The ‘A Graceful Death’ exhibition and all the work I do now came about because I fell in love. In November 2007 my partner Steve died of liver cancer, and everything in my world changed. Until that point, I had thought that love was all, and that if you loved, you were invincible. I couldn’t understand why, if I loved Steve so much, he was not immune to this dreadful disease that took him away from me so fast and so relentlessly.
As he was dying, I painted him. I painted his last few weeks, days and the day that he died; it was a way to try and understand what was happening and to keep a hold of the memory of his poor body as it changed and shut down as I watched. He is so beautiful, I thought, the cancer has ravaged him and he is so weak, but still his soul is shining. He is still there, still alive, and still Steve.
There was something about the way his dying was so visible and so unstoppable that made me want to capture it in paint, so that I would never forget how he did his dying, I would honour his spirit by remembering this most difficult and most vulnerable part of his life. The ‘A Graceful Death’ exhibition opened tentatively in my house in 2009, and I began to see that not only was I not the only person to be bereaved, but that most people were carrying with them stories of grief and loss with no one to tell them to, nowhere to put them. During this first exhibition, the reaction was not “Poor you Antonia”, it was “Oh!” This is my story too, this is my Mother. Or my Grandfather. Or my son.
People recognised their own stories, and began to talk, and the exhibition began its work. I started to paint other people at the end of life for the exhibition, and to ask them two questions:
Who are you?
And what do you want to say?
If I was putting together an exhibition of what it was like to die, who better to ask than the dying themselves. The exhibition grew with the new people I painted and interviewed, and everywhere it went, it provoked powerful reactions.
Some people loved it, some did not. Those who did not, left very quickly. Those who stayed, were moved and inspired by the stories and the images of the sitters that had agreed to show their portraits and share their words about what it is to be dying and how they are doing it. It made people talk, it inspired people to feel emotions that had lain hidden, and it encouraged openness about what dying is. I worked with some amazing people for this exhibition, most of whom have now died, some of whom have not, and I show them just as they are with whatever illness is making them die, and show how normal the dying really are. One thing that struck me very early on is that until we are dead, we are all very much alive. And just because you are dying, you are not invisible nor are you necessarily miserable. Some of the people painted for the exhibition had a wonderful sense of humour, and while working with them there were many light hearted moments. The exhibition has now grown to include 53 paintings with written and filmed interviews, and an ‘A Graceful Death’ film and book. It has poetry and essays sent in by members of the public, it has music composed for it and it covers cancer, motor neurone disease, still birth and suicide because they are the people who have come forward to be included.
And so, on Saturday 28 March 2015, at the West Cliff Baptist Church in Bournemouth, the ‘A Graceful Death’ Exhibition will be joining a host of end of life care experts, professionals and thinkers at an ambitious death awareness event called Dying to Know, run by a group of local soul midwives, non-medical, holistic end-of-life companions, of which I am one.
Dying to Know is an event designed to give the public the opportunity to discuss and explore all aspects of death, dying and funeral choices, and to encourage discussions and conversations around what it means to die, how to prepare for it, and how best to address such an emotive and frightening subject.
There will be support, advice, workshops, talks and discussions. There will be tea, coffee and cake. And there will be people there who understand the difficulties that can accompany the end of life for not only the dying but the carers too.
Dying to Know will include a wonderful panel of speakers including:
Dr Simon Pennell, medical director at Lewis Manning Hospice in Poole and part of the Clinical Palliative Care team in Southampton
Stephen Nimmo, FdSc MSBP MD of Chester Pearce independent funeral directors from Bournemouth
Felicity Warner Principal of the Soul Midwives’ School in Dorset
Revd Angie McLachlan, a Partner of Red Plait Interpretation LLP also from Dorset, specialising in the interpretation of cemeteries, death and mortality
There will be workshops discussing Green Burial by the Natural Death Centre manager Rosie Inman-Cook, Home Funerals by Claire Turnham of Only With Love, Patient Approach Soul Midwifery from Mandy Preece Sound Therapy from Sarah Weller Dementia Friends by Fr John Hyde Dying to Know will also include a wide range of stands and information about end of life support, funeral choice and bereavement and most important, there will also be space for reflection and quiet conversation supported by soul midwives. And of course there will be the “A Graceful Death’ exhibition. There will be one new painting and interview for this Dying to Know event: this will be the first time it will be shown. All profits from the event will go to the MND Association, Julia’s House and the West Cliff Baptist Church’s Open Door Homeless project.