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.

UPDATE: I received my certificate in the mail on July 10, 2017. It’s beautiful and included a handwritten note from Laura. Thanks for taking care of me, Momdoulary!

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!

 

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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.

***

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.

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.

Haunted

During the last several months I had been spending a lot of time in my dark place.

Every day and every time I’d walk by our fridge and see the photo taken of Petey in Vegas on Wedding Eve ’09 (the photo of him that everybody loves, because he looks so joyful and carefree and like he had a world full of fun and promise and discovery laid out before him), I was haunted by his last days; what they must have been like for him, and how he went out.

It was getting harder to remember things about him that came before February ’14. I had twenty two years of familiarity to draw from, yet I was programmed to sum up this beautiful man’s life based almost entirely upon his final four days: an unfair and tragic legacy, yet despite my constant attempts I just couldn’t shake this reflexive nose dive into oblivion.

This photo triggered grief, regret, pain, deep sadness and frustration — born out of love, but still raw and intensely depressing. A copy of this same photo sat in a hiding place in my car for over a year because I had to take it down from the clip on my sun visor. My husband had affectionately put it there as a way to keep his brother close, but it shattered my insides to see him there daily while repeatedly transporting the entirety of my brain back to February 22 – February 25, 2014.

Then two weeks ago I had a dream.

I was running water in a sink. My hands were wet and I was intent on washing something. I saw a figure behind my left shoulder and turned.

It took a second for my brain to register who it was. Petey looked just like he did in ’09, just like he did in that cursed picture.

Shocked to see him, I traversed the four feet that separated us and reached out to touch his arm, not sure if my fingertips would meet warm flesh or ghostly ectoplasm. Solid and alive! I threw my arms around his neck.

“We’ve missed you so much!” I stated, still clinging tightly, knowing he wouldn’t be there with me for long.

I wish I could remember his reply, but it’s enough to know that it was kind and inconsequential.

“Please come back and visit again, OK?” I pulled back slightly from his all-engulfing embrace and looked him in the eyes; eyes full of the life I feared I had forgotten.

“I will.”

Then I woke up, struck by the realness of it all. I felt joy for the first time in I don’t know how long. He was still with me.

The other day I fished Petey’s photo out of my driver’s side door and fastened it back up on the visor.

I am no longer stuck in that house in Fallon, Nevada, watching helplessly as his heart is ripped from his chest, and bullet meets cylinder, then barrel, then bone.

I still miss him terribly, but things have shifted.

Now I know I don’t have to be afraid anymore.

***

Untitled film emulsion, animal bone, ceramic, glitter

Untitled
film emulsion, animal bone, ceramic, glitter

Pet Cemetery Backpack: An Analog Animal Annal

NOTE: If viewing pet cemetery backpacks and the contents of pet cemetery backpacks brings you feelings of discomfort you don’t want to deal with at this time, stop reading now. Do not look at the photos contained within this post. Do not visit the Boulder City Pet Cemetery. Do not, under any circumstances, poke around unattended luggage of any kind. Cheers!

Saturday, June 6th, 2015.

Paul and I drove out to the off grid pet cemetery near Boulder City, NV. I made a beeline for the last known location of the mysterious, exhumed-but-still-zipped-up L.L.Bean backpack. There it was! But now it was unzipped…and empty?!?

Empty Grave

Empty Grave

Empty Backpack

Empty Backpack

Empty Duct Taped Blanket and Garbage Bag

Empty Duct Taped Blanket and Garbage Bag

The blanket and garbage bag bundle had been dragged and torn. Who had been wrapped up in there? The first clue presented as tufts of tan fur scattered around the parcel, the second an almost mummified scapula sitting on top of it.

Paul wandered off into the depths of the graveyard while I scanned the desert floor for signs of critter activity. A few minutes later he returned and commented on how bad it smelled downwind from where I stood. Assuming it wasn’t me, I asked him where he noticed it. We didn’t have to walk far before our little friend made himself/herself quite obvious.

(FINAL WARNING, GUYS!)

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!!!

We were using our Polaroid Spectra cameras and playing with a crazy filter/accessory kit on this fine day. That's why you get to see our little friend five more times (seven if you count double exposures).

We were using our Polaroid Spectra cameras and playing with a crazy filter/accessory kit on this fine day. That’s why you get to see our little friend five more times (seven if you count double exposures).

Portrait

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backpack9I wonder if this puppy’s humans ever come back to visit. I wonder what will remain of him/her when and if they do. I wonder what they’ll see and make of the fact that their little buddy is still riding the wheel of fortune, the circle of life, even in death.

On Smiling Through Pain

Same camera, same view, different chemistry. Sometimes it's the stuff we can't see that changes our perspective. -- The Building of Eternity, Palm Mortuary, Downtown Las Vegas

Same camera, same view, different chemistry. Sometimes it’s the stuff on the inside that changes our perspective. — The Building of Eternity, Palm Mortuary, Downtown Las Vegas

“Andrea, you can’t just smile your way through this one.”

(This was Andrew two weeks ago, when a collection of my family members were going through various health-related tests and catastrophes, and my fish’s eyeball was popping out of his head.)

“Andrea, when I came out to visit last time, your brother-in-law had just died and you didn’t say anything about it.”

(I’m paraphrasing Brian here, but you get it.)

“Andrea, you’re always smiling. I’ve never seen you unhappy…do you even swear?”

(Spoken by every person who has met me during the last ten years.)

 ***

Contrary to what you’ve just read, I believe I am improving when it comes to expressing myself in a more diverse fashion. Writing publicly about the personal has played a big part in this evolution: dipping a toe here and there periodically, then jumping in with both feet just last year. It’s cathartic, it’s important, and it’s why I branched out and started this goofy personal blog/photography project. I need to challenge myself to go and do. Frequently.

I enjoy working on my projects, but I also acknowledge that keeping busy can be used as a method of distraction. The reasons as to why you keep busy (and what you’re distracting yourself from) are your business, but I’ll share mine:

  • I am easily overcome by negative thoughts related to sloth and consumption. I feel compelled to create new content so I don’t feel like a waste of space and a drain on society.
  • I’m gonna die. You’re gonna die. Dead and gone forever. But the illusion of immortality is so goddamned seductive!
  • Somebody you know and love has died, or is gonna die. Maybe soon, maybe suddenly. And you are gonna miss them with all of your being. This is intense and heavy shit that breaks people, and I have people who depend on me, so I have to keep doing.
  • Time. Is. Running. Out.

I also fall into the category of people who will not unload a 15 minute laundry list of life’s nut knockers on anybody who casually throws out a “how are you?”. I’m just not comfortable with this because:

  • We all know that person who does it, and it usually involves an ex-mate or a crappy job situation that they just can’t seem to get over. As much as we try to sympathize or offer solutions, the song remains the same…for the next six years. Perhaps it gets to the point where we stop asking about the state of this person’s mental health, because they don’t seem to be making any progress, and the pity party that they throw for themselves whenever they have a captive audience at their disposal is sadder than a vegan at a Louisiana barbecue.
  • Maybe you’re sitting in my office about to enjoy a spa service. This is your time, and I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, even if we’re friends and would normally discuss this stuff over lunch.
  • Maybe you’re in Vegas on vacation. I don’t want to burden you with my issues when you’re on a fucking vacation.
  • Maybe I’ve been embodying a tightly-wound emotional H-bomb for days — walking the razor’s edge between keeping my composure while operating within an acceptable range of functionality and causing a nuclear event that Dr. Manhattan couldn’t even see coming. Sometimes thinning that veil even the tiniest bit is all it takes for the klaxons to sound and wartime Kleenex rationing to go into effect. And sometimes that scares me.

This can be frustrating for the earnest asker, I know. I’ve been the earnest asker! And I want to know or I wouldn’t ask! And I want you to trust me, in this matter and in everything! Because I care! (Does this mean we have a trust issue on our hands now? Shit.)

I’m still finding my way around this grief thing. It’s been almost 15 months since our family became one of those families – the families that lose one of their own to suicide – and I have no idea how this timeline is supposed to play out. We are all still so heartbroken and I have obligations: to keep an eye on those that I can, and to take care of them as best I can. I do my best and sometimes I fear that my best isn’t good enough.

I know that I’m deeply loved by numerous supportive individuals who care about me even if I don’t always verbally share my burden with them. People, please know that this knowledge has at times been the only thing I’ve had to light my way on darker days. You assist me in bearing the weight, whether your hernias realize it or not. You are important and appreciated. Thank you.

Vigil in Moab

Moab, Utah is beautiful; everyone says so. With the purist intentions, devotees call on the spirits of the red rock canyons and mesas, the blue skies and the Colorado River. I used to be right there with them, eyes as wide as saucers, breathing the air so fully I’d hoped I’d take a little bit of it home with me. Moab was otherworldly; a striking vortex of adventure, respite and awe.

But not anymore. Driving past the cliff walls, backed by Moby’s “Everloving”, we were on our way to visit someone who wouldn’t be there.

His body rests beneath the mound (as it has for one year now), the granite marker dutifully engraved with truth and lie. A fiction. I want to feel close to him again, to commune with memory, to find a glint of peace in the shadow, but these tasks prove impossible under the oppressive weight of trust gone so wrong.

Several yards away, a ragged American flag twists in the wind. We tend to his grave with eager hands and open eyes, painting monochromatic earth with reds, pinks, greens. “Just come with us,” I want to say.

Instead I make a promise…because here, now, that is the most and all I can do.

grave

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Across the road, this guy.

Across the road.

We keep vigil for hours on a day he shouldn’t have been alone. When it’s time, we leave Moab in our ruddy, city slicker dust. With each mile wedged between ourselves and that soulless chasm, my chest cavity loosens and expands accordingly. That night, sleep is deep and restorative. It is clear that this was necessary.

The missing is constant, these twelve months a temporal arc flash of loss and emotion. I’d give anything to have him back with us, with the hope I’d get to hold onto the wisdom that tells us not to squander one damn living second on this planet when we’re with the ones we love.

A peaceful sight from Lehi City Cemetery taken on my last day in Utah.

Found. — at Lehi City Cemetery, taken on my last day in Utah

*I realize you may not fully understand what or whom I’m writing about here. If you wish, please visit these posts on The Young Thumbs (a massage therapy blog of which I am a participant) dated 3/19/14, 5/29/14, 8/15/14 and 12/1/14 for reference. Thanks.