Updated: Jun 3, 2020
I met Sylvia Causer in 2015 when she was studying on her Masters in fine art. She was subsequently part of Wrought Festival as one of the emerging artists and took part in my workshop on one to one performance. I've found it really interesting speaking to someone who integrates a clinical background into their art practice.
Reflections on Grief
I hear the familiar tone from my phone, a message in my inbox. It's from my best friend. Of late, her messages have become more frequent and filled with raw sadness, frustration and a deep longing as she negotiates the difficult path of grief following the expected, but nevertheless harrowing, death of her Mother.
We know each other very well indeed. Ours is a deep friendship, a close relationship spanning almost forty years. We are like sisters, innately close although not genetically linked. We share a spooky kind of telepathy tending to think about each other at the very same time. It is not unusual for the inboxes to ping simultaneously. Yet despite the love and affection I have for my friend, I am of little comfort to her. She weeps down the phone and through her tears, I hear regret, remorse, perhaps even guilt but mostly a complete and utter realisation that she will never ever see her Mother again.
I muster all that I know. I combine a long career working professionally as a Nurse/Matron with countless death related experiences and three years of MA Fine Art research exploring grief in others. Despite all this information, my kind words and care do little to abate the tidal wave of sorrow that my friend is increasingly engulfed in.
Grief is complex; grief is unique to each and every one of us.
Grief is the elephant in the room.
My thoughts transport me to a hotel lobby where I am greeted by a smiley elephant (Jaye Kearney) who gently escorts me to a hotel room on the first floor. Jaye tells me some facts about grief, I am reassured that her words echo my own thinking. I am invited to sit alone in the hotel room which, has been specially designed as a one-to-one performance installation The Reservation by artists Ellie Harrison and Jaye Kearney. The piece offers visitors the gift of time and the opportunity for reflection and the remembrance of those we love. I choose to reflect upon a 'potential' loss, one which is likely to leave me lost and alone at some point in the future. I realise through the placement of objects arranged in a suitcase that my life, to date, is a fortunate one filled with achievements, happy memories and a longevity of relationships. I conclude, I am lucky and have little to worry about. The scent of rosemary reminds me of my own personal losses which through the passage of time, are people remembered through smiles and laughter rather than maudlin tears. I leave the room touched that I have experienced something powerful, something essential as grief is common to all.
I want to find a solution, make the hurt go away, reduce the obvious pain experienced by my friend but I know I cannot do this, even for her.
I return to my research and reoccurring questions.
Why is grief such a difficult process to bear? How can grief be made less painful? Why does grief feel so much like fear? I have no definitive answers but I do have some thoughts and reflections.
As a novice performer, I discovered through practice that performance bears an uncanny parallel to the process of mourning and grief. Learning for the performer is in the public domain, frequently exposed and vulnerable to the scrutiny of a voracious audience. Grief and its ensuing rituals demand time and attention much of which is played out in the public. The unscripted, unplanned event of death forces the griever to perform, to become a closely watched actor of sorrow. The expression of grief is approached through a performance perspective, in other words featuring the necessary components of a spectacle. Sensed emotionally, perhaps performance and its conventions can provide new opportunities and fertile ground to consider the impact of grief in light of its potential aesthetic and relational qualities for art practice. We endure grief, but we can also experience the transformative effects of loss.
My experience in The Reservation uses a strategy of narrative in a safe environment to share stories of grief. The value of storytelling seems related to the mechanism of releasing emotion, unburdening of grief potentially, in a cathartic way which conveys knowledge and insight to others. Perhaps, through this process, meaning is found and preparation for change can begin. Evidence from grief counselling remarks that stifled stories of pain may impede one's growth and development. Everyone who experiences grief has a story to tell, and telling a story often and in detail seems imperative to the grief process, it must be witnessed to be healed.
Witnessing implies the presence of others and in the dark, quiet moments of grief we not only mourn the loss of loved ones but also, find that part of our self has gone missing too leading to a dual loss. How we find the 'me' in grief poses an interesting question for critical art practice.
I am not an expert in grief and to some extent, I cannot be.
Grief hasn't changed, only the way that we respond to it. Grief is painfully normal but painful none the less. Culturally, we no longer have periods of mourning or props of religion to guide our grief response. Warm, fictional experiences of death viewed through TV and film fail to prepare us for the reality of an all too frequent, long and drawn out death. The sanitation of death seeks to distant us further from the proximity of the deceased and the process of dying. We seek solace in social media and mourning unknown celebrities which magnifies our desperation, of flailing about in the wind, of coping alone.
There is no sticking plaster for grief. It won't go away. We never truly lose grief.
Our response to grief is shaped by our culture, our society. We cannot go backwards only forwards.
And so to my friend…the pain and fear of grief must be borne, to remove it could dilute its importance in our lives after all, bereavement is an integral part of our experience of love. We can be detached by grief, the familiar bonds and connections lost until we find new relations and new ways of existing in the presence of death.
By Sylvia Causer