"This Grief Thing": a guest blog from Fevered Sleep

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Sam Butler and David Harradine, Fevered Sleep

We’re living at a time when many people find death and grief - our own grief or other people’s - almost impossible to talk about. We don’t know what to say, what words we should use, what to do, or how to act.  So, more often than not we choose to be silent; we pretend that grief is a private matter, or that it doesn’t exist, or we hide it and we hide from it.

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This Grief Thing started with a question, ‘how easy is it to talk about grief?’ and the inevitable, overwhelming responses that came back have led us to create something that’s an attempt to push against the problem, by opening up conversations about grief and making it visible; by inviting people to think, talk and learn about grief. It takes place in a series of temporary shops (so far only in the UK), hosted by us Sam Butler and David Harradine, where customers can talk with us and with each other about grief, and where they can also buy clothing and objects we’ve designed bearing words and phrases connected to grieving, which we hope will provoke further conversation. We also invite people along to our facilitated Grief Gatherings where they can talk, listen, share and hold space together.

So far, we’ve opened shops and held Grief Gatherings in 4 towns in England: Preston, Middlesbrough, Nottingham and Manchester. We’ve met with and spoken to hundreds of people about their own and others’ grief, and we’ve witnessed hundreds of others who come into the shop, who don’t talk about their grief. We know it’s not always about talking, we know, because so many people have told us, that the summoning up of a project that places grief and grieving so prominently in a community is an important act of intervention into the ordinariness of daily living. Some come in and browse, others read the cards on the wall – the written accumulated responses from visitors, and some say how much they like our shop, or simply smile and nod at us as they leave silently. For all these people, we’ve made This Grief Thing. It’s acknowledgement, it’s connection, it’s solidarity, it’s space, it’s permission. Permission to grieve however you want to, whenever you want to, however, whenever is right, for you.

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Each of these interactions feels like a privilege; from the busy passersby slowing to take in the word ‘Grief’ glowing in our window display, to the fleeting discreet visits, to the deep, long, honest opening ups, to the hushed admissions of fury at the dead for leaving. And in this place that we’ve fashioned to invite compassion between friends, amongst families, to strangers, it’s no surprise to find it reciprocated in the many visitors who enquire about our well-being as the facilitators of conversations on a subject most people avoid. Who is supporting us? how and when are we able to decompress from this accumulation of strangers’ griefs?

One of the tools for downloading what we’ve heard, seen, felt and engaged with is the blogposts we write – at least one for each town we are based in. They serve as a reflection on our experience of being shopkeepers in that unique location, as well as on our status as temporary residents in each place. It honours the friendships we make with neighbouring shopkeepers, and our returning customers and with those for whom our interaction has had a particularly profound effect. In the making public of these encounters told in our own words, we are able to share a little of what it’s like to do this work as artists who are just humans, not counsellors, not experts. In the writing it down, in the sorting through of thoughts and picking out of words, we write the poetry of pouring out and emptying and renewing. 

Sometimes there is a grief of place carved from the unique geography and the deep deep history of communities, carried along in the bodies and voices of the people who find themselves in our shop, in their town.

The following extracts are from 4 of our blogposts written in response to the UK towns we have been resident in so far.


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Preston

Preston.  Lancashire.  The River Ribble.  Post-industrial city, we’re staying in an apartment on the dock.  Sailing boats, the university, the market hall.  A Caribbean takeaway, a Brazilian café, a fish and chip shop.  We’ve taken over an empty unit in St George’s Shopping Centre.  Costa Coffee, Marks & Spencer, H&M, Holland & Barrett and us.    

This is a space for acknowledgement.  This is a space for grief.  We witness.  We listen.  We chat when we need to.  We stay quiet when we need to.  We hold you.  We have a cry and a laugh with you.  We’re here.  Preston.

So many stories, so much to be heard:

All the children who have died.

All the parents.

All the brothers and the sisters.

All the partners and the lovers.

All the close and distant friends.

All the ones whose death came unexpectedly. 

All the ones whose death approached slowly from a far horizon, inexorable and implacable.   

All the sudden, brutal loss.

All the unspoken grief.

All the tears.  

All the years of remembering.

All the words and “there are no words”.

All the different ways to understand this grief thing. 

All the different cultures.  All the different religions. 

All the different beliefs.  

All the strength of all these people in this place.  Preston.  


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Middlesbrough

…Middlesbrough the tough; the town of slick toil and sometime steel, reeling from the was and the gone and the no longer, and all swollen with its loss. The folks of Middlesbrough, like people in most places, speak proudly of family and relatives and connections; of where they’re from, and who they love and who belongs with who. They are complex self supporting meshes of love and belonging, and at each intersection a weld of brother to brother to sister to father to niece to friend to cousin to auntie to wife to daughter to mother … When somebody dies the repercussions are boundless. The loss is unfathomable, the grief is timeless.

You put down your bags by the counter and with a hint and an aside of hushed still tender sorrows you begin to unpack before us.  

Sometimes, somewhere in Middlesbrough she wears a yellow scarf around her neck against the cold, and on it these words, “Grief = Love”.


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Manchester

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.


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Nottingham

This project embeds itself in your body; there’s a place inside me, in my chest I think, where I keep what I’ve learnt and heard and what I know about grief and grieving, that prevents me from unknowing. I’ve had an empathy implant and I hope it remains.

What do you have for us Nottingham? What are you holding and who do you tell? I know it’s none of my business - you don’t know me - but, are you grieving?

But what if you cry in public?

But what if you get angry?

What if you think the things you are feeling are wrong?

If you think you should be over it.

That it’s better kept in.

Don’t mention it.

Don’t ask.

And what if we did cry in public?

And what if angry was ok?

Did you know that the things you are feeling are right?

I think you should know you probably won’t get over it.

That it’s usually better to talk about it.

That mentioning it won’t make it worse.

That you should ask.

We’re coming to Nottingham, and we’re opening our shop for grief. We can’t wait to talk to you all.

We’ve made it our business.

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 To read these blogposts in full, to find out more about the project, or to purchase something from the collection, please visit: thisgriefthing.com

And listen to the podcast episode on which Will Daddario talks with Sam and David about This Grief Thing.