You Can't Catch Death from Me, I Promise
As I often say, I’m the fun one at the cocktail party. And what I mean by this is that, culturally speaking, asking someone what they do for a living is supposed to be a low-gear, small talk opener when meeting someone. When I tell people what I do, I often want to preface it with, “Are you sure you really want to know?”
I rarely receive a moderate response. Sometimes, they lean in more, and want to get into a deeper conversation with me (which I always welcome). At other times, it’s as if the Grim Reaper himself suddenly showed up behind me, scythe and all, and they clamber to find a polite way to disengage. I try to make it easy for them to do so. Overexposing anyone is not my intention. Just mentioning death is usually more than enough of a dose of crystal-clear reality for most people.
Sometimes people ask me why I do what I do. “Isn’t it depressing?” they ask, or, “how macabre to make your life about death!” It’s not. Really, truly.
But you know, these responses don’t offend me in the least. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been training for this for a very long time.
After my mom died when I was young, I grew up with many of those same awkward pauses, or incredulous stares, or stammering platitudes. Merely having a mom who had died was enough of a trigger for others' discomfort to rush to the forefront. Reactions ran the gamut. As a kid, I thought it was just me. That somehow my presence made them uncomfortable. But as I grew up, I came to realize that it was not about me at all … that I had just been the blank canvas for a multitude of projected fears of the “known unknown.” And let’s face it (pun indeed intended)—contending with our mortality can be intense. It can be demanding. It can be frightening and overwhelming. It can be a lot of things, except perhaps passive. Rarely is it passive. It is active and activating. It is not easy work.
None of us are going to get out alive. We all know this. And I believe we are hardwired to not feel inclined to lean into this reality. Our biology is designed, in many cases, to do everything it can to stave off this inevitable destiny we all will face someday. But if we decide to turn around and be with it, to really sit with it, things begin to shift.
When I contemplate my mortality, or the mortality of my loved ones, such as my husband, my child, our dog, my parents (luckily for us all, my dad found love twice), my sister, her family, my friends…because yes, of course, as a death doula I do this…what I find is that my appreciation for them, for myself and my life, expands. For whatever force it is that allowed me to be conscious, to experience life, to grow connected to others in the process of living. What an awe inspiring gift. What an immense, immeasurable, nearly improbable, gift. To truly sit with the impermanence. To allow myself to feel the enormity of that. To know I will have to say goodbye to them, one way or another. To know that the pain that comes with absence is part of the price of having loved deeply. I know this so well, as I miss my mom …even to this day. And I’m absolutely, 100% okay with that. To allow myself to imagine that while I won’t live on forever, perhaps some aspect of me will … whether through others’ memories, or through the life that may be nourished by me as I’m laid to rest, or perhaps in a more abstract way ... that my death allows others to come and experience this wild thing called life. To know that I'm not alone, that I was a small part of something so much bigger than myself. I was part of the human experience, and that this connects me to multitudes of others. Because I absolutely love life. And on most days, I don’t take it for granted. If it was a forever-thing, perhaps then I would.
My heart has grown tremendously through doing this work. My clients are not merely clients. They are people whom I grow deeply fond of, whom I often connect with in a sacred space of our collective creation, and yes, when they die, I grieve for them in my own special way while tending to the grief of their loved ones. But my life is so much richer because of it. And that I have been called to do the work, to be a bridge to deeper engagement and connection between people and their loved ones at such an intimate time, this also is a gift. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s not just my work, it’s who I am. I am a death doula. And I’m okay with that, and it’s really okay if it’s not so comfortable for you. We can talk about it, if you’d like.