A Time for Grief (This Grief Thing in Manchester)
We stand in silence. It feels like both of us want to speak, but we hold our voices in and I realise I’m holding my breath. We look away from one another, which seems to help with the awkwardness. We’re waiting for a sign, for that moment when we will be able to give voice to this rising feeling, this rising tide of emotion and memory, suddenly surging and unexpected, even here, even now.
We’re standing in the shop at the Whitworth Art Gallery, in Manchester. It’s 11am on 11th November 2018, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Remembrance Sunday, one hundred years since the end of World War One. We’re marking a two minute silence, looking away from one another so as to help with the awkwardness, because we came here to talk about grief, but in memory and honour of those millions of dead we keep quiet, for now, for these two minutes that stretch out, full and expansive, strange, this rising tide of emotion for all those dead I never knew, filling the corners of the room and out, filling the gallery and out, filling the street and beyond, pushing up into the sky and out across the city and up over the high Pennines to the edges of the whole country and out and across the wide Atlantic and over that narrow Channel and on and out, spreading over Europe, over Africa, to the East, the West, a blanket of silence falling thick like first snow, like ash, like darkness over the whole wide remembering world.
We stand in silence and as I realise I’m holding my breath the timer ticks over into two minutes and we breathe out again, and tears prick our eyes, unexpectedly, suddenly, and we talk.
I just want people to say her name.
There are so many griefs, so much grieving, so much loss.
We need to honour the dead by honouring the grief of the living.
This is a different sort of space. After Preston (where we took over an empty unit in a shopping centre) and Middlesbrough (where we took up residence in an empty shop) we suddenly find ourselves in an art gallery. The people that come here seem to behave differently: slower, more reflective, looking more carefully, taking more time. We’ve been inviting people to share thoughts and experiences by writing on postcards and sticking them up on the wall. Here, the wall fills quickly, an expanding mosaic of grief, like moss, like lichen, reaching out from the corner of the room and filling the space with ways to think, ways to be, ways to grieve:
Grief is an everyday activity. We shouldn’t be hiding it away. Grief is social. It’s not mine to hide. It’s yours to witness. It’s ours to carry together.
Grief is like a great wave.
Grief in ourselves and in others render us mute, just in different ways.
11th November 1918, the day the Great War ended. A country in tatters, victorious and exhausted, exulting and bereft. Millions dead. Grief is like a great wave. A tsunami perhaps. A national decision, perhaps conscious, perhaps collectively decided without words, mutely agreeing to bear up and brace up and carry on. Keep strong and keep going. Because, if we acknowledge all this loss, the scale of it, the great gaping abyss hammered open by these hundreds of thousands of lost lives, we may well go under, give up, get down on our knees now and surrender to it, right now just as we hold victory, and if we do it could defeat us. So we decide to bear up and brace up and carry on and be strong. Keep those emotions inside. Keep this grief under control before it unravels us all and that would make a mockery of these lives that we’ve lost, to have been lost for nothing like that. It will not be like that, so. We will not grieve. Or, we will grieve quietly and privately, and keep it under control as much as we can. And this is what we will do. And this is what we will do. And this is what we do.
A nation that collectively decides, somehow, mutely, that this is what we will do.
And here, exactly one hundred years later, I’m in the shop at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, holding my breath and biting my tongue, biting back words as much as I want to speak with you, because we’ve committed ourselves to this silence now and we will see it through.
The clock slows and we wait, looking away from one another so as to avoid awkwardness, waiting. Two minutes pass. We breathe. We look into one another’s eyes, suddenly pricked with these unexpected tears, and we talk.
One hundred years later. No more silence. Now is the time for grief.
The italicised texts above are adapted from the postcards that were written during our residency in Manchester.
We are grateful to Dr. Linda Machin for sharing her research on the national response to grief following World War One