all posts, community, mental health, mortality, nature/the environment

death as my guide

Death studies

I have been reading books on books about death. Death from the perspective of the dying, death from the vantage point of medical professions, death from philosophers, death from people who have lost someone. It’s weird to say, but I love death stuff. Not because I am morbid and have a weird fascination with the idea of being dead (frankly that scares the bejeezus out of me and sends my head into terrifying loops trying to conceptualize it), but because outside of being born, dying/being dead is the only thing I will share with all humans/living things on earth (except maybe tardigrades, and I’m still not convinced they aren’t aliens).

It’s a strange place to be in, being a student of death. I began by systemically reading the most respected books on the subject, am currently looking for a hospice place to volunteer at, and I begin my formal death doula study work in January. In other words, I have jumped down the rabbit hole and am going full speed into embracing the world of mortality.

My shift into this new paradigm of living probably has heavy roots from a topic I mentioned in a previous post. If one lives in a culture obsessed with youth and our early years (think of all the adages we use: “age before beauty”  “you are young, live a little”, etc) having a condition such as eczema/TSW/gene mutation that causes you to have “aged” and sensitive skin to the extent that it alters how you live day to day… eventually you are bound to reflect on the life you are living. The serendipity of ending such a reflection ending up on death’s doorstep is when you look around, you realize everyone will eventually join you. When someone loses a loved one, they are faced with their mortality. When someone grows up able-bodied and becomes disabled, they reflect anew on their mortality. When one grows up in a society that values/develops around intrinsic factors that deviate from one’s own, the forced recognition of not being/having the “in” qualities caused mortal reflections. In every scenario, at some point everyone will be faced with accepting their mortality, so when you do, you are just accepting what makes you innately human, knowing you will die, and the company it comes with is surprising sweet.

I have also been plagued with the urge to try and communicate what I learn from my deep dive into death, and struggle to decide what medium works best to do so. My issue is that I prefer the written hand, but how can I reach others to connect with when the written world is dominated by themed bloggers with deep followings, pay-for-ad bloggers, lifestyle bloggers, and other algorithm-based advantaged bloggers. I miss the early blogging days where it was unique enough that getting your words out what enough to provoke communal responses, before it required hashtags and search optimization. Or maybe I am simply not as compelling of a writer or communicator or thinker, and so my words as mostly unheeded from the larger populace. Either option has the same result. I am stuck learning so much but unable to communicate it with mostly anyone other than my lovely husband, who can patiently decipher my meaning even when my words are obscured by months of sleep deprivation.

I recently also contemplated podcasts, despite my obvious inability to (compelling) speak aloud. My logic was that I would improve in the former, and that most people don’t enjoy reading long form anymore, unless it is streamlined directly into their subset of interest. But who knows, maybe I will return to this idea in a few months or so. It could be fun.

Speaking of months…

Ours flew by and we are finally all moved into our new home. It’s a lovely little 3-bedroom we are renting that is shaped in such a way that our baby’s room doesn’t receive much noise from our upstairs TV room, despite us being able to hear her from said bedroom. As a result, we have been able to talk above a whisper and host friends/my parents after the baby goes to sleep, despite her habit towards light sleeping.

It’s good to be home. I missed this neighborhood, with its friendliness and quirky characters. I am excited to see our little one grow up in this town that is not a town (actually though. I googled it and it is apparently a census-designated place or an unincorporated area with no definitive boundaries). We also have vultures…? I mean, yes of course. I’m studying death so a bird of death must appear!

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At the same time, the transition here hasn’t as smooth as I would hope. Having lived away for years now, I have developed a plethora of bad habits that I need to break (like feeling trapped in a city and thus emotionally eating to the point that I gained 20+ pounds in a year!).

I also need to learn to balance my time in a whole new way now that I have more freedom (including the stress reduction of not being able to get myself and my little one forest bathing/into nature). The flip side of this lovely return to a land with trees and fewer cars is that I have been so inundated in environments that always have a heavy amount of ambient light that I no longer know how to sleep well in the deeper darkness of my childhood town. And at night, every sound this house makes sets me on edge (but that’s the case with almost all new places).

In lieu of sleeping

So now I’ve constructed this post to clear my mind. I also re-read many of my older posts. Since getting into death as a subject of interest, I have been reflecting a lot on myself. I have, and continue to, expend so much energy trying to conform to fit in with models of how I have been trained to believe the world needs to work. Many of my posts reflect this as I oscillate back and forth from trying to get my entrepreneurial start to trying to conform to a cookie cutter career; both in an attempt to fit in with this world model I have internalized from my years on this earth. I’m not saying that reflecting on my mortality has rid me of this tendency, but more so that it has helped me highlight the neuroses of it, which in turn is letting me better chip away at the anxiety that comes from it. Though I am no longer to having the ultimate job/career smoothly going, I have gotten better at trying to figure out what my self-decided purpose is with the time I have on this earth.

all posts, community, eczema, mental health, miscellaneous, mortality, parentings/things about baby and kids, women's health

old plans meet new horizons (aka what I do when the little one sleeps)

In the past, I may have mentioned how I am obsessed with the fourth trimester and all things postpartum, or how when I was in my physical therapy doctorate program, I was interested in going into a women’s health specialty.

After I left the program, I searched for ways to slowly transition into the women’s health field from a different angle. And so from April through October 2018, I worked as a women’s health information specialist for Dr. Brianne Grogan, a women’s health PT and health and wellness coach and the creator of FemFusion Fitness. It was one of those random connections that seems fortuitous- in fact I had contacted her years ago after reading her book (way before I even had applied to PT schools) because I was interested in learning more about women’s health.

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My job for her entailed handling email inquiries from women trying to understand

  • what was going on with their bodies
  • what content Bri had out, and
  • who they should see (doctors, PTs, etc).

I also worked on various projects like helping make distributable content for bone building exercises, and I collected research for her new topics. On occasion I did some help with audience outreach to get her free content out into the world.

In time though we amicably went our separate ways. She moved on to focus more on holistic health practices and less on women’s health physical therapy and rehabilitation specifically, and so I continued on in my own direction, which at the time mostly included prepping for my baby’s arrival into the world. Working for Bri was an awesome opportunity because not only is she the nicest, but I got to brush the cobwebs out of my brain about women’s health rehabilitation and really delve into the subject (if you haven’t checked it out already, her youtube is full of free videos of explanations and exercises that cover a gambit of topics like prolapse, diastasis recti, pelvic pain, etc. Check it out here).

Afterward having my baby, I had not lost the love for the fascinating field of women’s health, I merely needed time to rethink how I could enter the world as a professional, no longer coming from the physical therapy realm.

I had been contemplating the idea of becoming a postpartum doula for a long time, and I finally realized what I was missing in that thought process. My objective couldn’t be simply to become a traditional postpartum doula because I would always have to explain about my skin condition, that I’m not contagious, what that means for my services, and work around my own flares and down time. But in reality when I was thinking about my own limitations, I should have been thinking about who could relate to having them. This led me to thinking about those expecting, new, or seasoned moms that have to live with eczema or other chronic conditions (shoutout to all the spoonies out there!) while growing/raising a babe or two (or three or more), and what their needs might be.

It’s not uncommon for people with chronic illnesses to have higher rates of depression, and it’s not uncommon for moms to suffer from postpartum depression, so what about those unlucky ladies that get hit with both? How do they find a support system that bridges both gaps, knowing that some of their depression comes from living with an incurable condition, and the other from being steamrolled with new hormones and emotions as a new life blends into theirs? That is a demographic I feel has not been studied or served enough. And so, I have begun to slowly pull my own experiences (both personal and professional) to better understand and then serve this group. I have been working on merging three of my interests to accomplish this:

  1. postpartum education (e.g my postpartum doula course and my position researching and writing postpartum mental health pieces),
  2. community engagement projects (two in the works: one to help educate mamas of color who may face discrimination from the medical/healthcare world or not have access to it at all, and one about how to train churches to better serve new moms in their area), and
  3. volunteering more with the National Eczema Association. This helps me to be in the know about what policies are being created (or challenged), as well as what new treatments or practices are out.

I use these three directions to help understand my own struggles, as well as figure out how I might work to help mothers out there like me (or other parents/caregivers!). It also gives me more reasons to continually I brush up on healthcare policies, systemic support options, familial/community building techniques, measurable outcome scales, all manner of recent research and studies, etc, which I tend to like to peruse anyway.

I have also been exploring the other side of my interests- traditions and cultures around death. Soon I will be taking Alua Arthur’s End of Life training and learn how to best serve individuals and their families around their time of dying. I think it’s such a taboo thing that we really need to talk about more. The amount of people with traumatizing stories and feelings of regret around their loved ones times of dying is astounding, and historically many cultures prevented this by being present and accepting death as nature, not some scary thing never to be spoken about. As Alua says “talking about sex won’t make you pregnant. Talking about death won’t make you dead.”

I think talking about mortality brings up some important conversations (even just with oneself) about the relative value of our day to day decisions. Interestingly enough, many of my postpartum books now overlap with my study of death. I recently read Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Briget Schulte and it had multiple mentions of how mortality was regarded over the years, and how that was reflected in how we approach our day to day lives, including our aggressive work-above-all work culture today. The logic is, if you think about your mortality to a normal moderate amount, you make choices that are more centered around your mortality. We aren’t talking about the “YOLO” ideology, but rather decisions such as ‘maybe you don’t need to take that extra late business call that’s not really mission critical in lieu of spending time with your loved ones’, and that kind of logic.

Oh that reminds me- I did recently finish a class through Mothering Arts about how to create a community supported postpartum space that I really enjoyed. It offered lots of insight in how to welcome in new mamas as well as community “grannies” and draw-in local professional women to offer their expertise to the moms. My only rub is that I want to create a larger scale space than that demographic (though not necessarily a large number of people at one time). I want to create a space (maybe a physical community shop) that welcomes everyone is to have discussions, seek community, find aid… almost something that mixes time banks, death cafes, postpartum meet-ups, with a part-time bartering system, all wrapped into a welcoming looking shop. I get inspired by places like HausWitch though my target audience is slightly different.

Obviously my long term goals are still being constructed, but I think one day I would like to own this type of shop with my sister (who is paving her career in graphic design/UX and my best friend (who is a social worker), offering classes and discussions, innovative tech, and community services centered around the biggest times of change (birth/postpartum, and death). We also want to raise families together so working together would give us the time and space to figure out how to make it all work. ❤

On the book front, I’m currently reading Witches of America by Alex Mar which I’m finding so inspiring. It’s not that I want to be a witch per se, but I love learning about different routes of beliefs and what draws people to them, and Mar explores this topic so well.

Anyway, as the colder months approach, I’m in the hibernation phase of life again. Lots of reading, snuggles with the little one, obsessions with soups, teas, and decaf lattes. My family and I are moving soon, which is a new adventure on its own because we are finally leaving Massachusetts, but is a lot of mental overload on how to move across multiple states (any advice is welcome). The move might be hugely impactful on my skin too because I think my condition gets worse in the fall due to a mold allergy (and fall here is pretty moldy!). I’m actually friggin’ psyched to be moving- but more on that another day.

 

all posts, community, mortality

let’s talk about death

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. First, look at this nifty, relevant journal that I had to buy for my future death doula training:

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And now back to the topic at hand.

So what is a doula?

I believe a doula is traditionally 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 called I Plan People’s Death For A Living, which 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.