those who used the word ‘dignified’ did so in an innocent fashion, but I do wish people would take a step back sometimes and think about what they are writing. The problem is, of course, that it takes an event such as finding out you have cancer to realise how you can impact on others.

Before all this, I saw everything in such black and white. Every opinion came so easily. But I’m not so ignorant now, thankfully. I’m not always right, and not everything is black and white.

And I prefer it this way. It’s one of the positives to come from this, I think, to have the ability to know what’s important and take a step back in a situation before acting. To see things from other people’s perspectives and know that everyone is fighting their own secret battle, and to not judge them without knowing all the facts.

I like to think it’s having that attitude – and not the decision on whether to go public or not – that defines whether someone has dignity or not. To not just be worthy of honour or respect yourself – but to value, honour and respect the people around you, too.

I also think that I’ve learned one key lesson this week: don’t go on Twitter so bloody much!

Matt Bates

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