Ways of sitting with loss…

Mourning Braids

I study the way we count dead people. I also make art in order to help people experience mass casualty events differently. Usually this is about the past. For the last several years I’ve been interested in mourning braids, a tradition that has some roots in Victorian England, but also more contemporary examples like the stunning work of Nene Humphrey.

I recognized last week, during our first week of “social distancing” that I was mourning. Mourning the ever-growing loss of human life. Mourning canceled opportunities to spend time with friends, colleagues, and family who are all distant from our new home. Mourning the lost alternative present in which actions taken in January/February had prevented the global medical crisis we now find ourselves in.

Grief takes a number of forms and they evolve over time. Last week I wept and felt unfocused. But I woke one morning remembering the work I’ve done in representing past pandemics in fiber installations (including with Liz Grumbach on the 1918 Influenza). I remembered visitors’ reactions, the way they sat with the braids and wove and unwove them, sitting with those who are long dead.

So many are unable to mourn their dead in traditional ways right now. We are not permitted to sit with our dead, to gather and mourn together. Or, as in Italy, people are trapped with their dead because the system is too overwhelmed. I am overwhelmed. So I started braiding mourning braids for COVID-19. It is a way for me to process, but also, perhaps, to help.

Two examples of mourning braids. 
These are made of wool roving and are roughly six feet long.
Two examples of mourning braids.
These are made of wool roving and are roughly six feet long.

If you would like to join me in braiding, either as a way of mourning your own losses or to represent those losses that are distant but nevertheless deserve our care, you can of course simply start braiding. If you’d like to contribute a braid or braids to what will likely be some sort of installation, send me a note with the form below. If you’d like me to braid for you – either for your personal use or for inclusion in a future installation, please also let me know.

The braids can be a way of mourning people, or simply lost opportunities, events, etc. I may ultimately look to incorporate audio and textual materials, so please feel free to let me know if you’re interested in that. Right now I’m working with fibers I already have but I can see pretty clearly how one might incorporate both textile and other media that serve the memorial/memory for a person or a time.

Resources on simple braiding techniques