A touring pop-up shop hosted by two artistic directors is encouraging people to talk about grief. David Harradine tells ehospice why a clothes shop is the ideal setting to have this vital conversation.
In September last year David Harradine and Sam Butler opened This Grief Thing, a temporary shop in Preston with a purpose other than retail therapy: to get people talking about grief, both those who had experienced it and those who hadn’t.
“The idea came from a set of experiences that Sam (Butler, co-host of the project) and I had, both personal and those of people close to us” David explains. “People were often lost for words, whether it was finding it difficult to talk about what they were feeling and therefore hiding this incredibly intense emotion, or whether it was friends, family or colleagues of people who were bereaved and didn’t really know how to support them, and were having anxiety over saying something that might make it worse.”
“On the whole, certainly in terms of my personal experience, I felt quite a great frustration that people didn’t know how to support me when I was grieving, or people who were incredibly supportive at the start quickly forgot to check in, and assumed I was over it.”
During the shop’s residency, and subsequent pop-ups in Middlesborough and Manchester, Sam and David hosted “Grief Gatherings”, events that encourage people to talk and learn how to support someone who is grieving.
In terms of who goes David says it’s a real mix, from teenagers to the elderly, and people of different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities and religious beliefs. However more women attend than men. “I guess it’s easy to make an assumption that women find it easier to talk about emotions and therefore find it easier to come to these conversations. I don’t know if it is as simple as that, but I suspect it is.”
The gatherings always start with an open question: how easy or difficult do you find talking about grief? It’s a question anyone can answer, and has led to discussions about the feeling of not having permission to grieve, being encouraged to hide or get over feelings, and not grieving in the right way.
“In terms of how we host the conversation we’re in the background” David explains. “At some point Sam and I tend to get round to saying that there isn’t a right or wrong way, most people on the whole tend to grieve in the way that is best for them and that’s completely subjective and individual. We talk about that a lot.”
David and Sam are the artistic directors of Fevered Sleep, an organisation that produces performances, installations, books and films, however they knew they didn’t want this project to be hosted in an auditorium or an art gallery. “Grief is really common, pretty much everybody experiences it at some point in their lives. We knew that if we made a theatre piece or put on an exhibition that project would be available to some people, but not to a lot of people. The point of the shop is that it’s really ordinary, everyone goes to shops, everyone buys and wears clothes. We’re just trying to normalise grief through the project.”
The shop sells T-shirts, sweaters, tote bags, badges and cards, all bearing inscriptions such as “Grief = Love” and “Don’t Panic If I Cry”. “What we hope happens is that if somebody buys one of these items and wears it and other people see it, the words might be a bit of an indication for people to ask a question, like “why does your T-shirt say Grief = Love? Or, “what do you mean, grief is like the weather?” Well, it’s changeable and really unpredictable, it doesn’t follow a pattern. The project isn’t just about people coming into the shop and talking to us about grief, it’s also about encouraging them to talk about it more widely.”
A recurring topic of conversation is the fear of making grief worse, with people worrying that they will upset the person grieving by mentioning who has died. “Acknowledging grief is always better than not” David says. “It’s always worth taking the risk, and it’s ok if someone cries or gets upset, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that.”
“I think there’s a lot of fear around it because for such a common emotion there isn’t much about it in culture. How many films, books, pop songs and TV shows are there about love? That’s what everything is about. There are certain emotions you don’t tend to hear stories about and grief is one of them. People don’t get much chance to learn about grief or witness other people experiencing it in a very public, honest sort of way, because we’re encouraged to hide it, or control it more than with other emotions.”
“There’s a lack of opportunities to prepare for it, and that’s a key reason why we wanted to do the project, because it creates opportunities for different people to come together, whether it’s people who happen to be in the shop at the same time who can start to talk to each other, or who come to the Grief Gatherings a bit more formally to talk. It feels really important to create an opportunity for someone who has grieved, to be next to someone who maybe hasn’t, and to talk about it.”
There are long term plans for This Grief Thing, with a pop-up scheduled for Manchester later this year, and several London locations in 2020, while they’re in talks to take it to Birmingham and Brighton too. “It’s one of those projects where now that we’ve started it feels very difficult to stop. When the first shop opened in Preston last autumn we really didn’t know if people would come. We had no idea if it would work as a format, if people would want to come to Grief Gatherings, and whether they’d want to buy clothing or badges and wear them, and thousands have.”
“For us that makes it very clear there needs to be more spaces where it’s possible to say that grief is ok. We are all going to experience it, and the more we can integrate it into ordinary life and learn about it, it can only make it easier for the people who are grieving.”
This Grief Thing opens today in Nottingham and runs till March 24.