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A Graceful Death is a powerful exhibition by Antonia Rolls which uses portraits, poems, interviews, film and music inspired by people who are dying to prompt conversations about the end of life. Kate Granger, a terminally ill doctor and writer who on Monday gives the Dying Matters lecture, is one of the subjects (right). Antonia tells Dying Matters how her own devastating loss inspired the exhibition.
It all began with Steve's death in 2007 (Steve and Antonia pictured below, left; and, right, Steve's portrait on the exhibition flyer). From being a healthy, happy and energetic man, Steve faded away, folded up and died from liver cancer in the space of three months. In order to try and understand how this could happen, in order to try and hold on to him and cope with his journey away from me and from life, I painted him. I painted his last few weeks and days and the day of his death. It seemed to me what was happening to him was so out of the ordinary and so devastating it needed to be documented. And yet, at all times, despite the jaundice, the discomfort, the weight loss, the confusion and distress, it was still Steve. It was the same man, the same person, struggling with this journey towards death, powerless to stop the process.
In 2009, having spent two years working on these paintings, I put them on show in my house. I had feared that if anyone knew what I was painting they would have me quietly taken away, but this did not happen. Instead, everyone who came to the exhibition recognised their own stories and experiences, and began to talk. I realised two things: first, I was not the only person to be bereaved and, second, people were carrying around with them experiences of end of life, of death, dying and loss with nowhere to let it go or talk about it as if they were normal. It was a relief to talk about Steve, and it was a huge relief for the people who came to my house that week to share their stories too.
I began to receive requests to paint others at the end of life and the A Graceful Death exhibition began. It seemed that dying was going on all over the place, but I hadn't noticed it before. And this is the point. Dying goes on constantly and, mostly, we have no idea. We don’t know who is dying, where they are dying and, if we do know, we often don't know what to do about it. By meeting with, painting and talking to people who are dying, it strikes me that most of us just do not consider our mortality until something happens to us or to our loved ones and we have to take a crash course in end of life matters at a time when we simply cannot cope with it all
The dying seem to be hidden from us, it is difficult to hear their voice, but if we can hear what they say, and see how they look, not only is our understanding of life enhanced, but our humanity is maintained. When I paint dying people, I ask them two questions: “Who are you?” and “What do you want to say?” By asking dying people questions, I found that they were just like the rest of us. But they were doing this dying thing, and could tell us much about the process. They could help us with their stories, images and thoughts. By talking to my sitters, I understood that until we are dead, we are very much alive. My sitters were (and some still are) all living and making the most of their lives. They were, are, in fact, taking life very seriously.
It is important that not only do I know who my sitters are, but they know who I am. The whole point of the exhibition is willing communication from the dying to the rest of us, so that we start to think ahead about what the end of life means. Some of my sitters have not died, most have. But they have all left a wonderful, selfless legacy of truth, wisdom and courage for the living, to help us when our time comes.
I paint each of my sitters exactly as they are. If they are jaundiced, I paint the jaundice. If they are thin with illness, I paint that. The dying are normal people. Painting them during their illness honours their journey. They are as important now as they ever were, this now is their truth: fine, let’s paint it. When the public sees the paintings they see people who are not out of the ordinary. Dying does not give you two heads. It is simply something we all will do. I work with what comes my way, including illness, suicide and miscarriage.
The A Graceful Death exhibition consists of 52 portraits and paintings as well as poetry and essays written by members of the public. There is a film of the work of A Graceful Death, and there are filmed interviews with some of the people who have been painted and music composed especially for the exhibition. Accompanying each painting are words from the sitter. Twice, the sitter has died before the painting was finished, and the words displayed are from a member of the family, or from me.
I have now reached a point where I no longer paint for the exhibition. I could go on forever, and have to rent out the Albert Hall, but it is big enough. If someone wants to work with me, to tell their story and to be painted, I still do that privately, with great joy, and leave the family with a piece of work dedicated to the last part of a loved one’s life.
Dying Matters' message for this Awareness Week is You Only Die Once. The coalition was set up to help us with all aspects of understanding and being prepared for death. It doesn’t matter how much preparation we have, we are never the same again after someone we love dies – but awareness of the process before it hits us is vital for our recovery from loss. You Only Die Once is balanced by You Only Live Once. The dying I work with become very aware of only dying once, and have to learn how to live the best they can, until they die.
The A Graceful Death exhibition is showing the week following Dying Matters Awareness Week, supporting the simplicity and wisdom of this message, You Only Die Once, because once you understand how important it is to think about your dying, you find that your living becomes more precious. The exhibition travels the country supporting conferences, events and all areas of end of life education and training. Within the exhibition there are talks, lectures, presentations and workshops run by people working in palliative care and in a variety of areas with the dying.
From Tuesday 20 May to Friday 23 May, A Graceful Death will be at St Peter’s Church, Brighton, open from 10am-10pm. There will be facilitated discussions from 2pm - 4pm on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The themes for these days are Planning for Dying, Supporting the Dying and Communicating with the Dying. For a full programme of events, please visit www.agracefuldeath.blogspot.co.uk. Though the exhibition and presentations are all free, we encourage donations in order to keep the good work going.
A very important part of the A Graceful Death exhibition is, of course, cake. There is always cake. It keeps us grounded and is enormously comforting.
It would be lovely to see you there.
The Dying Matters Coalition is led by the National Council for Palliative Care,
the umbrella charity for end of life care in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Freephone 08000 21 44 66