all posts, community, mortality

let’s talk about death

burial cemetery countryside cross
Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

I seem to be drawn to fields of study that general society deems taboo. From talking about vaginas and all things women’s health, to my desire to talk about death, I really seem to have no boundaries. And so, with that, let’s talk about death.

I recently came across the profession of death doulas, and if I have a calling, I think it’s to become a death doula one day. More on that in a bit.

A doula I believe traditionally is defined as a woman who serves, and is used to denote women who work with other women, specifically in a birth and postpartum context. Both birth and postpartum doulas work as support people for pregnant women/moms, helping them to navigate various systems and life changes. Historically, communities were stronger and so the need for doulas was not so defined (women generally were supported by other women of varying ages, from friends to skilled midwives, and this support could start during the pregnancy and continue through childrearing years). But as we’ve become more individualized and modernized, this communal support has seen rapid decline, and so the doula profession developed to help remedy the lapse of the support.

So then, death doulas? Well, another consequence of the rapid modernization and aggressive individualism has been a shift away from dealing with death. We don’t tend to our deceased personally, we often have family members in homes that we don’t visit, we see more and more people dying in hospitals alone, or dying after enduring unending painful medical attempts to save/prolong their lives. More and more people are starting to feel that the way we treat the dying, and the lack of support around the times of dying are wrong, and it was from this belief that the profession of a death doula was formed.

The first formalized death doula I believe was Henry Fersko-Weiss. Inspired by the birth doula model, and disappointed by his own experience with his father’s and many of his patients’ deaths, Ferkso-Weiss wanted to create a profession that would allow for people to die better.

I know this is a weird and uncomfortable thing to get around. How on earth does one die better? Dying is miserable! It’s the end of life, etc. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around it, but that doesn’t make it any less important. A consequence of our culture’s death aversion has been increased fear. I distinctly remember my own personal existential crisis around age 7 or so when I confessed to my best friend that I was terrified about dying and becoming nothing. She replied back that this is why many people turn to religion, because it gives us something to believe in (very wise words for a 7-year old). This led me to years of trying to decide whether I believed in something or not (jury’s still out) and if not, how did I make sure I had a meaningful life until my time was over. The culmination of years following show a web of confused choices as I tried (and continue to try) to figure out what is important to me. As a result, I personally come across as erratic and fickle because I seem to change my mind instantaneously when in actuality I am constantly weighing my choices via long term projections, and thus constantly tweaking my day to day behaviors.

Now many people think that thinking and talking about death will get you depressed and worried. I believe the results of the death doula profession are seeing the opposite. Many people find that understanding that we are mortal and working towards accepting that allow them to appreciate life more. And people draw to being death doulas seem to be extreme lovers of life. My personal role model is Alua Arthur. She has an amazing video calledย I Plan People’s Death For A Living, whichย so distinctly highlights why she does what she does, and how it’s not as morbid as you think.

To fill the time between now and when I start actively studying to become a death doula (so after the baby (babies?) is (are?) in high school most likely), I have begun the process of reading all there is to read on dying, death, and how we as humans think about it, and how we process and deal with our/our loved ones’ mortality. It’s a fascinating field. And yes, it definitely can provoke the waterworks, but that’s just part of being human.

It’s also interesting because having the skin condition/autoimmune issues I do has made me much more aware of my mortality. If everyone is going on about how your 20s are your magic years, your skin is still great and you are super healthy, yatta yatta, than I already identify as someone who is past her prime. And I don’t feel negatively about this, but I do believe it influences the way I see the world and makes me think about the future in a more concrete fashion than many of my peers. Like when I said I wanted kids before 30, I realized I was 26, that it takes 10 months (ish) to create a baby, and so if I want to be done having kids by 30, it was time to start (and luckily my partner felt the same way).

I’ll end there for now, but this will probably be a running series of posts because it helps me get things out of my head if I write them down.

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all posts, miscellaneous

memory blast from the past (the “invincible” days)

close up of pictures
Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

When you’re young you fly on this invisible tether, unaware of the fleeting nature of your adventure, how you will not always be there, balanced confidently but precariously.

I often think back on my journey living with severe eczema and immediately I remember the onset of the first cascade of knocked-me-off-my-feet-and-never-found-solid-ground-again topical steroid withdrawal symptoms and think that was where it all began. But it’s just not true. Even when I was young (under 14), active and energetic, there were moments when eczema was already blossoming under the surface.

I remember hiking the presidential range with my uncle, his girlfriend (now wife), his cousin, an uncle-esque family friend, and my sister. When we reached the last cabin closest to Mount Washington, I recall the cold as a storm rolled in and remembered vividly when I washed my face in a cold bathroom in the morning with chilly water, I felt the creep of a growing itch under my skin.

Nowadays I know that there can be many triggers for eczema including temperature changes, but then, eczema was a weird seasonal rash that showed up only on the insides of my elbows, not on my face. I think my thoughts at the time were something along the lines of “oh, I must have eaten something that was contaminated lightly with peanut fragments”, because in my head, face itching had to be a sign of an allergic reaction.

It’s also non-humorously funny to look back and realize I was already becoming paranoid of food allergies (and sensitivities) as the culprit to my skin woes.

I also recall having (and to some extent still have) the belief that because I possessed any abdominal fat, therein lied the reason I had eczema. It wasn’t yet possible to accept that I wasn’t infinitely healthy and majestic, that my body wasn’t perfect, that I had my own personal dis-ease I would have to reckon with that would change my whole game plan. It was easier to think that I was just eating too much and therefore making myself less than perfect.

It’s interesting because I can still so easily transport back into that mindset and remember how vital I felt, how alive, how healthy. I didn’t feel disappointment that my body had betrayed me yet.

Now don’t get me wrong, I can still get optimistic about my skin’s healing progress and feel I have come a huge way along the path of recovery. But my confidence of almost immortality that I had once before, is not there.

Part of that makes perfect sense. I have grown up and matured, and since realized essential concepts like that my body is no longer growing up, that I have to maintain health by eating right and moving and controlling stress or I will grow outwards in a horizontal direction. I get that. But there is also this, I think what I used to call “the Peter Pan effect” that I recognize is gone. It was akin to the moment I turned 12 and had to firmly accept the idea that I was never getting into Hogwarts, not because it was fictional, but because I had aged out of my chance. I adjusted to change of aging in asymmetry, non-smooth block jumps.

I think that’s the hard part of it all. You have to accept that time moves forward and one day you are on the other end of the growth curve, in what I now like to call the maturation phase, giving in to the adage of us ripening well like rare vintage wines. But it is hard to accept that where you were once full of epiphyseal (growth) plates, you now have the potential for osteoporosis; where hyaline cartilage once ran amok, we now see arthritis. I don’t know, I think sometimes the reality of aging, even if it is done amazingly, is still a bitter reminder that our lives are meaningful because they end, and so it’s important to accept the ride and always strive for better and better days, even if there are road bumps, like severe eczema in my 20s; here’s looking to flawless skin in my 30s!