by Esther Kalaba, November 2016
“The wool, living, alive, has taken on my scent as well and is threadbare from my wearing it so often, thinking of her with love. It is ready to go to the ocean of the whole, not to be passed on to another individual, but to join with many other people’s clothing in this collective collage, this project of grief and love and memory”
– Ellen Jaffe, remembering her grandmother Rose Albert
Almost 10 years ago, Collecting Loss: Weaving Threads Of Memory began as an art piece in response to my brother Sasha’s sudden death. Today as I look back and reflect upon the project, I realize that it was not just an artistic pursuit, but rather, it was my main way of coping, an adaptive and also necessary response to deal with the most unbearable grief that I have ever experienced.
I had no preconceptions of how this project would grow, nor what it would become.
Throughout the years, whether actively working on it or not, Collecting Loss has been a backdrop to much of my other work. In retrospect, I realize that the issues that it stirred up in me, the questions and the concerns, have become part of a larger, on-going inquiry about the place of grief and of the dead, within our society. This project remains very close to my heart, because it is so personal, but also because I witnessed how in all its phases, it touched so many other people in very profound ways.
This project speaks with urgency to a culture that desperately needs to wake up and ask the essential question of how they deal with loss, grief, and death.
What this website does not document, is the process of this project, which perhaps is just as interesting as the final work. My experience of this project was that it mirrored how I learned to live with the death of my brother. It didn’t just happen with the passing of time, nor in a step-by-step fashion, nor were there any instructions on how to move forward and when. I would also argue that the grief after the death of a loved one is something that never heals fully, nor should it. There is a place of tenderness and frailty that is kindled by loss, and maybe it is this vulnerability that binds us to our humanity, that gives us proof that we have once loved.
Learning about grief happened for me through the commitment of showing up to it, of being held accountable to an artistic practice which gave me a space to express, witness, and also transform my sorrow.
Grief is a practice.
All throughout this project, I have felt the strong kinship and support with all those, mostly strangers, who have contributed to Collecting Loss, whether it was through donating the clothing and stories documented here, through sending the countless emails of encouragement and validation, the generous donation of time and skills, and the considerable financial support of the Canada Arts Council and Forces Avenir, which allowed the project to manifest and grow.
Grief is a solitary process that paradoxically you cannot do alone. Grief needs to be held in community. It is imperative to create public spaces to honour our personal and collective grief.
I have included here both our original essays that were posted on the first website at the launch of the project in 2006, as well as our essays written in 2012 for the final exhibit, to give a sense of the transition that happened in our thinking and our process while working: