Illustration: Lauren Tamaki
In 2012, Alua Arthur left her legal career to become a death doula. The problem was, she had no idea such a job existed. “All I knew was there had to be a better way to support one of the loneliest and most isolating experiences a person can have,” she says. Now 42, she is a leader in the field of death work and has guided thousands of people and their loved ones through the dying process. She has also trained hundreds of other death doulas through her company, Going With Grace, and is on the board of directors of the National End-of-Life Doula Alliance (NEDA).
This year, as COVID has forced so many Americans to deal with sudden loss and their own mortality, Arthur has been inundated with new clients and students as well as broader questions about how to deal with the constant heartbreak. She lives in Los Angeles. Here’s how she does it.
In her morning routine:
I usually get up around 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. I am a night owl, and it helps me in my job because people tend to die between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. I do not know why ; there are a lot of different theories about it. But I am most awake and alert at this time. The hours of witchcraft. I love to burn my incense at 4 a.m. and greet the crows.
Most mornings I meditate right after waking up. After meditating, I fill my canister with a gallon of water and exercise. I need to sweat and move. I like anything where the instructor says, “Faster! Go! Only ten more seconds! Since we can’t do group fitness in person right now, I have to recreate it in my house. It doesn’t work quite the same as I’m going to stop and eat some snacks in the middle of a video. But I try. Exercise and meditation are the things that keep me sane and grounded. They are the baseline.
On the attractiveness of end-of-life care:
Being around death made me more honest. I see that what we do not say chokes us as we die. People always think they have more time, and when they realize they don’t have it, they regret things they didn’t do. I’m trying to do what I feel like doing right now. And if that means eating White Cheddar Cheetos for breakfast, I will. This is what I did this morning. I won’t always be able to taste delicious things, so let me do that now.
On the management of its customers:
I don’t accept more than one dying client at a time because I want to be on call for them. Whatever they need, I will. When a client who is only a few weeks or months away from me for the first time comes to me, we’ll go through the long list of things to consider in death and death, and then create a plan. This is usually done over the phone. Then I go visit them, I get my hands on them, I really see what their physical condition is and I see what kind of support they have.
I continue to visit them every week or so until their condition begins to deteriorate rapidly, and then I visit more often. I may be there when they die, and if I am not, I will come and sit with their family or their caregivers afterwards until the funeral home arrives. I can also help with practical deals – possessions, accounts, life insurance, documents. It’s exhausting for a family to have to think about it while they are also grieving, and I am equipped to help. I’m going to sit down with the insurance companies, make the funeral arrangements, all that.
Beyond those who are imminently dying, I often have multiple clients who require end-of-life planning consultations. I can take on two at the same time. It could be someone who just went to hospice care and it doesn’t look so bad yet, or someone who has just been diagnosed and wants to prepare.
To relax after an intense day:
I’m going to drink wine and go out with a lover. I go out dancing until 5 in the morning. Sometimes I just want to cut my brain off after a long day, and the best way to do that is to hang out with friends and people who tickle me. But it’s also good to spend a lot of time alone, which is the flaw these days. I like the silence.
By becoming a doula of death:
I have spent most of my career in legal services in Los Angeles, working with victims of domestic violence. Then there were big budget cuts, and I got stuck doing paperwork in the basement of the courthouse. I was already depressed and exhausted, but it turned into clinical depression. So I took time off and traveled to Cuba. While I was there I met a German woman who had uterine cancer and was on a bucket list trip. We have talked a lot about his illness and death. She hadn’t been able to discuss many of these things before, because no one in her life left room for her to talk about her death. Instead, they would say, “Oh, don’t worry. You will be better. I came back from this trip thinking I wanted to be a therapist who worked with dying people.
I applied to schools to become a therapist, but in the meantime my brother-in-law got very sick. So I packed my bags and spent two months in New York with him. This experience gave me a lot of clarity on all the things we could do better in end-of-life processes. It was so isolating and I didn’t understand why. Everyone is dying, so why does he feel so lonely? After that, I did a death doula program in Los Angeles called Sacred Crossings, and then I founded my company, Going With Grace.
At the end of his career as a lawyer (and a regular salary):
It was not a difficult decision to quit my job as a lawyer. The hard part had more to do with identity and what success means. I was born in Ghana and we all grew up to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. So I was going against the expectations of society and parental expectations. It was also difficult to be broke for a long time. My student loans were in arrears. I spent a lot of nights lying on my mom’s couch wondering how I was going to make things work. If my friends went out they had to pay for me, otherwise I couldn’t join them. To support myself while I was starting my business, I worked part-time in a hospice and funeral home.
Eventually, I started to run small workshops on end-of-life planning. I charged $ 44 for people to get together and learn how to fill out the necessary paperwork. Now I have my own doula training programs. I have about 100 students at the moment, all online.
On the invoicing of its services:
I have to navigate financial conversations very frankly. Part of the challenge is that our society doesn’t see the financial value of having someone who is kind and supportive. Being able to keep that much compassion space when someone is dying is a skill. He must be highly paid.
Living with bereavement:
I am constantly grieving with and for my clients and their families all the time. There is no solution. I have to be present with my feelings and let them overwhelm me no matter what expression they take. If I try to close this part of myself, it becomes much more difficult to function in everyday life. Mourning does not always seem to cry. Sometimes it feels like anger, promiscuity, or eating it all under the sun. Like all things, it is temporary.
On how COVID has changed his job:
We have to rely much more on technology and distance communication. There is also much more interest in the Death Doula training program. Death is on the minds of a lot of people, and I’ve seen a lot more people start planning for their end of life – mostly healthy people in their 40s with young children. A lot of people have seen young people die suddenly, and it changed their perspective.
On its own end-of-life plan:
I would like to be outside or near the windows. I want to watch the sunset for the last time, and I want to have the people I love around me, talk quietly, so that I know they have reunited after I left. I want to have a soft blanket and a pair of socks because I hate it when I have cold feet. I want to smell the incense and the amber nag champa. And I want to hear the sound of flowing water, like a stream. I would like to take advantage of all these senses for the last time. And when I die, I want everyone to applaud. Like, “Good job. You did it.”
I want my funeral to be outside, and I want all of my jewelry to be arranged. When the guests come in, they take a piece and put it on. I want my body to be wrapped in a shroud of raw orange and pink silk. They will play Stevie Wonder – “I will always love you” – and everyone will eat a lot of food and drink whiskey, mezcal and red wine. There will be colorful Gerber daisies everywhere, and they will take me to sunset. And when they put my body in the car, the bass will fall to the music, and there will be some kind of pyrotechnics. Hope my guests have fun, dance, cry and kiss. And then I want them to leave with my jewelry.