Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Facing the Elephant in the Room

At the beginning of this month I was blessed to attend the Elephant in the Room in Swansea. This event, dreamed by Kiera L Jones and Jim Fox of The Centre, which provides holistic treatments and care for those living with life-limiting illnesses and to their carers by donation, was birthed in order to “inform, engage, and inspire on all aspects of end of life”. Death and dying is not an easy subject to confront, whether in terms of ourselves or those we love and/or care for, and often discussions which could offer comfort and ease are left until it is too late, if they happen at all. It has been my experience that, when invited with an open heart, many people are ready, if not positively desperate, to talk about this subject but silence is such a powerful spell, especially in a society which is in denial about death. Kiera and Jim's aim was to “bring what is often a taboo subject out into the open, stimulating awareness and encouraging discussion...” and so it was.

The Elephant in the Room
Lots of lovely information
Images of the dead and a cardboard coffin ~ perfect for wild creativity!

The 'ground' of the weekend was provided by artist Antonia Rolls' deeply moving exhibition, 'A Graceful Death', which uses portraits, poems, interviews, film, and music inspired by those who are dying or who have died to begin conversations about the end of life.

Antonia Rolls' profound exhibition; A Graceful Death

The exhibition itself was inspired by the death of Antonia's partner, Steve, from liver cancer in 2007. The intimate portraits which she painted of him during those last few weeks together, ending with a beautiful painting on the day of his death, form the centrepiece of this extraordinary exhibition.

Steve ~ A Graceful Death

But there are others who have come to tell their tales through their painted images and through their words; stories of loss and grief, suicide and pain, of illness and endurance, of death and continuing to live. It is not an easy exhibition to visit; it feels so intimate, so private, and yet so universal, that there is scarcely a way to process what one is seeing and experiencing, and yet it is so important and so joyous that what is so often hidden can now be seen.

Michael ~ "I had a dry sense of humour and told outrageous lies but now I am a gibbering wreck"
Claire, who didn't die and is now on her fourth cruise!

In a perfect holding of the space, Antonia provides much that is comforting and familiar; a tea pot and chocolate biscuits, beautifully bound books to write thoughts in, flowers, candles, a prayer bowl filled with water with a little pile of stones to place in the water so that we can remind ourselves that we are alive and that we are still creating ripples. The bowl was provided by a visitor to the exhibition who wanted to contribute something, and that is a measure of the power of Antonia's work. Many people return again and again.

Although I was sadly only able to attend the Elephant in the Room, for two of the four days, I was able to hear many wonderful talks from those who work with death and dying in all sorts of ways. Before I arrived there was an opening concert featuring storyteller and soul midwife, Jade Buck, together with The Crees, and Jim Fox, and also a play, 'Colder Than Here' by Laura Wade. Over the weekend there were also talks on finding peace before we die, writing a will, grief, crystal therapy, organ donation, the role of art, and a multi-faith forum discussing approaches to end of life. And there was cake. A lot of cake! There was also an offer of free tea and cake for anyone who could balance a coin on a lemon floating in a bowl of water. You can't but it was fun trying.

Cake! A lot of cake!

During my time there I went to Kiera L Jones' gentle and thought provoking talk on soul midwifery and how we might wish our own death to be, Dr Penny Satori’s fascinating talk on near death experiences, during which she movingly described the profound transformations of those who have returned from the who-knows-where, Antonia Rolls' inspiring and down to earth talk on her exhibition and experiences of the dying and death, and a healing sound bath created by Jim Fox. I also gave a talk on 'Reclaiming Funerals', which is something that I am extremely passionate about, especially having organised my own beloved Will's funeral in March 2014 and having experienced a profound coming together of community and love with hardly any money and very little involvement of funeral directors. It is time to take our dead back into our arms. To do so is a profound act of love and of power.

Kiera and Antonia

The final workshop I attended was facilitated by Kit Loring, who works creatively with dying children. As a part of this workshop we were invited to write a letter to our dying selves and here is mine, offered in the hope that it might open a door for someone...

Dearest Jacqueline,

Life has been honey; the sweetness and the sting.

Each day you have woken to the light from the dark, put your feet upon the path with hope or joy or sadness or loss, seen beauty everywhere, loved wildly.

And death has walked with you always ~ a shadow of comfort and love, and sometimes fear. Don't be afraid. So many small deaths in every day – tears shed, the space between breathing out and breathing in, the peace between heartbeats. This is just another.

Now, you are waking to the dark and to the beauty of the crow's wing and you will be part of everything. So let go of hope and joy and sadness and loss and become the land, the river, and the star. And weep like the sea for all that wasn't done, or could have been done better. And weep like the sea for all that was done and was full of love; it is all just the tide and makes no difference now.

Rest now. I love you.

I have realised for some time that death is not, as it is so often portrayed, the opposite of life but a vibrant and vital part of it. Our separation from that knowledge is a profound grief which filters into how we experience the death of anyone we love. To engage with death brings a deep healing and so it was with the Elephant in the Room, an event which certainly had life right at its powerfully beating heart. Kiera and Jim hope to run other events around the UK so please watch out for those and support them if you can. I will end with their words...

“It is our hope that everybody who comes to the Elephant in the Room leaves having had a thought-provoking and enlightening experience that will affect not only the way that they view the subject of death and dying, but also the way that they take hold of, and embrace, life in the moment.” Just so.

Kiera and Jim can be contacted at or on 01792 477123.


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