DEATH DOULA ALUA ARTHUR WANTS YOU TO LIVE YOUR BEST LIFE
The founder of Going With Grace knows dying peacefully is the secret to a better life.
– KEYS SOULCARE
Photograph by Anastasia Baranova.
Alua Arthur isn’t who you’d imagine when you hear the term “death doula.” The creator of Going With Grace, an end-of-life planning and training organization, is incredibly vibrant and, dare we say it, lively. Her smile is infectious, and her energy is as high as her vibrations. The contrast is a surprise because death is often associated with dark feelings and black clothing. Alua’s presence is a walking representation of her work: A dissolution of the myths around dying and comfort for the fear surrounding death. The self-proclaimed “recovering lawyer” is the first to tell you she doesn’t have all the answers. But, in this conversation with the community healer, it’s clear she has a whole lot of wisdom.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF?
I’m a daughter. I’m a partner. I’m a lover. I’m a friend. I’m a sister. I am hopeful. I’m joyful. I am a spark of the divine animating in this Black, Black body. I’m endlessly and insatiably curious about the human condition, which means that no matter where I go, I’m asking questions like, Who are you? What was that about? How did you come to this? What are you looking at?
I’m nosy. I’m curious about humankind. I’m curious about life overall, which also led me to death. I’m curious about death. And there are no answers, which is why [I like to say] there’s nothing to be found. But curiosity is enough to make me happy.
WHAT MAKES A LAWYER TRANSITION INTO DEATH WORK?
I went to law school because I wanted to change something, somehow. I’m righteous — really principled about the world and how I think humans should be with other humans. I worked at Legal Aid in domestic violence, welfare, unemployment, and nonprofit organizations, but it wasn’t working for me. I’m a terrible lawyer. Details are not my gem. I see the big picture much better and care so much about the individual. I get stuck talking about the cycles of violence and relationships rather than filling out the forms and checking off the boxes.
Depression bloomed, so I took a leave of absence from work and went to Cuba. I met a fellow traveler [on a bus ride] who had uterine cancer. We talked a lot about her life. I started asking about her disease, which was one of the first times she’d had a chance to talk about her fear of death. Since she was ill, whenever she’d talk about possibly dying from this disease, people [would] say, “Oh no, don’t say that. You’re going to get better.” They wouldn’t want her to think about the possibility, which was unfair since it was a possibility for her. I started feeling sad that she didn’t have anybody to talk to about these big existential questions. And then I realized most of us don’t have anybody to talk to about these big existential questions. During that bus ride, I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could have these conversations? And then I found death work.
WHAT IS THE MISSION BEHIND GOING WITH GRACE?
We exist to support people as they answer the question: What must I do to be at peace with myself so that I may live presently and die gracefully? No matter what the answer to that question is, we support people in doing so. For some people, it’s about handling their relationships and healing their relationships. Some people have deep spiritual questions about life and death. Other people have practical concerns about what’s undone in their lives. Some of those things are logistical. Some of those things are bigger questions like the desire to finish writing a book or to go to Machu Picchuor something of this sort. And some are social, like, who am I? What has my life been like? Who have I been to other people? So, no matter what the needs are, we’re supporting people in completing them.
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF A DEATH DOULA?
Death doulas work with dying and healthy people to support them to prepare for the eventual end of life. Death doulas are also helpful in cases of serious illness. It’s really useful for us to get our affairs in order because it takes up a lot of physical, mental, and emotional space to [get your life together.] How often do you hear somebody say, “I gotta get my life figured out?” You can start by getting your affairs in order by [assigning] a healthcare agent. Who do you want to make your decisions for you in the event that you can’t? What are your desires for life support?
WHAT ARE SOME OTHER QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER FOR END-OF-LIFE?
What do you want done with your body after you die? [It’s more than] being buried or cremated. Think about your possessions. What do you want done with your sentimental items? Who would look after your dependents, including disabled adult dependents and pets? Did you gather your important autobiographical information and data like your birth certificate, your social security card, or your divorce papers?
But, you also have an opportunity to look at life. What have you enjoyed about living? What accomplishments are you most proud of? If you could pass on words to future generations, what would it be? What has been hard for you? What’s been easy for you? What smell from your childhood makes you feel most alive? Things like that. You think about your life as a whole.
HOW HAS YOUR PERSPECTIVE ON DEATH, LOSS, AND GRIEF CHANGED?
My work has shown me that I’m still very much alive. You are living up until the time you are dead. Even in the hospital, you are still a full human being with cares, concerns, fears, love, pleasure, pain, and hope. Death is a constant reminder about how human we actually are. It’s as mysterious and profound as birth. Societally, we shun death and make it bad or wrong because it’s painful and hard, but it deserves the same sanctity as birth.
WHAT HAS SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT DEATH WORK?
It’s not sad all the time. There’s so much laughter. There’s so much love at the end of life. There’s so much life at the end of life. People are most themselves. You get the best of people and you get the worst of people as they are dying. It can be beautiful. To watch somebody complete a life in a way that honors them is stunning. There’s plenty of pain, I don’t wanna discount that. But it’s not the only thing. There’s plenty of joy, there’s plenty of color, and there’s plenty of life.
How slowly people seem to be coming around to the idea of dying is surprising, too. It’s hard, but just because you talk about it, doesn’t mean you’re going to die [sooner.] Don’t be afraid of having questions about death. You’ll learn so much about your life, and it will support you in having a better death when that time eventually comes.
WHAT IS YOUR HIGHEST VISION FOR YOUR WORK?
My highest vision is that we no longer have to teach anybody because we have functional death literacy. I want to work myself out of a job and be in a world where we all live in a consistent relationship with death and dying. We know how to close down a bank account, and Facebook won’t make you jump through all these hoops to close somebody’s profile. Normalizing two months off for bereavement leave instead of three days with mental health support.
WHAT IS YOUR ULTIMATE VISION FOR YOURSELF?
I want to arrive on my deathbed feeling so satiated with life. I get there, and I think, “Yes, baby girl. We did it. We left nothing. We did it.”
WHAT’S YOUR MESSAGE FOR THE WORLD AS A LIGHTWORKER?
I’m one of 7.4 billion lightworkers on the planet. We all got light. Some of that light is hidden under pain, trauma, and systemic issues, but we are all lightworkers.
Death is a reminder of how much you’re alive. What do you want your legacy to be? Share your message in the comments!