This blog came about as an extension of a wider conversation happening during the On Endings residency. A residency aimed at bringing together 12 artists to explore themes of ending, death, grief and loss, co-hosted by Theatre in the Mill and Ellie Harrison.
Ellie is a performance maker and artist living in Leeds and working internationally. She is artistic director of the acclaimed Grief Series, a sequence of seven arts projects that open up spaces to talk about bereavement and end of life. She creates a range of solo and collaborative devised performance work for studios, galleries, found and public spaces. Participation is at the heart of all of her work as a performer, facilitator and mentor. Ellie specialises in embedding care and ethical participation both in her own practice and offering consultancy to other artists and organisations. Her work is often characterised by a playful and provocative approach to difficult topics, encouraging audiences to make decisions and participate.
Here, I take the opportunity to ask Ellie some questions, starting with the essentials and winding through an inspiring chat that gets to the heart of why art is fundamental to processing death, grief and loss.
What is grief to you?
This is an interesting one. Experientially, grief is something that happened “at” me and “to” me. I lost my mum when I was seventeen and following that, I had a series of bereavements. I lost my brother eighteen months later and then my father and stepbrother. There was a time, between the ages of 17 and 23 where I was having multiple bereavements every year. And it happened at that in-between phase of life where you’re too old for young people’s services but also not a proper adult yet so a bit too young for grown up services. It was a strange time and I suppose what has given me a life-long interest in grief. I think grief is totally unique to every person that experiences it. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to spend ten years talking and thinking about it, because no-one person can be an expert in it which is sort of joyous because you’re always meeting people where they’re the experts in their own lived experience.
Recently, I’ve been working a lot with an artist called Chloe Smith and she has been talking a lot about the sea. For me, grief is tidal and rather than trying to place value judgements on it there is something about accepting it, you know, one day the sea is rough and the next it is calm, and we accept that. Whereas sometimes there can be a pressure to control it or push it away or to wrestle it into some kind of order. But the more you can go with the flow, the more meaningful it has the possibility of being.
Why is it important that we talk about death, grief and loss?
There are lots of reasons why it’s important we talk about death, grief and loss. It’s important that we re-imagine and model new ways of responding to bereavement. For example, when I was first bereaved there weren’t many people my age that I knew who had significant bereavements, so it became a really isolating experience. Part of what I’ve been trying to do with my work is model an alternative. To model spaces where we can talk about it and where other people would have a less isolating experience due to the work I’m making. Also, there has been a big change to how we plan end of life and how we die, over the last 50-100 years. The NHS is an incredible thing, but it has also meant that death has become professionalised and so, I think people have forgotten that sense of what they could do and tend to fall into the pressure what they think they should do, mainly due to a lack of information or feeling of agency. It’s really important that we have these conversations to share information. Funeral poverty is a really big problem so it is important that people feel empowered to make the best choices for them. I think because it is so individual, those conversations feel culturally urgent.
When my mum died, she had three weeks between her diagnosis and her death, therefore she was able to write notes on her thoughts about her funeral. She said not to spend lots of money on a coffin and actually that was a real relief and permission. My sister and I were able to go into planning that funeral knowing that we were honouring what she would have wanted. Having these conversations, creating places where people can talk about what they would like is good for everybody. It also makes us live better, by talking about death we are able to work out what is important for us and live better. Sometimes, people ask me if my work is really depressing and you know, sometimes it is heavy but more often than not, people are talking about things that are really important to them and people they really love and that is a continual source of joy, meaning and a great privilege. People are so generous in offering their authenticity and vulnerability and that is a continual gift.
How did you become involved in this subject area?
I did what any early career artist does and made a piece of work about my pain. And my pain was having lost lots of people. I was really worried that no-one would come and see a one-woman autobiographical show about death but fortunately people did. What I was not prepared for was how many people would share their experiences with me directly after the show. I toured the show around the country as well as internationally and members of the audience would approach me to talk about how the show reminded them of when they lost a partner, child or parents. The space after the show was just as important, if not more important, than the show itself. However, it wouldn’t have existed unless there was the artwork to act as a prompt. So I realised there was an expressed need to create social spaces to talk about grief; non-clinical and non-professional peer spaces. Spaces where there was permission for laughter and humour as well as for tears.
At that point, I looked at some different grief models and a seven-stage model resonated with my own experience but also, was long and slow and felt appropriate to the subject matter. Seven projects felt brave and ridiculous and I kind of wanted that. I decided I was going to make seven projects about grief with all sorts of different people from five-year olds to world leading experts of palliative care.
Can you tell us more about the intersectionality of grief and art?
Art gives us a way of bearing witness to unheard stories and unheard experiences. At its best, it subverts, it allows things that might not get breathing space to have the breathing space they deserve. And for that reason, it feels important that we make art about grief. Previously, I’ve talked about myself as someone who overshares compulsively. I say the unsayable, a lot. Whether that’s me talking about my experiences of miscarriage or something silly that has happened. What happens through oversharing is that we model a different possible way that the world could be. We ask the audience “imagine if it was ok to talk about these things?” and by doing this, we talk it into being. Creating artwork where people can say the things they haven’t felt able to say, feels powerful.
We live in a society that is obsessed with starting things; obsessed with the new and the next. I see the work that I make as being political because it pushes back against that. It says “what if as well as honouring beginnings we also honour endings?”, “what if we make space to talk about endings?”, “what if we go slow?”. These things push back against capitalism and say that to bear witness, to slow down and bear witness to someone else’s lived experience is a radical act; a radically compassionate thing to do. It pushes back against a dominant culture.
It’s been really beautiful during the On Endings residency, hearing how the subject matter is being explored in all these different ways that are above and beyond anything that I could ever say.
Can you recommend art that our readers should check out that touch on grief/loss?
- Truly, Madly, Deeply – An oldy but a goody. I can’t tell whether it is really obvious or people won’t have heard of it. It’s a film with the late great Alan Rickman and for me, Juliet Stevenson’s performance gets to the heart of some of the things I’ve felt when I’ve been grieving. And also, the growth that can happen when grieving.
- Rabbit Hole – A film with Nicole Kidman that explores the different ways that people grieve and how sometimes your grieving style can rub up uncomfortably against someone else’s style.
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – A really wonderful graphic novel that looks at queerness and grief. It’s an autobiographical piece about the loss of her father.
- Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals by Saidya Heartman – A book; part fiction and part historical account dealing with lots of different kinds of grief. Loss in who’s stories historians listen to and who’s stories are allowed to fall through the cracks and what we inherit from previous generations, it is fascinating.
- The Babadook – A horror film that is less obviously about bereavement but is about unresolved endings.
- Midsommar – Another amazing horror film about different kinds of grief. Grief for relationships and bereavement.
- Cry Heart Never Break by Glenn Ringtved – Some of the best books about grief are for children. This book is a distillation of lots of complex thoughts and feelings. The author took a messy experience of loss and distilled it so a five-year old could understand and I love that.
Do you have helpful tools and tips for people dealing with grief/ sense of loss?
I think it’s important to reiterate that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is only a right way for you. I suppose it would be to offer permission for people to trust their gut and allow themselves to know there isn’t necessarily a sell by date on grief. You don’t have to tidy it up after a year, six months, three weeks or any of those arbitrary ideas that other people might have in their heads. It’s a much more engaged process of meaning-making. I still have a relationship with my mum but it is a loving in absence rather than a loving in presence. I still have all these gifts from the people I’ve lost that make me who I am. That bring me joy, make me laugh, and make me sad too. They still offer me things. For example, I still cook recipes that my mum taught me. I have a lifelong love for gherkins because my brother used to take me to Burger King. They are still an ongoing part of my life in some way. So I would hope to empower people to trust themselves and be bold in their grief. To try to find a sense of flow rather than wrestle your grief into something it doesn’t want to be. I say that because I’ve spent a lot of time trying to wrestle my grief into something tidy or polite and found that it doesn’t work. Don’t let people silence you.
We are at a complex point in human history in terms of the social landscape, climate crisis and a global pandemic. Do you have any observations or advice for readers, as we attempt to navigate this tricky period?
It’s really important that we listen; to our own feelings of grief but also create spaces where we can listen to the grief of others because there is a lot of it. It feels more culturally urgent now. There are so many different things that people are grieving at the moment and engaging with it only helps us be aware of everybody else’s humanity. I think engaging so much with grief has stopped me from making as many assumptions about people, so I think creating spaces where we listen can be radical.
It seems like in a post Covid world we are beginning to acknowledge and articulate all the different kinds of grief that people might be experiencing and that bereavement is a significant experience but there are other kinds of grief too. Particularly for people who aren’t part of the dominant white, straight, able-bodied script…there are lots of endings and rights of passage that go unmarked. It becomes important to honour these endings whether that is the end of an identity, a chapter of a life, or a relationship. It feels important that we mark and celebrate these. It’s ok if people’s rights of passage or markers don’t look the same as everybody else’s.
How do we mark queer grief? What happens if those “hatch, match, dispatch” endings aren’t applicable to you? We’re beginning to have those conversations but it’s something we can do more of. By embracing endings, changes and grief, we have the potential to become more joyful. For example, if you knew someone and they never laughed, you’d find it weird but oddly we don’t feel the same about crying. Yet, laughing and crying are similar processes. By being bold in our tears, we can more fully embrace all the corners of life, not just the middle.
On Endings is an ongoing project. We are currently planning a festival-style event called On Endings Weekender, where artists exploring these themes will be able to perform to live audiences. The weekender will be held in the Spring of 2022. In the meantime, to follow the development of the On Endings projects follow us on your preferred social media channel.
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions feel free to drop Hélène a line – firstname.lastname@example.org .