Transcript; The Green Chair; 2020-05-12
In January, 2019, I stood at one end of Impact Hub Birmingham, and told a story. It was a story of life, of Norah’s life, of my life, of death, of grief. It was a story I spent nine months crafting, with 11 other wonderful people on a Learning Marathon. Two months after that story, I put down my pens and books for a short while, and welcomed another life into the world. And now, I am sitting in my house, on a chair that I brought in April 2017. A green chair, covered in fabric illustrated with Bracken fern, that reminded us of the landscape of the beloved book, Where the Wild Things Are. It has a firm and supportive high back and arms, perfect for feeding a babe in. That’s why we brought it, our green chair, that takes up just a bit too much space, and sits just a bit out of place in most of our rooms.
It’s May now, 2020, and we are in the middle of a global pandemic. We are losing life at a devastating rate, in devastating circumstances. We grieve without the arms of our people, we grasp at whispers of attempted clarity, and we wait.
It was always my intention to pick up my pens and books again. In fact, Navigating the Wilderness, and my work within never really paused. I scribbled scraps of thoughts in post-partum darkness, I followed the world of death, dying and grief, knowing I would catch up with it when I could. And I did start to catch up, I found myself in lectures at the Cicely Saunders Institute for Palliative Care, and I made proper plans for my post graduate study. And then came January, February, and March. Where the world seemed to catch up to my conversation very quickly. Too quickly, in a way that can only come with serious loss to life. I waited a while, quietly crafting through my grief, and making spaces and connections where I could. But as each week slouched past, I had to step back into my voice, my work, my practice.
So I’m here, sitting in my green chair, writing, reading, sharing, creating. I understand first-hand the power a story can hold, and the difference we can make walking alongside death and grief. So many people have asked me how we even begin to process the collective and individual grief our world is facing, and it’s a question I can only answer from my little corner of the world. I’m going to start somewhere now, by going back to January 2019, and reading the words I printed in our Learning Marathon, about the months I spent asking questions about death and grief.
In exploring death, and how we relate with ourselves and our communities, I have come to believe we can do better. Through crafting, writing, storytelling and poetry, I’m inviting you to join me in The Wilderness, to challenge our kneejerk responses to death, and experience life in close connection.
My initial question asked ‘How can we change attitudes to death to better support communities and families in grief?’. I came to this question in grief, rebuilding after the death of my daughter Norah, and in the wake of so many conversations with so many others who had experienced grief, only to find that the way we handle grief in society serves to contribute to the suffering resulting from death.
Whilst the passion behind my question came from a burning need to change the landscape for others, my learning journey has reacquainted me with my writer, my curiosity, my artist, my vulnerability, my voice, my academic, my confidence, my value, my motherhood, and all the aspects of my identity I had lost along my way. I came to my question with a notion of navigating the wilderness, and along the way found so much companionship, life and hope in the process of sitting alongside death and discomfort in grief, my learning journey has given me a compass to navigate, and a patience to hold steady in acceptance and admiration of the wilderness.
In inviting others into the wilderness, holding hands with life apace with death, and confronting the reality of grief, I really believe we can confront death together, and show that death, dying and grief can still mean life love and hope.
Norah’s legacy has been central to this work, but we are not alone. Story after story came to join me on this journey, the names of our loved ones who existed only in silent grief. Whilst support is available in a limited way, all of the spaces we occupy seemed to find the reality of death and grief easier to ignore, opting for euphemisms and platitudes in the short term, and favouring silence and denial after that.
I felt helpless in answering my question, but with each story and name that found me, I saw sparks of hope and relief. In talking about Norah, and my experiences of grief, I shared a sort of permission for others to share theirs. I saw this agency of sorts in a number of places, and whilst I still hold a reluctance to be the guardian of a licence to share, I began to see a pattern that could enable some answers to my questions.
Throughout, I have felt an overwhelming sense of missing voices. In the spaces that exist to talk and connect, through social media or in curated spaces, the majority of voices are largely white, middle class, and unrepresentative. In confronting death and creating spaces, we also need to confront our privileges and margins, and recognise the exclusionary nature of many spaces and communities.
How do we confront the inevitable, and bring the legacy of our loved ones with us, in a society that seems so disconnected from death? My sense is that in demonstrating human connection, and talking through death and grief, we can unite us with an openness in death, which will enable us to build capacity for a fullness of life, and support our communities in grief with generosity, love and hope, in place of silence, fear and othering.
This week is Dying Matters Awareness Week, and whilst I was quite ready for the planned events and panel talks that would be involved before the pandemic, it hasn’t felt comfortable committing to anything in this context, not wanting to add to the overwhelming collective sense of grief and confusion.
Instead, it feels like the right time to step forward, once more, and reclaim Navigating the Wilderness, crafting a new corner of the internet, recording these thoughts, and sharing my process along the way.
A dear friend shared with me a reading of Hermann Hesse’s Wandering: Notes and Sketches, first published in 1920, and in it the following words, which capture the essence of Navigating the Wilderness beautifully. I share this with you here now, to remind you, and myself, that even in our darkest moments, we will always find life.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult.
Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.Hermann Hesse; Wandering: Notes and Sketches
You have been listening to Cass, from Navigating the Wilderness, with words from this week, and from the very first Birmingham Learning Marathon publication, in January 2019. You can find me at navigatingthewilderness.com, where you can read, watch, and listen. Thank you for listening, and take care.