Late Friday, August 28, it was announced via a solemn message and a smiling black and white photo that Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman was dead (at just 43) after living and working for years with a stage III colon cancer diagnosis he received in 2016. The news came suddenly, with the vast majority of the world (from his colleagues, co-stars and fans) not knowing that he was sick, not knowing that his career (full of bright, inspiring and brilliant moments) and life would be so tragically short.
“It is with immeasurable grief that we confirm the passing of Chadwick Boseman. Chadwick was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016, and battled with it these last four years as it progressed to stage IV. A true fighter, Chadwick persevered through it all, and brought you many of the films you have come to love so much,” the Instagram post said. “From Marshall to Da 5 Bloods, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and several more, all were filmed during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy. It was the honor of his career to bring King T’Challa to life in Black Panther. He died in his home, with his wife and family by his side. The family thanks you for your love and prayers, and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.”
Like with any instance of public grieving over a celebrity, it’s possible (although I can’t say it’s necessarily helpful) to watch the stages of grief happen in real-time. But in this case, it all felt all the more traumatic and wrong. It felt wrong in the visceral way things continue to feel wrong in 2020. It felt wrong because it was an ending to a story that no one expected. And it felt wrong because there’s a part of all of us that never grows out of believing that our heroes — these people who are talented, strong and good and able to punch through things we can’t — don’t just die. (Even though it’s one of those human things that we all do — no matter who we are — and there is absolutely no shame in it.)
Particularly for Boseman, the visibility that comes with his very public death brings a chance to have important conversations about colorectal cancers (which are on the rise in millennial and Gen X patients) and how especially younger Black men can have better access to information and resources on the complicated disease. But that’s not something that lessens the gut-punch of loss. When you think about what it means to live with (and in many cases die from) cancer and all the trauma that comes with it for you and your family — let alone to do it as a celebrity who occupies such a special place in the hearts, minds and zeitgeist — his decision to keep that part of his life private is one that makes sense (and one that he and his family were totally entitled to make for what is undoubtedly one of the worst days of their lives).
As tributes from those who worked with, knew and loved Boseman began to make their way online it was impossible for them not to note how much the actor accomplished in his short career. One moving tribute came from Black Panther’s director Ryan Coogler, who touched on how he’d been living with his illness the entire time they’d known one another and he’d never known:
“Chad deeply valued his privacy, and I wasn’t privy to the details of his illness. After his family released their statement, I realized that he was living with his illness the entire time I knew him. Because he was a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith, dignity and pride, he shielded his collaborators from his suffering. He lived a beautiful life. And he made great art. Day after day, year after year. That was who he was. He was an epic firework display. I will tell stories about being there for some of the brilliant sparks till the end of my days. What an incredible mark he’s left for us,” Coogler wrote. “I haven’t grieved a loss this acute before. I spent the last year preparing, imagining and writing words for him to say, that we weren’t destined to see. It leaves me broken knowing that I won’t be able to watch another close-up of him in the monitor again or walk up to him and ask for another take. It hurts more to know that we can’t have another conversation, or facetime, or text message exchange. He would send vegetarian recipes and eating regimens for my family and me to follow during the pandemic. He would check in on me and my loved ones, even as he dealt with the scourge of cancer.”
The work Boseman accomplished while living with cancer is remarkable (and he just was a remarkable and skilled actor to begin with), but there’s something to be said about the culture that focuses so much on what you produce and the work you do in spite of living with cells in your body that are trying to kill you. It makes it all the more difficult for someone to navigate their illness along with the other parts of their lives.
For people living with more visible disabilities and others living with less obvious ones, it can be hard to see the ways his life and his death are used to say “what’s your excuse?” from the often-ableist hustle culture types. It reinforces all sorts of weird feelings about what it means to live with a complicated health condition and what it means to contribute in a meaningful way. It also speaks to the larger way people with disabilities aren’t given room to exist (to live, work, grieve and function) in our society in the ways they need and want to — and how perception of what it means to live with any given condition can affect how they are able to publicly hold the many complex parts of their experiences and identities. Managing who knows (and to what extent they know) about their condition is yet another thing disabled people have to carry.
I don’t discuss my chronic illness because I don’t want to be defined by it. The one time I spoke to my boss about my hours affecting my health, I was accused of being a martyr and a victim. Productivity culture is a disease. Burnout culture is a disease. Ableism is a disease. https://t.co/9dRKOWL4WD
— Suzy Berkowitz (@suzyberkowitz) August 29, 2020
And, of course, there’s the way we just don’t know how to talk about the realities of cancer in a way that does justice to the people who live with it without dehumanizing them as saints and martyrs and reductive beatific stereotypes. In stories we tell about people who live with and die from cancer there’s a lot of talk of battles (won and lost) that, at least when coming from the media rather than the patients themselves, can feel like such a rhetorical misfire: While the impulse is to make clear that cancer sucks (and, yes, it f-cking full-body sucks) and is the goddamn enemy, what does it mean to say someone who lived such a full life (even after receiving an earth-shattering diagnosis) lost the battle?
“Cancer is a disease; not a military campaign. In the words of patient and caregiver Jana Buhlman, ‘it’s a disease that people manage,’” as the Patient Empowerment Network noted in a blog post. “Cancer is a complex disease. Yet there still exists a prevailing attitude to cancer which treats survival as though it were somehow an act of will. You’ve got to be strong, remain positive and be courageous to overcome the disease.”
How does that, intentionally or not, undercut the reality of what they experienced and the reality of who they were while living with their disease? How can we acknowledge that there’s tragedy, that someone exceptional was lost and grieve for every beautiful, important thing they didn’t get to do without framing their eventual exit as though it was a failure? Is there a way to make sure the sudden, traumatic and, yes, private conclusion doesn’t overshadow every powerful thing that came before?
When the same end (or a similar one) comes for each of us, it feels like a disservice to all a person can be — all they were and all the lives they’ve impacted — to put so much weight behind the tragic and shocking “final score” instead of the beautiful, complicated game they played all along.
Before you go, check out our therapist-approved sympathy gifts for grieving loved ones: