When I am not painting, which I do every day, I support dying people and their families as a death doula. I don't take on a lot of this work because it's very deep and demanding, and because I try not to do anything that takes too much time away from the studio and from my kids. If I overextend myself in social situations or in emotionally dense work away from painting, I quickly get exhausted, and exhausted me does nothing particularly well. Like everyone else, I constantly seek a balance and only sometimes manage to find it.
In recent months I have been lucky enough to have done some work with the Vancouver based theatre company The Only Animal, through which a cohort of 100 artists engage with the climate catastrophe in a variety of creative ways. These artists come from an array of backgrounds and disciplines; many are young activists, many are veteran artists with established practices. The workshops I have lead have all focussed on climate grief, and in that context I draw heavily on my experiences with dying people. It is refreshing, in a grim sort of way, to facilitate these spaces, to know without asking that everyone is coming to it with a clear sense of what it means to be alive at this moment of the Anthropocene. Not one of the artists in these groups is under the illusion that things are going to be ok, that all it will take is hard work and political will to turn things around. We all know what we're in, and my job in this context is to witness their grief and to support them in doing the same for one another, just as I would endeavour to do for the family of someone with a terminal diagnosis.
One of the really difficult things that people who care about the planet face is that their grief isolates them, and I want to think about that a little bit, because I believe strongly that grief is a pro social experience, that its function is to strengthen the ties of community. We have a visceral need in times of loss to see our sorrow reflected in our social bonds, and when we are confronted with a society that pathologically refuses to engage with grief, which not only fails to reflect our own sense of loss back to us, but which stridently denies that the loss is even REAL, we begin to feel that there is something wrong with us, that we cannot trust our communities with our grief, that we cannot trust ourselves to make good connections. We lose the joy that lives inside of grief, that makes it possible to grow and love and create and be in the world more than before. And then grief itself loses its meaning, loses its function as the fertile soil
of a compassionate society, and that is where we are. There is an antidote to this, and that is to meet grief in one another. It is to be a trustworthy steward of sorrow, to learn to be in a community of grievers. To not compete in grief, but to listen without trying to fix it, to speak without being embarrassed by one's own sorrow or anger or perceived ugliness . This is a job every single one of us is meant to do, not just once in a lifetime but over and over and over again. To be able to grieve is to be a mature person, and the only way to learn to do it is to do it. And holy shit, friends, we need to learn to do it.