Death, Grief and Quilts

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It is not often that something hits you completely out of the blue, but this phone call did: my stepmother, my second mother for the past 40 years, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Inoperable, aggressive, irreversible. The diagnosis had come that morning and no one was sure if she had days, weeks or something more, but the inevitable end was coming soon. After a moment of stunned silence, a single thought filled my mind, perhaps my entire body: I needed to send her a quilt. In an hour I was at the Post Office sending off a quilt I had made from one of my fabric collections, Asbury, that told the story of the Jersey shore, the place of her childhood summers when the boardwalk was truly alive. Amidst all of my sorrow and confusion, the act of sending her that quilt was a singular instance of clarity.

In that moment I came to understand something new about quilts. I frequently write about the roles quilts can play in our lives, but now I saw them as having a place in death. So much of my work has focused on the bed as a complex part of our lives – a shared, ever-evolving location – but I now understand that a bed is more often than not the site of our last moments. The idea of this person who has meant so much to me coming to the end of her life under a hospital blanket was intolerable. That possibility evoked the generic, an ordinariness of passing that spoke only of a body that would cease to be, an end utterly unsuited to someone I love. Even though I could do nothing to change the ineluctable pull of cancer, I could perhaps change the setting. I could offer up this small gesture to ensure that those last moments would perhaps be located within the embrace of meaning.

Therein lies the true significance of quilts: they transform the general into the individual. While I may forever regret taking so long to send that quilt, for not having made the effort under different circumstances, at least now I know it is with her, that this quilt can serve in some small way as a bulwark against the passing of memory, of being, of life. Though it may do nothing more than fend off my own fear, I can hope that this one quilt will somehow transcend its mere material reality. Perhaps, in these remaining days, and in those last moments, it will serve as a reminder of a beautiful life. Further still, maybe the fabric and stitches, the time and the gift, will be understood in the end as a final signifier of what she has meant to me.

Perhaps that is the deeper understanding of quilts that I have learned: the giving of a quilt is less about the recipient, however much it might mean to them. The gift is really about fulfilling a need in the giver. Whatever the reason for giving a quilt, the making and delivering of it fills a certain absence within our own heart. Quilts are surrogates for ourselves; they offer warmth and comfort to those we know we can never truly keep safe. Through my stepmother’s passing I now see quilts as a beautiful form of whistling in the dark, of staving off the inevitable through a material presence that endures, even as our lives change and finally come to an end.

Ultimately, though, we all have to deal with the grief that follows death. A quilt given may forestall that grief by resisting the solitude of death, but its certainty cannot be escaped. The grief of loss confronts us all. Here I find yet another understanding of quilts: not as a means for speaking of joy or hope or possible futures, but of the immediacy of sorrow, of loss, and of commemoration. While my grief may remain fundamentally private, the act of making remains a way to process that sorrow. No, it is something different than that. Processing the loss of a loved one is inevitably an interior practice, intimate, small and monumental at the same time. The loss is both solid and ineffable, and nothing we might do can take the place of what we have lost. The act of making is a response to that profound truth, a way of expressing those things for which words cannot be enough, for words will always fail us in the face of the eternal. I lack the vocabulary, the syntax, to capture this tempest of emotions, so I once again find myself turning to quilts as a means to externalize my own powerlessness.

Perhaps later I will make a memorial quilt, something that we can turn to

for comfort as a locus for memories, a reminder of the woman she has been. But I am not yet ready for that quilt; I am not yet ready to deal with that absence. I am still stuck back at that phone call, struggling to process the suddenness, the incongruity of those few words forming an irreparable rift in my life. Instead I will simply drop into the process of making a quilt, which just might be enough for now. Somehow the fitting of fabric together, refashioning coherence from disjointed parts, just might allow me to find a place for that terrible moment. Even if I do not truly find solace in the making, perhaps I can find some sort of sense leading me to find peace with the existential fracture that comes with death. Maybe this is what quilts really mean to me: they are beautiful repositories for our most profound emotions and experiences. So often we associate quilts with the beautiful moments in our lives, but right now I need a quilt to shoulder some of the sorrow that I feel, so that I might move on to properly grieving.


Photo Credit: That Moment When You Glimpse an Approaching Truth From The Corner of Your Eye: Rupture by Thomas Knauer, 40" x 40", 2016

This quilt demonstrates using a purely formal vocabulary to deal with real world concerns. The spaces and colors evoke an emotional sense rather than a literal meaning. For me, the true power of design lies in its ability to move beyond aesthetic reasoning to become a language of individual expression. The quilting is words of a prose poem written about my stepmother’s death.

Thomas Knauer holds Masters of Fine Art from both Ohio University and the Cranbrook Academy of art. Before he started designing fabric and quilts he was a professor of art and design at Drake University and the State University of New York. He began quilting in 2011 after leaving academia due to health concerns. He has designed fabric collections for Andover and Kokka. His most recent book, The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook, was published by Storey in 2016, and he is currently working with EverSewn and HandiQuilter to expand the quilting tradition. This essay was originally published in Quilters Newsletter in 2016.