Distance, Proximity and Loss

Distance, Proximity and Loss

Project by Robbie Coleman and Jo Hodges

The coronavirus pandemic is changing relationships and practices at the end of our lives affecting every aspect of the process of dying; how we support some ones passing, how we mark someone’s life, how we bury them and how we grieve. Distance:Proximity:Loss aims to explore how creative processes can be used in rethinking responses to the challenges presented by the Covid pandemic. Families who have lost a loved one as well as the institutions that support the processes of end of life; undertakers, healthcare workers and spiritual leaders, have all been forced to adapt to new safety rules and regulations. These new rules make an already difficult process even more intense and challenging. Our project will research what impact these new rules are having and creatively explore new practices and adaptations for marking someone’s passing and support the grieving process.

For information about Robbie & Jo, visit our Participants page.


Update Nov 2020

Initially we have been talking to professionals such as funeral directors, palliative care workers and spiritual leaders as well as individuals who have lost someone close to them during the pandemic. We have been exploring people’s feelings about end of life and the impact of Covid on the rituals that mark someone’s passing. We are finding that many professionals are feeling a sense of sadness and dissatisfaction at not being able to fully support those who have lost loved ones. This is taking its toll, with people becoming exhausted with little time or opportunity for self-care.  Our conversations have revealed that professionals may often feel they are failing and are not able to carry out the role of care that their job requires. Those who have lost someone close have been feeling helplessness at not being able to fully be with and support other family members, particularly when a loved one has died overseas. During these conversations we have also become aware that there is a much wider sense of grief and loss being felt within communities at the moment, such as loss of physical contact with family and friends, loss of everyday freedoms, loss of social life and loss of jobs. We are currently experimenting with responses that will make a space for open conversation as well as manifesting a series of creative performative actions that reflect and transform our findings into new ways of marking loss, both personal and collective. 

Image credit: Kyna Hodges

Update January 2021

Many conversations that we had during our research have raised the incompleteness felt by not being able to be with loved ones at funerals or to be able to support them while grieving. Our response to this wasShoreline to Shoreline, a site-specific event set on Dumfries and Galloway’s evocative coastline which took place on 20thDecember 2020. https://shorelinetoshoreline.com

Shoreline to Shoreline was designed as a way of collectively marking loss in the time of Covid in a world connected by water. This public art event invited individuals, friends and families to travel to the water’s edge on the same day; to stand on a beach or a rocky shoreline as the sea receded to the horizon to remember and mark or memorialise loss. Some invited others to join them on the other side of the ocean, two parts of a family or two friends connected together by water. A moment of reconnection in a world connected by water.

“I don’t think there’s a single person who hasn’t experienced a loss of some kind this year and a collective ritual like this is a beautiful way of honouring that”

A Participant

The rules imposed as a result of Covid have impacted on the traditional ways that we mark a person’s passing which has had a profound impact upon mourning and grieving. Shoreline to Shorelinecreated a new space to help process feelings of loss and incompleteness. This was a space for mourning and remembering together while remaining safely separate, for standing as individuals and yet feeling part of a wider community of grief. A way of grieving without touching.

“Thank you for this most wonderful encouragement to join with my family remembering my husband, just passed away. I wrote his name in the sand and watched as the incoming tide washed it smooth. I was in Portobello, Scotland and was joined by family thousands of miles away in Puget Sound in Olympia, Washington, in San Francisco Bay and also in Seattle. Shoreline to Shoreline was a beautiful and healing experience for us all. Thank you.

A Participant

Covid has also brought losses of other kinds; loss of the comfort of touch, loss of family support, loss of jobs, loss of freedoms. These losses have had impacts on us as individuals, on our relationships and our communities with many people experiencing an ongoing deep sense of sadness. Many of us have also become more aware of the impact of human activity on the planet, of the acceleration of loss of species and loss of biodiversity and of the climate crisis. Shoreline to Shorelineoffered a context and space for contemplation and reflection, a moment to acknowledge and mark loss in its many forms and to reconnect with family, friends, ourselves and the planet.

“In a year where we have lost our ability to mark events with ritual and celebration this was a beautiful way to pause, apart but together, and focus our attention.” 

A Participant

Shoreline to Shoreline 

Shoreline to Shoreline was conceived in collaboration with Hanna Casement who lives in Dumfries and Galloway. Hanna’s 17 year old nephew Barney, was tragically killed in a car accident during the first lockdownin 2020. As Hanna’s sister lives in Australia, restrictions prevented, and still prevent, Hanna and her parents from being able to fly over to be with her sister and the rest of the family.Shoreline to Shorelinedeveloped as a result of conversations with Hanna exploring ideas for the creation of an event or ritualthat could be carried out by individuals as a collective action to help in processing feelings of incompleteness in grief. The Ocean became a place of connection for Hanna and her sister on the other side of the world, both of whom created a small ritual at the water’s edge.

‘To have such a family tragedy is horrendous at the best of times, but Covid has taken away so much that is familiar and important to us at these times. Having to watch a livestream of the funeral of a loved one and being unable to have helped with preparations, to give the hugs, share the tears and give the support, adds so much more to the loss. There is such a need and a longing to be with family and to be actively involved with the rituals around a final farewell.

In my discussions with Jo and Robbie I expressed how much I wished for a way to feel that there could be a specific time for sharing a ceremony of some sort. Ceremonies around death have been so important to civilisations across the world for many thousands of years. Our rituals to say goodbye are so important as to how we process our loss of a loved one. Covid restrictions have taken that away for so many of us. I knew that if I felt this need so strongly then I was surely not alone. I also felt that to have a time when we knew that others were also doing their own ceremonies would give a feeling of sharing together even when we are all apart.

I wrote a letter to my sister of all the sadness, loss, grief, helplessness and longing to be with her and made it into a paper boat which I sent out into the sea with flowers, imagining the sea carrying my message to her as she stood on the shore on the other side of the world. She in turn wrote messages which she also made into a boat which she set sail. Both of us played a song, meaningful to us both, as we watched out boats sailing away. Friends and relatives over here, all of whom longed to be with my sister and her family and to have been present at my nephew’s final farewell, also did their own versions of feeling connected through water. We all joined together with shared intention wherever we were.

It was a tiny gesture in the scale of things, but for a moment it felt that we were there with each other, sharing our grief, rather than separated by distance and restrictions. It spoke to that need in us to have a focus and a purpose in the ceremonies that surround death and I am very grateful to Jo and Robbie for offering us an opportunity and an idea for us all to share in.

Please visit the event website for further information and to read reflections from some of the participants: https://shorelinetoshoreline.com

A wonderfully imaginative and insightful response to the pandemic and at the same time a re-imagining of it. It is the seas and rivers that connect us – in joy and in sorrow.

Professor David Clark, founder of the Glasgow End of Life Studies Group.