I am not new to death. I’ve been with others (human and animal) during their passing. I understand death as a transition, not an end. And I have known that my 14-year-old dog, Ella, has fewer days ahead of her than behind. But there comes a day when the vet says, “there is a large mass on her liver,” and the calculation changes. The day is not a given, but the event is infinitely more real now. My beloved companion of the last ten years is dying.
That is not the only death here; there is looming death all around me. From my 90+-year-old mother to my neighbors on both sides who are in various and real stages on the path. In my own life, there are a lot of “little deaths” — peri-menopause, leaving a high-paying, high-stress career, gray hair, osteoarthritis… age… early steps on the path. I am the one supporting others in death right now, but it’s impossible not to see my own mortality in a new, stark light.
So I sit here and think about how to approach this, what to do. I am fortunate that I am teaching online and able to dedicate a lot of time to Ella and the others in my life, including myself, who are going through this transition. I am aware that I need a new level and kind of self-care so I can intentionally lean into this new season.
I have spent a large part of the last seven days since Ella’s first trip to the vet crying. I have also begun to understand what this path will need to look like for me, and part of that is processing the pain and the very tangible parts of death for a being you love dearly.
In what can only be the Universe guiding me on this journey, I also start a death doula program at the University of Vermont tomorrow. This is an eight-week program that focuses on, well, death. I’ve been silently eyeing this program for a year or so and signed up on a whim in December when I left my job at Amazon. Even then I realized I was entering a new season, and death was going to be a very real part of that.
Part of intentionality for me, feeling the feels, is making a very conscious choice to enter into the death process with a ferocious interest. I want to feel every part of this, and I want to know/understand it to the absolute best of my ability. And so I begin this strange tangent of my life; this next chapter is apparently steeped in death.
And I’m good with that. I am not afraid of death. I know there is a strange joy and grace in the death process for everyone involved. I also understand that for me, part of the process is to write, and so this blog is turning into that part of the process, at least for a while. I was gifted with the ability to research, process and write during my time at Antioch. Dick Couto taught me to face the fieldwork music, listen to it, and then report back with compassionate objectivity. Paul Stoller gave me the ethnographic lens and modeled the fearlessness to talk about all the things Western people usually like to keep silent. And Barbara Mossberg held the space for me. All of these people understand mortality on a deeply personal level. I hope this can be a tribute to them and the others who have taught me not to fear death.
I do not intend any of this to be sad, morbid, or ominous — I want this to be an investigation in the true Buddhist sense, with beginner’s mind. I held my father in my arms when he left this plane of existence. That was one of the most beautiful, profound experiences of my life… and joyful. There is grace in pain — a deep beautiful understanding of what it means to be human on this earth. To quote the wise words of Alan Anderson, “I will abandon the dull state of believing death comes at my convenience.”
Thank you for being here with me. I hope you find the solace I am looking for.