Esther and Karen’s essays, 2007
(Originally published on the internet)
Esther Kalaba, Textile Artist, February 2007
It is the seventh anniversary of my brother’s death as I write this today. I reflect upon how much I have changed, on the wisdom I have acquired, on how my loss has shaped the person I am in this moment. This project means a great deal to me and I feel blessed to have come to this point in my life where I am able to transform my pain and sorrow into something I hope will be meaningful and insightful for many people.
Here is how my journey into grief and its relationship to cloth began…
The reality that my brother had been murdered really sunk in a few days after his death, when I walked into his room at my mother’s house and saw his clothes thrown in a pile on the floor in one corner. The ordinariness of such a sight, which I had walked into a million times before, was somehow strangely altered. I could picture him quickly changing his clothes, getting ready to go out with friends, only hours before his death. I imagined him – a teenaged boy, with gelled hair, wearing cheap cologne and brand name clothes – hurrying to get out the door.
However, on this day shortly after his death, when I looked down at his pile of clothes, they frighteningly stared back at me. I saw empty silhouettes echoing his absence. From where there had been life, youth and energy, in what seemed like only moments ago, now there was nothing but a lifeless heap. With that realization grief slapped me in the face and made me acknowledge that he would never wear these clothes again. My brother was not coming back…and I would be the one folding his clothes away.
After my brother died, I retreated into myself, not knowing where to go or who to speak to. Preferring not to burden anyone, I kept to myself. It wasn’t until three years had passed that my grief became overwhelming and I felt no choice but to explore my loss.
I joined a bereavement support group at Bereaved Families of Ontario. I think this was the first time after his death that I allowed myself permission to speak about him to others. This was also when I enrolled at the Ontario College of Art and Design, knowing that through making art I would somehow heal myself emotionally and find a way to comprehend my brother’s senseless death.
All the while, I felt that as each year passed, my memories of him grew fewer and fewer. Each year, there was an awkwardness that surrounded anniversaries, holidays and his birthday. I did not have a way to mark his passing, to commemorate his life and how much he was missed. Around the time of the fifth anniversary of his death, I created a piece, which was for him.
The dress I made is called “It’s about time.” It is formed from little bits of fabric taken from linens and cottons that are over 100 years old – antique lace, threads, and silks, each piece carrying its own history. The dress was made with the intention of showing how the passing of time and memory is akin to cloth. This child’s dress is a reminder of a time. Exposed to the elements this dress will gradually fade and disintegrate, thread by thread. So, too, the memories of my brother, as years pass, slowly fade. The holes in my mind and in the dress get bigger, the stories of him further and further away from my grasp. But the dress, haunting and reminiscent of a different time, serves as a reminder.
When I showed this dress to Karen at a training session for Bereaved Families, she understood what it meant and came back a week later with a poem. And hence, Collecting Loss was born. Pieces of the dress and the poem are what you see on this website and in the print material.
I would like Collecting Loss to be a record of the experience of loving someone and of how that experience changes when confronted with loss. When I was grieving, I so desperately wanted to hear other people’s stories. I would like this project to create a space to present these stories. These stories are incredibly meaningful and profound. They serve as a reminder of the strength of the human spirit and the power of people to help one another when they come together in the face of hardship.
Collecting Loss also grows out of a part of me that is afraid of the passing of time and that seeks to preserve and hold on to memory, which is daily disappearing. This disintegration is for me mirrored in cloth. Much more than photographs, clothing is a visceral and tactile reminder, which holds the imprint of its wearer. I want to work with these stories and the narratives held in cloth. Through collecting your loved ones’ clothing, I want to take random and fragmented bits of a life and give them a new form. The threads holding all the pieces together will serve as a visual reminder that we are never alone with our loss.
My academic work has involved research in psychology, death and bereavement. I have a Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences (Herbal Medicine) from the University of Westminster (London) and a certificate in psychology from Ryerson University. I have worked within health care settings, with elderly, disabled and terminally ill patients. I maintain strong community involvement through volunteer work in bereavement and cancer support. I am drawn to stories and narrative held in cloth and much of my work speaks of change, loss and the ephemeral nature of memory in recording events of daily life.
With great care and respect, I will weave in cloth our threads of memory through Collecting Loss.
Karen Haffey, Writer, February 2007
In recent years, I’ve often felt I wear a sign on my forehead that says “It’s okay to talk to me about death” because people do – all the time. I frequently find myself in environments where death is part of their make-up. Themes of loss rise in my writing. I pick up books, magazines, movies and discover stories of dying. In random places – the grocery store, a street corner in my neighbourhood, on the subway – stories of death, grief and grace find me.
On most days, I’m okay with that. Not only is death a very real part of any life but death has profoundly touched and influenced my life from a very young age. When I was twelve, my six year old sister died of a blood disorder. Only two and a half years later, my brother died shortly before his fourteenth birthday of the same blood disorder. I had just turned fifteen.
Many years later, in my mid-twenties, it took the end of a marriage, a miscarriage and personal illness to dig deep enough within that I began to unmistakably feel grief in every fibre of my being. I began to experience how I had collected loss inside myself and held on until I was ready to begin breaking open.
Now I break open…again and again. It is from one of these broken open places that Collecting Loss: Weaving Threads of Memory grows for me.
I don’t have many conscious memories of my brother or sister, and in fact, my memory is foggy in general in many places from childhood to my mid-twenties. I do have other people’s memories, along with my own sensations, feelings and vague threads of experiences I know I shared with my siblings. While I have made peace with what I do not remember, I want to preserve and honour the stories I do still hold. And I want to create a place for these stories to live and breathe alongside and woven together with your stories too.
When Esther and I met we became instant friends and it meant a lot to me to finally have a friend who had also lost a sibling, though I wouldn’t wish this loss (or any other) on anyone. Esther had already designed and created a dress that marked her brother’s death and its relationship to memory. She showed me the dress and I immediately had a response which became the poem It’s About Time. These pieces are what greet you on the opening page of www.collectingloss.com [the original web site for Collecting Loss].
When I shared the poem with Esther, she felt it articulated in words what she was saying in cloth. She had the idea to develop a larger body of work, which excited me and got my creative juices flowing! We began to carve out an idea that is now Collecting Loss.
Much of my work, personally and professionally, involves death and grief in some way. So, is it any wonder that people talk to me about death? Instead, I see it as a path that has been carved out for me, one that I have chosen to walk.
Writing has always been my main artistic vehicle, where common themes of memory, loss and body emerge. I work regularly on poetry and memoir, forming bodies of work to be published in future. To date, my writing has been published in two books: What I Want To Tell You From the Heart and Conscious Women, Conscious Careers.
My educational background includes a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Inter-Related Arts from Concordia University, certification in Polarity and Cranial Sacral Therapies from the New Mexico Academy of Healing Arts, among other training and experience in the creative and healing arts. I have established kultivate: a creative wellness company through which I facilitate self-growth, community and work with people in long-term care offering complementary therapies and creative programming.
I am dedicated to creative healing through community outreach. It is with great anticipation that I invest my passion for words and story into i>Collecting Loss, to receive and weave our threads of memory.
Read the organizers’s subsequent essays on the project:
- Esther Kalaba, “Remembering Life”, Collecting Loss catalogue essay, 2012
- Esther Kalaba, “Breath and Story”, Collecting Loss catalogue essay, 2012