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How Facing Our Fear of Death Fosters a Sense of Empowerment

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By Kate Whitney

If your career involved conversations about life support options, meditations on death, and funeral plans for the dying, one might be surprised to learn that it’s not all gloom and doom. For death doula Alua Arthur, who recently shared her story on Refinery29, the idea that supporting palliative care patients through the process of dying is sad or depressing couldn’t be further from reality. “It’s the most invigorating and life-affirming thing I know how to do,” she explained. “I feel most alive when I am talking to people about their death.”

A law school graduate, Arthur’s interest in working as a doula began as she assisted her sister for two months while her brother-in-law was dying from terminal Burkitt’s lymphoma. Though she still chokes up recalling the memories of his sickness and death, she remembers that time as a precious, privileged, and happy experience. “It gave me insight into how we really can do better—and we really should do better.”

Honoring the wishes and hopes of the vulnerable and dying seems like it should be standard practice. However, this isn’t always the case. Studies show that the overwhelming majority of Americans would prefer to die at home, but 60 percent die in acute care hospitals and 20 percent die in nursing homes. And for many of us, death isn’t something we really think about until we’re faced with it. In fact, research shows that 4 out of 10 Americans age 65 and over have no advanced directives or written requests for their end-of-life medical treatment.

Arthur seeks to destigmatize discourse about death and dying, encouraging people to have the hard conversations and face their fears, empowering and giving her clients control over their experience. “Talking about sex won’t make you pregnant,” she states. “Talking about death won’t make you dead.”

Arthur assists her clients through guided meditations on dying and bodily decomposition and discusses everything from financial considerations to personal grooming preferences to final disposition, normalizing and lifting the veil on what so many of us would prefer to avoid talking about: our own fragile and temporary bodies, our mortality, and the ways in which we desire to leave it behind.

“It’s so human,” Arthur states. “It’s the most human thing we do, other than being born, or maybe giving birth. We’re born. We die. Let’s do both in ways that honor us, and honor humankind, and honor each other.”

Learn more about UVM’s online End of Life Doula Professional Certificate

-Kate Whitney is a freelance writer.