" I know nothing with any certainty but the sight of stars makes me dream." –Vincent Van Gogh
Very often I am asked by people I meet how I arrived at this point in my life as a Death Doula, assisting souls at the end of life. "I was dragged here kicking and screaming," I used to say, because that was how it felt at the time to me. The reality, however, is that life events and circumstances occurred and I was given divine signs — which I read very carefully — and divine direction — which I followed. They led me to this work. I am very grateful.
Whenever I tell people what I do, a nervous giggle, a blank stare, a dropped jaw or "Really? Tell me more…” usually follow. Death is one of those subjects that generally doesn't make for good cocktail party conversation. "Isn't that depressing?" usually comes next.
The reality is that this work has given me a true appreciation for life. It makes me appreciate the small things—the fleeting moments, nature's beauty, peace, solitude, rain, a stranger's smile and of course, a purr and a wagging tail. It keeps things in perspective and keeps me "right-sized." Please don't ever think that there is no place for laughter at the end of life. While volunteering at several Bay Area hospices, working with clients and sitting bedside with patients who had “one foot in each world," we shared some of the most joyous cacophonous outbursts. (I will share some of these later down the road.)
I lost my first partner, Ali, to AIDS in 1992. I had just moved to Los Angeles and turned 30. It took me 10 years to come out of the shock of that loss after seeking out professional help—therapy, grief support and group therapy. I worked with a wonderful therapist named Bernie. Two years into working with Bernie, I received a call from his colleague telling me that Bernie was unable to continue his practice. I never saw him again. He died 6 months later of AIDS.
I lost my second partner, William, to cancer just four years ago. It was while wewere sitting together watching the Twin Towers fall in New York that made us decide to move in together because "life is too short. " Looking back, this was ironic foreshadowing. As devastating as the loss was for me, it was what is termed a "good death." He died in his sleep with me and all of our pets in bed with us. His sister, nieces and best friend had all come to the house that evening to see him. With a Stage 4 diagnosis, he was given a year left to live, and he died almost a year later.
These two losses were the catalysts that propelled me on my search for answers and ways that I could help make the End of Life process better for those transitioning and for the family, friends and caregivers left behind—the "walking wounded."
After losing William I sat down and made a list of all the memorable deaths I could recall as far back as I could remember and how they affected me. (This is how I recalled them. They may not be accurate, but they are as I recall them—important because we all remember things differently and this gives us a clue as to how we perceive things.)
- My cousin Michael, 4 years old. Died of diabetes. I was in elementary school
- Classmate of my older sisters’ who hung himself in 6th grade. I cannot recall his name. I was in 2nd or 3rd grade.
- The heinous assassinations of John .F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. I was in elementary school.
- Classmate of mine, Patrice. Died in a car accident. I was in 6th grade.
- The great exodus of the many talented musicians and performers, my teenage idols: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Mama Cass Elliott etc. etc. I was in junior high school.
- My grandfather. I was in 11th grade.
- My roommate Phil hung himself. I was in my mid-twenties.
- The countless friends, acquaintances, artists, musicians, dancers, TV and film personalities and creative communities wiped out by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. I was in my mid-twenties.
This list does not minimize the impact of the deaths of other friends and relatives. But the deaths I’ve listed affected me deeply on some level and left me feeling very disturbed. I was unable to process the magnitude of these losses. I got on the internet and typed in the word death. And so the journey began.
I would like to invite all of you to start to examine, explore and discover your own thoughts and feelings about death. How were they formed? Where did they come from? What are your earliest memories of losing someone? What are the emotions, thoughts and feelings that you remember having around deaths?
Next: Cumulative Grief