Artist Sue Coe's mother Ellen was 64 years old when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The artist and her sister went to Liverpool to be with their mother at home, since Ellen did not wish to spend her last days in hospice. Sue Coe documented her mother's last days by drawing her, producing the series, "The Last 11 Days: July 20th to July 31, 1995." In the first drawing, dated July 20 (first drawing, right side), Ellen was still at the hospice. The drawing concentrates on face and hand, which are also the main features of other drawings in the series. The hand is large and bony as it is brought to Ellen's mouth, which is partially covered by the hand. Ellen's eyes are wide open and express anxiety and fear.

In a drawing dated July 31 (last drawing, left), the last day of Ellen's life, the artist's face and hands loom large in the right foreground while in the left rear the mother lies in bed, a small thin figure, barely awake, mouth open, her large skeletal hands resting on the blanket. The artist's face is thoughtful, sad, resigned--her thoughts seem to be drifting.

Another drawing, dated July 29 shows the artist's sister cradling Ellen in her arms, supporting her head. The mother's eyes are closed and she appears peaceful, comfortable. Of this scene, Coe writes that her sister was "reading a Stephen King novel behind the pillow. That's the only way she could survive, reading a Stephen King novel that just made her mind go blank." (National Museum for Women in the Arts Magazine, Holiday, 2005, p.20)


This series is truly "graphic", a vivid, unflinching portrayal of dying and a family unit concentrated on the dying. The artist has stated that she believes the drawings were therapeutic for both herself and her mother, and brought them close (p.20). The drawings were not originally intended for public display, but were on exhibit at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington DC during the winter of 2005-2006. The artist says, "I don't know how I felt about my mother. It was many, many conflicting feelings. But when I make drawings, that's my truth. My feelings are in turmoil, and yet the pencil follows the truth." (p.21) This period of confusion and conflicted sentiment is probably what many experience as parents are dying, as we all must find ways of coming to terms with such death and the process that leads to it. One could pair this series with Linda Pastan's poem, "The Death of a Parent" (see this database).

Primary Source

National Museum for Women in the Arts Magazine, Holiday, 2005, pp.18-21.