Death Doula Training & End Of Life Class, Round 2

Online Death Doula Training

I grossly underestimated how involved an online class could be. This became apparent within two weeks of starting the 5-in-1 Online Death Doula Course at mourningdoula.com. Thankfully I could play catch-up a few months into the five month-long course once I restructured my work schedule, but I still needed a full day every week to complete each module that was released every Sunday.

This course covered content including the history of embalming, laws, creative and traditional methods of disposition, home funerals/viewings, and the physical signs of death’s approach. Each module consisted of YouTube videos, podcasts, articles, assignments, forums and a quiz. Some of the lessons were longer than others, and some were very heavy, requiring deeper thought and introspection.

I learned a lot about all of these topics, and the course forced me to network with funeral industry professionals in real life – something I hadn’t realized I would enjoy as much as I did. It turns out they like talking about what they do as much as I like listening to them!

Nevada doesn’t have a state-recognized certification in place for death doulas (most states don’t), but Momdoulary (the company behind mourningdoula.com) offers their own certification. To acquire the certificate, students were required to complete every module, get passing grades on every quiz, pass a mid-term and final exam (the final took me over two hours to complete), and take food handling and infectious disease control courses through two different online administrators. I took my final exam at the beginning of March 2017 with the understanding that our exams would be reviewed mid-March, then we would receive instructions on how to submit our other credentials for certification. A few weeks went by without any updates, then the students in my class received an email from the woman who runs the school, letting us know due to financial issues she had to lay off some staff and our certificates would take longer to process. This was several weeks ago, and to my knowledge none of us have heard anything from her since. I’m hoping to receive my certificate (I did pay $1000 for the course), but honestly even if I don’t, I still feel like I got a lot out of the curriculum. I only mention the unfortunate aspects of my experience because some of you have asked me for my opinion on this course, and I can’t be anything less than honest about it. I do wish Laura and her Momdoulary team the best.

Opening To The Mystery Live Workshop, Round Two

Immediately after submitting my final exam to Momdoulary, I took Lauren Cates’ three day live workshop Opening to the Mystery: Presence in Caregiving at the End of Life for the second time. I had originally taken it a year prior, and blogged about it here.

The first time I took it I was still processing my brother-in-law’s 2014 suicide and the shitstorm resulting from other people involved, so my focus was on the emotional toll that death and dying takes on every one of us. Because of the small class size (usually between 6 – 10 students), things can potentially get emotionally intimate very quickly – of course this also depends greatly on the personalities of the people in the classroom. 2016’s class was emotionally raw and vulnerable from the get-go, and I was right there with it.

The workshop’s exercises and general format in 2017 were almost identical to 2016’s, but my experience was so different! The class varied in that two men enrolled in 2016, but only women were enrolled in 2017. 2017’s class represented more students in the 45 – 60 age range, and 2016’s was more 25 – 40. Both classes were mostly made up of massage therapists, with most students having some experience with elder care, oncology or hospital massage, and/or hospice work. Experience levels ran the gamut – both classes contained fairly new massage therapists as well as seasoned veterans. I provide these stats as reference points, but I honestly don’t know if the comparisons I’m about to make really have anything to do with them.

2017’s class was (with a few exceptions) less outwardly emotional than 2016’s. I know I was more reserved. This came from a few places: When I perceive a guarded stance from people in a group, it’s my tendency to sit back and observe. I had also done these exercises before, so I wasn’t on edge, waiting for the surprisingly crushing impact of a deathy visualization. I felt more emotionally stable, I suppose, because I knew what was coming…or so I thought.

I went into class with an open mind, ultimately hoping to fear death less. As the workshop went on, I realized with razor-sharp clarity a deathbed regret threat looming on the horizon: “I wish I’d spent more time enjoying my own company. I wish I’d been kinder to myself. I wish I’d loved myself more.”

THEN LIFE CHANGED.

It’s one thing to have a loose grasp on these ideas, these missed opportunities, the wasted years; the misshapen aura of what you think you’ll hate about yourself when you’re out of time. But I had never seen it so clearly as I did during day two and three of Lauren’s class. I guess I was ready to feel that this time around.

And so I began walking a new path at age 38, one where it’s so much easier to respect and forgive myself. One where every day isn’t filled with non-stop you’re-so-fucking-stupid! and why-the-fuck-would-you-do-that-you-dumbass?. If some old programming pokes its way in, I see it and we have a little chat, because chats lead to getting to know a good friend a little better.

Massage therapist or not, whoever you are, you should pay the $400 and take Opening To The Mystery. I guarantee you’ll walk away a changed person…with a certificate!

 

Three Years

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Words can’t do justice to the memory of my brother-in-law. To this day, he is the greatest person I’ve ever been lucky enough to know. His love was a gift.

Since losing him, year three has been the least searing and jagged thus far. I’m sure it has everything to do with adjusting to the new normal: no longer in denial, expectations of seeing him trail off. The free fall of unmatched and unfamiliar grief has ceased, as clumsy wings take me to places accessible only by way of the chasm.

I’m still so proud of him, and I hope he’d be proud of me, too. I still miss him. I believe he deserved better in life, and in death. I believe most of us walk around with the abstract idea that death is something that happens to other people, and other people’s people.

I’m still learning many things (heavy and wonderful things), and I swear that as long as I have these desperate clotted feathers that struggle to carry the weight of the day: I will learn something tomorrow, too.

My Death Doula Training Journey: Why

I’m a few weeks into the 5-in-1 death doula online training course at mourningdoula.com. I’m really enjoying it so far (even if I’ve been busy and distracted and I’m a week behind in my studies), and it’s something I’ve wanted to pursue for a few years now.

A recent assignment required me to describe how I hoped to improve the world through my newfound skills. I thought I’d share what I wrote here.

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I laid my hand on Tommy’s arm, shrouded in formal wool, solid, immobile. I wasn’t scared to touch, I was scared of how I would feel if I didn’t.

After Petey died I saw him twice, but I didn’t touch. I was in shock. I knew I needed to see him, but I was unaware of how important making physical contact would be to me long-term. I let fear and uncertainty dictate my actions, and within the weeks following his funeral I regretted my lack of mindfulness; the squandering of my last chance to connect with someone who meant so much to me.

As a massage therapist and esthetician I touch people for a living. I’m a big-time hugger. Why should the importance of touch vacate my genetic makeup when a loved one died?

I truly believe if I had a death doula in my corner I would’ve felt comfortable and confident enough to touch Petey at the funeral home, through the blue cotton sheet the first time, or over his clothing in his casket the second time. I wouldn’t have subconsciously talked myself out of it. I would’ve felt that if someone with more knowledge than myself had given me permission to do a very meaningful and reasonable thing, I wouldn’t have messed anything up by doing it. I would’ve been aware of options, possibilities and regrets.

At Tommy’s funeral I guess I served as my own death doula. I instructed myself to rise from the pew, traverse the entire length of the center aisle, converse with his parents who I hadn’t met until that day, approach the casket and share a moment with my friend, my hand on his arm. I spoke to him with my mind and heart, and despite the surreal experience of losing someone so young so suddenly, I walked away feeling calm and grounded.

With my death doula training I hope to support others in their expressions of love and their journeys for peace, and to serve as an advocate during these hard times.

Closing Time: The Beat Coffeehouse

Cleverly-named specials. Quirky events. Friends behind the counter who knew my name.

The Beat was the independent Vegas coffeehouse that reminded me of my favorite hangouts in Rochester, NY. I think my first visit was in 2011, back when my friend Tiffany and I would grab lunch after we hit the neighborhood farmers market. That was also when you could park on the street for free.

It wasn’t long before I began fantasizing about opening a tiny spa office inside Emergency Arts (the building that housed The Beat). The former exam rooms (the building had been a JC Penney, then a medical clinic) were the perfect size to allow me to serve the community, one relaxing spa treatment at a time. My dream became a reality when I signed my lease in November 2012, and I’ve been running Feetish Spa Parlor ever since.

In July 2016 we tenants were told that The Beat would be closing at the end of September, and the 1st floor tenants (galleries, studios, pretty eyelashes) would need to leave to make room for a new restaurant that would be taking over the majority of the space. Luckily Feetish is located on the 2nd floor and for now she’s able to remain where she is, but I’m still saddened (to a surprising degree, actually) by the loss of The Beat and friends.

I wanted to explore the vacant 1st floor before the wrecking crew came in to gut and rebuild the entire thing. The other afternoon Paul, Jim and I went creepin’, and here’s what we saw…

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Dolled Up In St. Thomas

This year I wanted to have a creepy adventure on my birthday. The formerly-submerged-beneath-Lake-Mead ghost town of St. Thomas, Nevada was at the top of my list, and its close proximity to Las Vegas made it an ideal day trip destination for a costumed birthday girl and her nudist photographer friend.

St. Thomas was founded in 1865 and became home to about 500 residents, complete with farms and businesses. In 1938 the town was abandoned as Lake Mead rose following the construction of the Hoover Dam. In recent years the ruins of St. Thomas became visible as Lake Mead’s water level dropped, leaving sand, shells and broken buildings behind for us to explore.

The photos that follow were taken by myself (with my Galaxy S6) and my frequent adventure partner, Jon Miller. I hope you feel like you were there with us. Enjoy!

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We drove through the Valley of Fire and made a quick left down a gravel road. Eventually we ended up here, overlooking a 2.5 mile hiking loop that wove its way through the ruins of St. Thomas.

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The path was made up of sand and thousands (millions?) of white shells.

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A pop of color in a barren landscape.

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Critter fur caught in a huge, dead piece of wood.

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The tallest of the ruins.

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Jon on the prowl.

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Collection

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Time for school!

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Inside view of the school.

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Of course we brought props!

The following photos (minus the final three) were snapped by Jon. Enter the Creepy Doll!

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Play time!

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Then, as if my birthday hadn’t been action-packed enough, my thoughtful friend surprised me with this…

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Awwww!

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Jon had miraculously packed all of this AND cold Coke AND snacks in his backpack…and I had no idea!

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Jon in his natural state. (Not surprising in the least.)

Two Weeks Of Death Can Change A Life

The last week of February and the first week of March were intense.

We spent a week in Utah, visiting family and Petey’s grave. I don’t know what to say that I haven’t already said; only that acceptance is setting in, but if you confuse that with numbness or complacency, you’d be wrong.

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Grave Flowers, Moab, UT

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Mound and Cliffs, Moab, UT

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Roses, Moab, UT

As we made our way through Southern Utah we stopped at a few points of interest. Monument Valley did not disappoint.

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Sunrise at Mexican Hat, UT

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Spine, Monument Valley, UT

Then, back in Vegas, I was honored to spend the week with Lauren and Kerry from Lighthold Massage Therapy. They are massage therapists who teach courses about massage therapy for oncology patients (presently undergoing treatment as well as those who have been cancer-free for years). I took Oncology Massage 101 with them last summer and it heightened my awareness regarding client comfort and health issues in a big way.

When the weekend came around, Kerry flew home and Lauren stuck around to teach what I call “the deathy class” — Opening to the Mystery: Presence in Caregiving at the End of Life. To most, it probably sounds like a class about hospice massage…and that’s part of it. But it’s so much more.

Five other participants and myself followed Lauren’s lead through exercises in loss: loss of freedom, loss of faculties, loss of companionship, loss of touch. The course was three days long, and each day we could see more of each other as the space we created was tested and proven to be safe. We shared our doubts, fears, and plans; we shared our stories.

Friends asked me what the course was “about”. I told them I couldn’t sum it up in words but that I would try my best in a blog post. Opening to the Mystery was profound in that it provided a safe place, lead by a safe human, where the wisdom in truthfully admitting that we don’t know everything was embraced and celebrated. Centered around the impermanence of life, Lauren encouraged us to shift our perspectives from longing to loving, and from future to present.

If you think you’re up to it, I think you should enroll. Humility and vulnerability are prerequisites if you want to get the most out of the experience. Even if you’re mostly there, by day three you’ll be a changed person.

I’m not sure where my career as a massage therapist, esthetician and nail tech will take me in the years to come, but I can tell you my practice is deeper and more fulfilling because of journeys like these. Thank you.

 

Let’s Talk About Sad Things

I haven’t written about my husband’s brother’s suicide in a while. Sometimes I’m afraid that people may assume my silence means I no longer care — that I’m over it.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I think of Petey constantly. For two years, not a day has passed when I haven’t heard his voice or seen his face in my mind. His absence is still felt intensely and immensely, and sometimes the pain is so exquisite I have no idea what to do with the sorrow I feel.

On the home front, living with someone who’s lost someone this close to them is a situation I never appreciated before I found myself here. It is a serious responsibility, at times delicate, never without the desire to bear the entire weight of this grief.

I still despise the way he was treated by the person who was supposed to love him.

I have days when I think “Damn. Petey was the first of us to experience death. What is that even like?” I’ve become an activist for suicide awareness who’s constantly wondering what’s the point of living. The best answer I can come up with right now is that I’m determined to kick life’s ass until it kicks mine.

24 Photos From New York: An Analog Annal

This November I spent a week hanging out with family and friends in Rochester and Buffalo, New York. Photography-wise, I purposely left my DSLR at home so I would be forced to use the Polaroid Spectra and 600 I had packed.

This post includes shots from Holy Sepulchre Cemetery (Rochester), Mount Hope Cemetery (Rochester), Thomas E. Burger Funeral Home (Hilton), University of Rochester, Eastman Kodak (Rochester), Forest Lawn Cemetery (Buffalo), and the abandoned aqueduct and subway tunnels of Rochester. I’m really happy with how they turned out. Enjoy!

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Double Exposure Inside the Christ Our Light Mausoleum at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery

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Double Exposure of My Grandparents’ Marker at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery

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Mom at Grandma and Grandpa’s Grave in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery

Images from Mount Hope Cemetery:

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Doug Showing Dad the Horse Drawn Hearse at Thomas E. Burger Funeral Home

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Outside an Old U of R Tunnel, Expired Film, Photo by Deena Viviani

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Tunnel Window Figure, U of R Campus, Expired Film

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Inside the U of R Tunnel, Expired Film

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Tunnel Cat, U of R, Expired Film

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Double Exposure, George Eastman’s Monument, Kodak Park

Images from Forest Lawn Cemetery:

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Abandoned Subway Tour

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Abandoned Subway

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Double Exposure Abandoned Subway and Arch

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Precarious Walkway at the Aqueduct

Really Nice Book Reviews: Asking, Teaching & Sex Researching

Here are some audio books I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to on Audible.

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Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

Packed with stories from the early days of established sex research through modern laboratory adventures, Bonk keeps things moving at a well-lubricated clip.

I won’t give away too much, but if you want to find out exactly where a pig’s clitoris is located, or if you’re dying to find out if renowned sex researcher Alfred Kinsey really did insert a toothbrush into his urethra (bristles first), Bonk is the book for you.

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The Natty Professor: A Master Class on Mentoring, Motivating, and Making It Work! by Tim Gunn

My sister used to watch Project Runway religiously, so most of my PR viewing has occurred by her side. I may have seen as many as six complete episodes over the years — not for lack of appreciation, but more lack of the ability to sit still amidst distraction for any period of time. Anyway, watching Tim Gunn keep it real on PR was always the best thing about the show. He was honest, helpful, sensitive and kind. He didn’t kiss anyone’s ass, and when he gave criticism it was always with the best intentions. He wanted the designers to learn, and he knew he had to be honest with them if this was going to happen.

In this book, Tim explains why he takes the approach he takes. He talks about different teachers he’s known over the years, about teaching techniques that work best and about the ones that leave room for improvement. He discusses his own journey with candor and humor, and I just can’t help but love the guy.

I’m not a classroom teacher, but I write online massage therapy courses and I volunteer with a teen horror fiction writing club. I learned a lot from this book that I can easily apply in these settings. Tim’s tips on providing honest, kind feedback are top notch!

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The Art of Asking or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer

I wrote a longer review of this audio book for The Young Thumbs, but I’ll highlight some key points here, too.

Amanda (best known for her music, her time in the Dresden Dolls, her marriage to author Neil Gaiman, and her hugely successful crowdfunding campaign with which she produced an album) talks about fear, connection, honesty, vulnerability, art, music, death, illness, depression, meanies, love and life. Her words are accessible and brought me to tears more than once. But you know what makes this audio book version even more kickass?

The narration and music.

To hear Amanda reading her own words is a pleasure, and the songs dispersed throughout her narration are perfectly chosen and span her career. If you sign up for Audible for 30 days just to get your free audio book, make it The Art of Asking.