The A Graceful Death Exhibition and Project by Antonia Rolls is about what it means to die. Portraits, paintings and words from the end of life. Powerful, moving, loving, uplifting, inspiring. The A Graceful Death Project includes talks, presentations, discussions, events connected to awareness raising of end of life issues. The latest news, exhibitions, events and developments will be available here.
After setting up the exhibition in two rooms, I prepared myself to speak to the college on the Monday at 11am. I would be addressing about 60 people, all of whom are practicing some ministry in the Church, and many who are training. All of them deeply educated and working hard on their own paths in their Ministries. I was nervous because I had not done something like this before, and because the people I was to address were so educated. My father and who said " so are you" when I mentioned the bit about being educated. It is true, I have a MA Hons. And my mother said "they don't want a lecture" which is also true. I can only talk about what I know, and that would be, in this case, the paintings of Steve and my story.
I did wear a red jacket too in case I spoke nonsense so that they could look and admire the jacket instead.
Everyone came in and took their places. Each chair had a small brocure created to explain the exhibition, there were fresh daffodils in vases around the lecture room and the paintings were hung behind everyone as they sat facing the front of the room. The more serious paintings were hung in a small quiet room off the main room, and chairs were set up for contemplation and thought. I was made aware before I started that at least half the people in the room didn't have a clue that they were going to hear 45 minutes of bereavement, death, dying and love, life and hope. The Pricipal, David Hewlett had very wisely advised me to start by giving gentle permission to all who felt they could not take it, to leave the room with the chaplain; some had been bereaved fairly recently they may need someone to sit with them. I also said that if there were tears, that was fine, good and natural.
The point of this exhibition is not just my story. It begins with my story with Steve, but it has become about the feelings around bereavement, the need to talk about loss and the desire to share one's own story. This exhibition is at the moment about the release of emotion, if you want it, in a safe atmosphere where we all understand and let it happen. It is about moving on and living after the death of a loved one. For this reason, the response to the talk was spell binding. I talked, and told of the reason for the exhibition - about meeting Steve and his cancer and his graceful dying and death. I spoke of my fury with God and the shattering disbelief I felt that someone like Steve could die when I had only just met him and needed him to be with me. Not dead, not gone away for ever.
I showed the paintings and explained what made me paint them, and talked of the power of life that was highlighted in the act of dying. For the 45 minutes these good Christian men and women sat listening, I felt the empathy and recognition in the room. When I finished, I saw 60 pairs of glassy, moist eyes looking back at me, and noticed that a good few people were crying in the arms of their neighbours. The silence was utterly palpable and I sat down and thought "I have upset these good people, and they didn't expect this" . Neither, I have to say, did I. The Minister who had introduced me took over and said that now was a time for prayer. It was impossible to speak, impossible to move. We sat and prayed, or cried, or both, in silence, and then one by one the room cleared. Some people came and said they had been helped, some came to talk about their story, but not many. I wondered if I had gone too far.
Later, as if to make the experience even more profound, one by one, people came up to me and thanked me. A kind and interesting trainee Methodist minister told me that I should be in no doubt that what I had done was to touch people on many different levels, and show them the pain they carry around. And that everyone had felt so very moved and I know this is what happens. If I tell them my story it is so like theirs, we feel moved together, and it is good to know that I was in a terrible state and painted it so that I could try and make sense of it, and that all of us carry around our stories of bereavement. We all know what we are talking about when we do talk about it.
And later, when I nervously walked into lunch, wondering if I would be held responsible for the absence of students and staff for that afternoon, the kind and lovely principal David Hewlett got to his feet and introduced me formally, and everyone started to clap. That was all I needed! I was OK and they were OK and all was good again! David said to me later that it is vital that in their work outside after their training, all the students here must be able to deal with real grief and loss. And that what I did with the exhibition and the talks was wonderful and necessary. Coming from such a good and strong man, that was very high praise indeed.
The visit to Queens ended this morning for me, and I have left the paintings there to be viewed and talked over until Sunday 28 March. That, funnily enough, is Steve's birthday. He would have been 54.