How Thinking About Death Can Change Your Life | Alua Arthur

Alua ArthurWhat if thinking about death was actually one of the most powerful ways to feel more alive, be more present and embrace every opportunity to live more fully?

It sounds paradoxical, but leaning into our mortality may be essential for living authentically and vibrantly.

As a culture, we avoid talking about death at all costs. We see it as morbid, taboo, only to be whispered about in hushed tones. And the actual experience of being a part of someone’s last moments, we don’t want to consider it. 

Yet my guest today, Alua Arthur, has experienced firsthand how embracing the reality of death can positively transform how we live. Alua is a death doula, someone who serves as a guide through the experience of dying, death and the aftermath. She’s the founder of Going with Grace, an organization that aims to redefine how we approach end-of-life experiences.

But, oddly, she spent much of her career as a lawyer, before transitioning into this work in search of deeper connection and meaning, having experienced death and loss around her early in life, becoming aware of how it changes people and how differently we might experience it, and how acknowledging can profoundly change the way we live

Her book, Briefly Perfectly Human: Making an Authentic Life by Getting Real About the End, shares wisdom on getting real about the transient nature of life in order to craft an authentic existence filled with meaning. Through her deeply personal stories and actionable advice, Alua opens our eyes to a powerful mindset shift. She guides us to live fully in the present, die with more peace and grace when the time comes, and connect more deeply with others through mortality’s unifying lens.

You can find Alua at: Website | Instagram | Episode Transcript

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photo credit: Karen Pride


Episode Transcript:

Alua Arthur: [00:00:00] I think the fear of the unknown is a big part of the reason why we fear death. But also I think we fear talking about it, is that it evidences to others that perhaps we don’t have any control, and most of us are walking around earth like we got everything under control. But I don’t know anything that’s going on. I’m just doing my best. Minute by minute. You know, I think that people actually do want to talk about it. I think culturally we don’t make space for it.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:24] So what if thinking about death was actually one of the most powerful ways to feel more alive, to be more present, to embrace every opportunity, to live more fully? It sounds paradoxical, but leaning into our mortality may be essential for living more authentically and vibrantly. As a culture, we avoid talking about death at all costs. We see it as morbid taboo, only to be whispered about in hushed tones, if ever, and the actual experience of being a part of someone’s last moments. We don’t even want to consider it yet. My guest today, Alua Arthur, has experienced firsthand how embracing the reality of death can positively transform how we live. Alua is a death doula, someone who serves as a guide through the experience of dying, death, and the aftermath. And she’s the founder of Going With Grace, an organization that aims to redefine how we approach end-of-life experiences. But oddly, she spent much of her career as a lawyer before that, before transitioning into this work in search of deeper connection and meaning. Having experienced death and loss around her early in life, and becoming aware of how it changes people and how and how differently we might experience it, and how acknowledging it can profoundly change the way we live. Her book, ‘Briefly, Perfectly Human’, shares wisdom on getting real about the transient nature of life in order to craft an authentic existence filled with meaning. Through deeply personal stories and actionable advice, Alua opens our eyes to a powerful mindset shift. She guides us to live more fully in the present, to die with more peace and grace when the time comes, and connect more deeply with others through Mortality’s unifying lens. So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


[00:02:19] There’s certainly two overarching curiosities of mine. One is really just exploring the notion of the work that you do, and also just how we talk about or don’t talk about the process of dying in Western culture. But also there’s this other curiosity which is just you as we had this conversation, the professional work that you do is as a death doula, and we’ll go into what that is. And but this is not how you started into your sort of like, professional life of contribution. You were in the world of law, in legal aid, and you made this pretty profound pivot into what you’re doing now, which really raises my curiosity about what happened that sort of like led to this really big transition.


Alua Arthur: [00:03:02] Depression happened, being uncertain about what I was here for, what my life was about, what the point of any of this was. That’s what happened. I’d been practicing law for almost a decade at Legal Aid, and for all intents and purposes, it’s work that should have brought me profound meaning and purpose in my life. But I still felt really adrift. It had been a time where I’d been just trying to find my way. I moved from practice area to practice area, trying to find a fit, and I got really burnt out. Not only was I struggling to find a fit, but I was also struggling to find any meaning in butting up against systems that seemed to be set and systems that didn’t seem to be supporting the people that they were intended to support. And it worked. Real number, I’d say, on my spirit and certainly on my mental health. And I was diagnosed with a clinical depression. And during that time I went to Cuba, where I met a fellow traveler on a bus. And we started talking a lot about life and death. And I thought, wow, one day everybody’s going to die. I’m going to die. These people on this bus are going to die. She’s going to die. And I started to wonder if whether or not the life that I had led thus far would have been good enough for me. If the depression is what killed me, and the answer was a resounding no. And through viewing myself on my deathbed through the lens of my mortality, was I able to start realizing that I needed to make a massive shift, that the life that I was living wasn’t working with work being at the center of that life. And so we made a shift. We made a big shift.


Jonathan Fields: [00:04:36] It’s really interesting also, because of all the paths that you could have chosen in law, legal aid would sort of like qualify from the outside looking as like, oh, this is like one of the noble paths. This is one of the parts of it where like, you know, like you’re doing the work on behalf of other people, you’re trying to do good, you’re trying to actually really make a difference. And yet for you, it sounds like it was less about frustration with that, but more about the bureaucracy within which you had to operate, that your ability to actually see the work that you want to do and feel in some way that like the system within which you worked, wasn’t allowing you to do it.


Alua Arthur: [00:05:08] Absolutely. I chose Legal Aid because I thought somehow I could support in making a difference. I’ve always been empathetic to a fault, to my own fault at some point, and I saw the immense amount of suffering in the world and also in this country. And I thought, well, I can use my my skills, my brain to see if I can do something about it. And I wasn’t able to. And granted, I may have had a bit of a let’s see what we can do about the world. Let’s fix everything complex. I think growing up, the child of evangelical Christian missionaries that were on a mission to save as many people as they could for Jesus really probably worked in my psyche in some capacity to see if I could help make things a little bit better, and we weren’t able to do that very well. I wasn’t able to do that very well at Legal Aid, but also the systems of oppression were so insidious that it would take nothing short of scrubbing it all and starting over before any real change could happen. Despite all the hard work that people do at Legal aid and in legal services, I don’t want to discount that because it’s really important work. It just wasn’t working for me.


Jonathan Fields: [00:06:08] So when you’re starting to sort of like knock up against this wall and there’s something that you want to do and you literally just cannot do it. So the meaning is going away, the sense of purpose that you hope you derive from it, it just it isn’t there because you can’t get access to it. It’s like you can almost see it out there, but you can’t touch it. And what you’re describing, I feel like so many people have their version of this story, and yet they kind of put their head down and they keep on keeping on and never make a change. And for you, you reach basically like a point where you said, like, I just can’t keep up with this. But I’m curious. Also, law in particular is one of these fields, as are so many other professions where you invest a huge amount of money, of time, of resources in building this path, and then your tenure is in. And so many people describe it as like, well, I have so much sunk into this that no matter how I’m feeling, I couldn’t possibly walk away. So I’m more curious also about like this moment where you decide, like, I actually need to make this happen and what goes through your mind and what steps you started to take to make that transition. It actually.


Alua Arthur: [00:07:17] Happened. From this perspective effortlessly, although at the time there was a lot of effort that went into it. I’d been transferred to what I affectionately called the Dungeon, which was a self-help center in the Inglewood courthouse. So I was on the bottom floor in a little concrete office in a larger concrete building. There were no windows I couldn’t see outside. I sat behind a desk in a small room and talked to volunteer attorneys and law students all day long, but never talked to clients directly. So the last little bit of what I could do in the work that fed me, which was direct client contact, was now gone. And there was also no sunshine. And so I just slowly started withering the mild depression that I’d had for a while. Just being stuck in this position that didn’t work for me blossomed. It just took over like wildfire and depression, made it such that it was hard for me to do the most basic of things. I took a vacation. I went to Burning Man with a few of my friends, and the deal was that after that week vacation, I could go back to working part-time and working in a community area. That felt better to me. The work that I’d been doing before I got transferred to the dungeon and on my way back from Burning Man, I learned that that option had been taken away and they needed me to go back to the dungeon.


Alua Arthur: [00:08:36] And without thinking about it much, I remember saying out loud in a room, in a car with my friends, I can’t go back to that place. I’ll die if I do. Only in retrospect can I see how serious those words were, but they were very real that I had reached the absolute end of my rope and something had to change. I called my therapist when I got back from Burning Man, and of course, we’d had a long relationship at that point because major depressive episode. And I said, I can’t go back. And we talked through it, and she knew how bad, how dire the situation had gotten. And she said, I think you’re right. You need to go on a leave of absence. And so I saw a psychiatrist, and then within a day, I was on a 90-day leave of absence from work. I think that had it not been for that shift, that I probably just would have kept my head down and kept going for a while because I’d been going for a while. It had been years at that point of me shoving it down and watching more TV and take more trips, or drink more wine, or just busy myself with life so that I couldn’t feel into how dire the situation had gotten. So it happened somewhat seamlessly, but at a great big cost. A big price. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:09:46] Again, so many people can relate as you’re describing it. I can actually relate. Personally, you may not know this about me. I have a very past life in law as well, and I actually started out in a massive federal bureaucracy, like a very different orientation. I was at the SEC, but, um, yeah, was struggling mightily as well. I ended up in a large firm in private practice after that in New York, and within a matter of weeks was in emergency surgery because the stress of the job was just really warring with who I was and how I wanted to live my life. And I went back to it for the better part of a year. And then, similar to you, I realized that my mental health, along with my physical health, had taken such a profound hit that a voice inside me said, you’re not actually capable of making a rational decision about what needs to come next. Right now, you need to step away. And I took a short leave of absence, and it was within that window that I started to just come back to myself and realize, this is not it. It doesn’t matter what I’ve invested up till this point. Like, how can I constrain literally the rest of my entire life by the years that lay behind me? And it sounds like you hit that same point and like we’re asking the same questions. Absolutely.


Alua Arthur: [00:10:55] And I’m so encouraged to hear this. I’m sad that you suffered as you did. But up until very recently, up until I started sharing this story a lot more widely, I didn’t know a single other lawyer that had taken a break because of their mental health, not one. You are now the third, and I’m so grateful that this has happened that folks are recognizing it. But also I just, you know, this idea of just keep pushing and keep going despite all the signs from your body to stop or slow down or pay attention is something that’s so deeply ingrained, I think, in our society and culture, particularly as it relates to work and success or, you know, climbing ladders or accolades or initials behind our names, just keep going, keep pushing, keep getting, keep achieving without checking in to see what does this mean for me? What does this mean for my life? What does it mean for my well-being? We just keep pushing.


Jonathan Fields: [00:11:47] Yeah, it’s almost like we’re on a productivity wagon, you know, like a treadmill. And it’s like more, more, more, more, more. Never realized, like. Well, the end state is the end. Yeah. You know, and it’s like we’re not working towards that. Like we want to fill it with actually being present and being here. So when you take this break, you end up going to Cuba and having this conversation, having this realization. Did you know at that point that there was this thing called death doula, or were you just. Is this just an awakening that said, okay, my time here is finite. I don’t know when, like how long or short it’s going to be, but whatever it is, there needs to be more more of a sense of meaning and purpose in what I’m doing.


Alua Arthur: [00:12:29] It was an awakening. There was a moment when I looked out the window and I remember the clouds very clearly. They’re etched into my brain thinking there should be people that other people talk to about death. And I thought, well, I could be one of those people. A light bulb didn’t go off, Earth didn’t shatter, nothing moved, no quakes. Oprah didn’t show up. I just felt that it was a possibility. And then coming back, started sharing that desire and that idea with other people. And mostly I heard what happened to you in Cuba, like, are you okay? Right. And something profound did happen to me in Cuba. You know, it was an awakening that didn’t yet have legs, but it carried me for a while. I started getting my books, my hands on any book that I could that talks about death and dying. I read some of the seminal texts. I would talk to anybody who was in a death adjacent field. I was voracious about living and dying, and that was a signal to me that that should have been a signal that something was up, because up until then, I’d been really disinterested in life. My curiosity spark had totally dimmed, and my curiosity, something that I hold really at my core as one of my values. And so the fact that it was so dim should have been a sign. But I was curious again, I was engaged, I was leaning in to the topic.


Jonathan Fields: [00:13:52] I’m curious whether you shared this with friends and family, and at that time, coming out of the very dark space that you had been inhabiting, they were concerned that your curiosity was not more of like actually a constructive, healthy, deep like curiosity about like, what is this thing? I just a knowledge-based curiosity, but also like, oh, she’s actually looking at like all of these things around death and like, did that actually raise flags with him? I think.


Alua Arthur: [00:14:18] It did. I don’t know if anybody would tell me that. I also had gotten really good at masking my depression, and so some perhaps didn’t know I was suffering as deeply as I did. But I think some were certainly a little concerned that death was now my new thing. But it also, since it awakened something in me, I think I approached it with a lot more brightness. And also there is an element of my personality that gets really excited about new things and then eventually forgets about them. I blame being a Gemini and maybe some undiagnosed ADHD, I’m not sure, but I was just like so into it. And some were a little curious. Like, let’s see how long this lasts. But I think the few people in my life that I told that that heard, like the underlying electricity, the underlying potential, were the ones that really championed me. I’m grateful at this point that they’ve all come around and they see it wasn’t just another passing fancy like teaching Tae Bo, but rather they know I’m probably in it for a while.


Jonathan Fields: [00:15:20] Nothing wrong with teaching Tae Bo, by the way. That was an amazing trend, incredible trend.


Alua Arthur: [00:15:25] Incredible. And also I was like so excited about it for like two months and I totally forgot Billy Blanks, so what’s happening?


Jonathan Fields: [00:15:31] You know, I’m wondering also because whether you trace this back in any meaningful way, your family, from what I understand, left Ghana around 81 around the time of the military coup. And there was, I mean, clearly had to experience and seen a lot around that. And whether you feel like that has informed any of this in any meaningful way.


Alua Arthur: [00:15:49] I believe so, I believe so. My earliest memory is of fleeing the coup and without being aware of it in retrospect. And I understand that the fear of death was just blanketing the city that morning because the coup leaders, whether it’s successful or not, there’s trouble. There’s death, there’s violence, there’s jail, there’s fear of people dying. I think my family was under that fear, and I wasn’t aware of it at the time because I was three when it was occurring, but I think that had something to do with it. In the midst of all the chaos around death, I felt comfortable. My dad was holding my hand, I felt secure. He picked me up at some point when I couldn’t run very fast, and he held me and I felt safe, even amidst chaos and fear. So that might have something to do with it. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:16:39] What was your family culture around conversations around death even coming up? You know, like as a kid or a young adult? Was it something that was talked about or something that was sort of like pushed off to the side?


Alua Arthur: [00:16:50] It was talked about in the context of Christianity because we were evangelical Christian missionaries. And so John 316 is just shoved into my brain from the Bible. You know that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life. And so the fear of death, but rather that you’ll be safe regardless if you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. So we didn’t talk about death in that context. We talked about it more in the you’ll be all right if you just. Jesus context. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was the only one who was alive when I was born. She died when I was five, so I never I don’t really remember her very well. I remember my mother mourning her. I remember that my mom did not hide her grief or her sorrow. I remember her pain. But that was really about it. That was really about it. Her older sister, my mom’s older sister, died when I was about 19 or so. That was the next time that a big death hit our family where I saw grief. But aside from that, we didn’t really discuss it much.


Jonathan Fields: [00:17:53] Um, when you start to circle back around to this and you get really excited about it and you’re like, this is something that keeps I keep coming back to. It’s not a passing fancy. This is like it’s got a hold of me in a really meaningful way. What is the process? I’m curious because, you know, like I think a lot of people are familiar with with the word hospice and hospice care and hospice nurses and, and sort of like that modality. But probably not a lot of folks are familiar with the concept of death doula. So I guess, you know, the bigger question is what exactly are we talking about when we talk about a death doula? And then what’s the process of actually stepping into that path?


Alua Arthur: [00:18:32] A death doula is someone who does all of the holistic, non-medical, non-medical care in support of the dying person and their circle of support through the process. We can also support people when they are healthy in completing some comprehensive end of life plans. And so when I say the dying person, I’m talking about just somebody who has some awareness that death will eventually occur. So not just the people that have an illness that is going to end their lives, but rather anybody who has started to think about death in some capacity. I learned how to do this work well, for starters, after I came back from Cuba, my brother-in-law got sick about six months after I came back from Cuba. So I was deep still in like reading all the books and talking to anybody who did anything death-related. And he got ill. He had Burkitt’s lymphoma stage four and four months after he was diagnosed, they couldn’t treat him anymore. It’s a really short amount of time, not enough time to get your head around the fact that your brother-in-law, who you’re close to, who I was close to, was going to die for sure. And when when we learned that they weren’t going to treat him, I went to New York where he and my sister and my niece were, and I got to be with him for the last two months of his life. And I essentially served as a death doula for the first time without knowing what it was or what death doulas did, which was I served as part of the larger circles of care around him.


Alua Arthur: [00:19:57] He was at the center, moving toward his death with my sister holding his hand, his parents around him, my parents around him, his friends, his family in another circle, people in circles going all the way outward. And so to serve as a death doula, to serve as one of those circles of support around the dying person. That means I ran a lot of errands, compiled questions I would ask if they understood everything the doctor said. When the doctor left the room, I researched everything. What do we do about his ashes? How do we figure out his will? What should we do with these leftover medications? How do we talk to a four-year-old about death? I researched, I asked questions, I was present, I stood with them. I had my own grief to deal with, but at the time I was just trying to be useful somehow. If I did this part of it, then my sister could just be with her husband if I, you know, picked his parents up from the airport, they wouldn’t have to worry about that. They could just think about their son. I took as much of the the burden off of them so that they could be with what they needed to be with. And so that’s essentially what a death doula does.


Alua Arthur: [00:21:03] After his death, I was thrown into the frenzy of grief, and in my frenzy, I read some more, I researched some more. I cried a lot. I roamed around the world a bit, trying to trying to make sense of a world where the sun still came up, when somebody who I cared for deeply had died. And if you know grief, you know what I’m talking about. I use that time to start looking at the ills in the world, the ills, the places where and where. There’s not a lot of support. And that was a big one. It was huge for me at the time, but also intellectually, I understood tens of thousands, 100, 150,000 people were dying at the same time that Peter was on the same day Peter died and most probably didn’t have support. And so I wanted to do that for other people. I started looking at the ways in which we could provide support. You know, if there was somebody I could have called in the midst of it, somebody who could make sense of what looked like Greek, that I was reading, trying to understand what to do with hospital medication. Um, somebody who could answer these questions, I would have given them anything. I would have been so grateful. A lot of hugs, but also money. Help me please. Um, and I couldn’t. Find anybody, you know. So I built a practice that looked like what I needed, and it worked.


Jonathan Fields: [00:22:24] So many questions there because this first experience for you was, was it, you know, a high speed and immersive learning process, but also it was your own process of loss, like your personal process, your own process and experience of grief. So I’m curious that you go through this. You see the value of what you’ve just been through and the knowledge that you’ve accumulated. But again, it’s associated with profound pain. And yet there was an impulse in you that said, I want to keep stepping back into this sphere, like into this experience, not in the context of people in my own life. And so I sort of like re-experience that grief from my own loss. But to be of service with others. I’m curious, was there a concern at all that you, by keeping continuing to step into that, almost like keep retraumatizing yourself or re-experiencing your own grief? Because I would imagine it’s hard to step into that context and not in some way, shape or form feel connected to the people who are part of it.


Alua Arthur: [00:23:22] It can be. It can be incredibly triggering. I’ll tell you what, Jonathan. I’m hardwired for service, I believe, and for meet your needs, but also meet the needs of the people around you. And being in legal aid for as long as I was, I had to learn how to start separating myself from the experience of my clients, which was supportive so that it’s much easier for me to do. Now, don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean that I can walk in their cold hard, see them as clients, and then walk out and not be changed. I grieve a lot. I cry a lot. I think about Peter all the time. I think about the experience that we had. And yet I’ve also learned how to identify my experience as my own and recognize the things that I’m carrying for other people that don’t belong to me to carry, so I can share it with them for a while. And at some point I put it down because it’s not mine, which makes it possible to keep doing this work. I think if I kept piling it on, eventually it would take me down. But I’ve learned how to separate my experience from the experience of the other so that I can be effective.


Jonathan Fields: [00:24:26] Do you have your own rituals or practices that help you with that process of of laying it down?


Alua Arthur: [00:24:32] Yeah, so many of them. For starters, one of the things that I do all the time, and it does not sound like a ritual until I realize how ritualistically I did it, is I eat a lot of kettle potato chips, salt and vinegar. Listen, I would find myself coming in from seeing a client go straight to the pantry and get the potato chips. Maybe some emotional eating, perhaps. But also, I think like the sharpness of the vinegar, the the salt, the crunch, the fat. Something about it really soothes me. And I feel really alive. I’m chewing, I’m eating. It reminds me that not only am I still fully in this body and still very much here, but that I still have agency to put the chip in my mouth, to chew it up, to swallow it, etc. it grounds me. It gets me present. It reminds me that this is mine and this is what I have to carry on. I bathe, I take a bath often, sometimes a shower, but also to wash off what doesn’t belong to me. Um, one one tool I use is when I am crossing into the threshold of a home where somebody is dying. I will put my hand on the door jamb to mark the crossing of a threshold, and then on my way back, I cross it again so that the person who went in obviously will be changed by everything that occurred there. But I must leave what was there there. Otherwise, it can get heavy. But this work I don’t find heavy. I find it full and dense, but it doesn’t weigh on me like a brick.


Jonathan Fields: [00:26:02] Yeah, no, that makes sense. I want to talk a little bit about what we get wrong about the experience of death and dying, and also how to maybe like, make some changes there. But before we get there, one of the things that I think is just a curiosity as well is this notion of, we don’t even talk about this before you even get to what to do or not to do, or what’s good and what’s what’s working, what’s not. It’s like we don’t even engage in this conversation. Like, this is taboo, to even talk about the fact that there’s this thing that unites every single person who has ever been born. This is the one thing we will all experience, like in a shared way. And yet we want nothing to do with the thought of it or the conversation around it. Take me into this a bit because you’ve been around it so much. And what’s your thinking on this?


Alua Arthur: [00:26:52] First of all, I’m as stunned as you are. Maybe even more so. It is the actual only thing. The only thing you know, not everybody breathes air like we do. Not everybody’s liver cleans their blood like it’s the only thing that all of our bodies will do at some point. I understand the fear. I understand the resistance based on fear. I understand the desire to not touch it because of fear. What I struggle with is the fact that we pretend it’s not happening at all, or that it doesn’t happen when even if I cannot acknowledge the fact that I will die, I can’t acknowledge that some of the people in my life will, and that one day I’m going to have to deal with that. You know, I think the fear, the fear of the unknown is a big one. It’s a big part of the reason why we fear death. But also, I think we fear talking about it, is that it evidences to others that perhaps we don’t have any control. And most of us are walking around earth like we got everything under control. But I don’t know anything that’s going on. I’m just doing my best minute by minute, you know? So even acknowledging that we will die, acknowledging that we have no, no control over when, where, how is difficult. Acknowledging that we don’t have any control over the body. Our bodies are fragile and they are vulnerable. And just a nick of a rusty blade can turn a healthy person into a corpse.


Alua Arthur: [00:28:11] Just like that. It’s terrifying. We feel powerful in these bodies and they are to some great extent, but they’re also very fragile. Hmm. That makes us uncomfortable. But I think most of anything is the egoic sense of self, which places me at the center of everybody’s story and granted, granted. Science says I am the center of the universe, and I’m pretty cool. Maybe I am the center of the universe, but at the same time, there are 8 billion other stories happening concurrently to mine, you know, and all in the history of time, a whole bunch more. 100 and 210 billion. Mine is but a fabric in a giant tapestry. And when I can see it from that perspective, it allows me to create a little bit of, of distance from this main character energy that I carry around that we carry around. It allows me to see that my experience here, while massive for me, insignificant in the grand scheme of things, that gives me a little bit of grace to mess up a lot. It allows me to approach my life with a some lightness and gaiety and to hold it all really lightly. Because 1 in 110 billion, Yeah, yeah, one of one big deal. And I’m trying to be in that one of one as much as possible, while also holding that I am also one of 110 billion thus far.


Jonathan Fields: [00:29:33] Yeah, that’s a tough duality for a lot of people, me included. You know, it’s sort of like you’re constantly you’re trying to say, okay, so I understand this. And at the same time, here I am in my body and my experience with my relationships, like with my day to day lived life. And it’s really hard to step into the larger frame in any meaningful way. But I feel like one of the ways that we often do is through giving ourselves away is through this, like reconnection with generosity and service and reminding ourselves that we are not the node we may be for moments and flashes. It’s such an interesting part of it when you decide to start doing this. Also, you know, probably my earliest reconnection with just like really exploring the notion of death and a good death was Atul Gawande’s book, which I think so many people really stumbled upon that became really big. And I was really surprised. I remember how big that book became and how like it stayed a part of the public conversation for so long. And I was like, oh, so this is something that people actually want to know about, but they don’t seem to want to talk about, you know, like they’ll search out wisdom or information. But also that book kind of really made it clear it’s like we are potentially really getting wrong. What a quote good death is and is not. And I think that was a wake-up call for a lot of people. So I guess the question I want to sort of ease into with you is in the work that you’re doing. And having been around this, it’s this notion of what is and is not a good death.


Alua Arthur: [00:31:03] That’s a big question, a big question. Yeah. Let me back up a little bit. I think that people actually do want to talk about it. I think culturally we don’t make space for it, because what I find with my work is that when I mentioned the work that I do, it’s one of three responses people lean in and want to ask me if I know what happens after we die. The answer is I do not. They tell me stories about when their mother, brother, father, sister, somebody died and how they wish that they would have had some support. Or they talk about grief and their fear or concerns about their own dying, or they shut down and walk away. The ones that shut down and walk away, though, I guarantee, are the ones that probably end up ruminating over it. You know, they don’t just shove it. I think they say, whoa, whoa, whoa whoa, whoa, and then probably spend some time on it. And I’ll bet that if I had a second chance with them, they would probably talk about it at that point. I think we want to talk about it. I think that’s part of the reason why that book was so big is because they were people were reading these words. They were learning about something that they probably had some inkling or curiosity about themselves and finally hear somebody saying the things. And so I hope that more people keep saying the things when tricky thing is this notion of the good death, because for starters, just even embedded within is this value-based judgment about what is good and what is bad. And many of us, you know, I think one of the things that I often have to support people through is when they are unpacking how somebody died and all the guilt or sadness or shame they feel over how the person died and the judgment of themselves in that experience, or the judgment of the death and death just is the meaning that we make on it is the value that we assign to it.


Alua Arthur: [00:32:44] And I wish that we could pull away a bit from that judgment and think of it more as just it occurs, and we are all medical care systems included, I think, doing the best that they can to support people, to not be in pain or to not die if you have violence and overdose and suicide and all the ways that we think of as bad deaths necessarily, um, there are plenty of not good deaths that occur in the medical care system as well. And what I like to start seeing is us talking about the most ideal death under the circumstances, just so many circumstances that people are dying in. And so a big portion of my job is to supporting people in experiencing the most ideal death. Under the circumstances, the notions of a good death are wrapped up in things like, you know, being free from pain, uh, being people that you love, having an opportunity to make amends or heal relationships, to have all your affairs in order. For some, it’s being in their own home or in their own bed, and wrapped up in a lot of these things is also conversations about agency and privilege. And and they’re they’re tricky to unpack. And so I think if we can identify what would be ideal for us and use that as a way to create a framework around preparing for the end of life, that could be really useful.


Jonathan Fields: [00:34:05] Now that’s super helpful frame. And it certainly takes the morality out of it. And just like acknowledges the circumstances, it’s like every single time, every circumstance, every person, every family is going to be different. So let’s talk about what feels most right for this particular moment, for this particular circumstance. What I mean, you shared some of the things that we might think about. Agency is a word that you’ve actually, like said a number of times throughout our conversation. And I think a lot of people have heard that word thrown around a lot of different contexts in this context. What are we really talking about when you use the word agency?


Alua Arthur: [00:34:40] I’m talking about informed decision-making. I’m talking about me making choices for myself based on my value system. I’m talking about the opportunity to be able to communicate that and then have it be respected. You know, I’m just thinking it through. Yeah, yeah, I wasn’t aware I had said it multiple times, but it is. I mean, agency is a key component in helping people prepare for death. For me anyway, it’s like this is yours. You know, you get to have it how you want it. Was that Burger King your way right away, burger King now? Uh, yeah. This is your death. You get to have it how you want it to the extent that you can. And I’m going to do the best I can to ensure that for you. And then when it’s my turn, I get to do the things the way that I want to.


Jonathan Fields: [00:35:24] So what are the questions that we would ask either of ourselves or like from the family, from those supporting that might bring as much agency, agency to the experience as we can muster?


Alua Arthur: [00:35:34] Many of them. I’d start with some conversation around end-of-life decision making. Who do you want to make your decisions for you in the event that you can’t? So somebody who’s going to serve as your health care power of attorney or your medical decision maker, somebody who would think like you would in making the decisions that you would and not do the things that they would do for themselves, but rather do the things that you would like for yourself. I think it’s also important that we think about what kind of care we want at the end of our lives. Conversations about life support. Treatments and our values. Thinking through things such as what values make a life worth living? What condition of living is worse than dying? Um. Thinking through I want to live as long as I can. Dot, dot, dot to help people get clear on what they actually value because we can afford those into our dying if we’re clear about them while we’re living, which creates greater agency for us, because then I’m clear about what I value. And then hopefully you can just do that to the extent that you can. Having an advocate goes a long way. Having somebody who has heard you understands you and can go go hard for you when time comes is incredibly supportive. Um, I think as long as we are talking about what we desire, that goes a long way because we’re not doing that much at all.


Jonathan Fields: [00:36:56] Yeah, you use word values also, it seems you said that reminded me of a conversation I had with, uh, Rabbi Steve Leder in LA, actually a couple of years back. And he was he shared with me the notion of, I think he called it an ethical will. Yeah. I think a lot of people have talked about or heard of last Will and Testament, like the standard definition of will, but the notion of an ethical will, as this is sort of like my key values that I want to share with you in story form, like these are the these are the areas that I really have strong feelings and value associations with. And here are stories about them. And it’s not necessarily written in the context of somebody who feels like they’re close to death, but just somebody who wants to pass these on, maybe to children or family members or others and wants to really codify them. And I thought it was a beautiful notion and a beautiful potential gift to give others. But at the same time, just the process for you as an individual of visiting those questions, I think is probably so clarifying. And what I kept thinking was, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we did this earlier in the dying process? Like assuming the dying process literally starts the moment we’re born? That what if we actually visited all these things, like much earlier in life, so that we could get clear about them and live them, not just in when we know that we have a very small, finite amount of time left, although we might not know exactly what it is, but literally just from that point forward, once we have the clarity, say like, how can I step into this as much as I can? So I thought it was a really interesting exercise to do, almost like in different seasons of life as well.


Alua Arthur: [00:38:30] Absolutely. I’m smiling so big because my work here is done. Yeah, we got it.


Jonathan Fields: [00:38:37] And that’s a wrap.


Alua Arthur: [00:38:40] Yeah, but 100%. Let’s talk about it. Even something seemingly small. When Aretha Franklin died, I was in a room with some elderly black people, and one of them brought up her funeral and that they had changed her outfit 3 or 4 times. And she said, well, I don’t want that for myself. She said, just put me in one outfit and leave me alone. And I said, great. Does your grandson know this? Have you told anybody about this? This is something that you value. You know, this is something that you think is important. And we talk through why she wanted that for herself. And it was a casual gathering. Okay. I am bringing death everywhere I go into. But this was not a work event. This was just I was hanging out with somebody and some elders were there. And so if we can repeatedly, like, have these conversations casually when we need to, to start thinking about them, and then when it’s time to start to write them down, codify them in some way, communicate a little bit helps a lot more than nothing at all. And like I said, and I’ll say again and again and again, people do want to talk about it. They do. It’s just about finding the right time and occasion for it to come to pass.


Jonathan Fields: [00:39:45] Yeah, no, that makes sense. It feels like they want to talk about it when it’s it’s resonant for some reason in their lives. But, um, until that moment, they’re curious about it, but like, the conversation rarely ever happens. One of the things that you write in your book is this notion of the body’s storytelling capacity, especially around the end of life. Take me into this notion a bit more.


Alua Arthur: [00:40:08] Meeting somebody nearing the end of their lives, particularly if they’ve lived a long life. There are so many clues about who they were and what they valued and how they how they spent their time here. And in seeing that, it makes me think so much more about how I live and what I want my body to say after I’ve died. I have a bunch of piercings. There’s gold dripping out everywhere. I think it’s obvious that I like jewelry. I like pretty, pretty things. It’s true. I like pretty things. Like pretty things on my face and my ears in my home around me. I want to be looking at pretty things when I’m dying. It’s going to stay true for me. Our bodies hold so much information now, not just on the internal, but the external as well. The way our faces wrinkle, our smile lines. Although with a big generation of folks getting Botox, I wonder if that’s going to be the case in a little bit. Wow.


Jonathan Fields: [00:41:00] Maybe not take pictures before so you can remember.


Alua Arthur: [00:41:04] Yeah, maybe you won’t be able to tell. But seeing smile lines and wrinkles and the one in between the eyebrows, like the scowl or frown lines or the curiosity lines or tattoos, scars. Scars are such powerful storytellers. How people have cared for their body, you know, an illness. A lot of things happen to the body. But how people have cared for their bodies over the course of their life is also obvious. I broke a bone in my foot a few years back. It was a stress fracture. I used to run a lot and when I went to the foot doctor he said, oh, you put a lot of miles on these feet. And I thought, whoa! Of course he can tell he’s a foot doctor. But also, yeah, I run, I like to walk. I’m out on the streets a lot. So something like that, something that you will be able to tell about me when I die is that I moved around on my feet a lot because they have aged significantly more than the rest of my body has. Our bodies tell so many stories about who we were, what we liked, how we did the work, how we stayed alive.


Jonathan Fields: [00:42:04] I almost wonder if we spent more time listening to the stories our bodies are telling, that it would help us tell the story of our lives more intentionally, but we tend to tune that out, like all day, every day. Not just, you know, in the end of days.


Alua Arthur: [00:42:17] That’s a beautiful notion. I think our bodies also signal a lot of things to us that we don’t pay attention to. You know, we started off our conversation talking about depression and work and all the resistance I felt in my body every single time I walked into the building, or how I felt like I was withering because there was no sun and I can see myself just slumped shoulders and like sitting sad in the chair. Body was like, girl, you are not happy here, this ain’t it. And the way I light up when I see sunshine or the way flowers turn toward the sun. Like all that is information for me that I just was not paying any attention to my bodies. They’re pretty incredible, pretty incredible. And I think we take a lot of what they do and how they communicate with us and carry us through this world for granted. Until health gets taken away or we’re facing chronic illness, or somebody else dies from something that we thought they shouldn’t have, until we stopped to pay attention to what our bodies are saying or doing.


Jonathan Fields: [00:43:16] Mhm. Choo choo. One of the things that you talk about also that you write about is this notion of I think the phrase you use is, is finding your feet. Take me into this concept a bit more and how it relates to the conversation we’re having.


Alua Arthur: [00:43:28] Finding your feet for me is a practice and presence, because when I’m living in my head, I can be anywhere. I can be in Persia. I could be back on the plane. I can be rethinking that one silly thing. I said that one time that I still haven’t forgiven myself for, you know, not here in the present, but when I’m with my feet, when I can feel the slippers that my feet are currently in, or the floor where you sit or anything, grass underneath my feet. I’m here in the present because the body is always right here. The body can’t go to Persia unless I hop on a plane. In this instant. The body is no longer. When I said that silly thing in the third grade. The body is here right now and so allows me to bring myself into the experience I’m having at this moment. It’s really useful when people are in anticipatory grief, which is an experience where somebody is already feeling the sadness of the death that hasn’t yet occurred, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not bad. It’s nothing to be fixed, yet it can be debilitating for some, because then comes the guilt over not appreciating what they still have, meaning that the person is still present. And so this practice can be supportive. There just be like, we’re here right now and today your person is still alive. Today you are standing in Los Angeles, today you are. Dot, dot, dot. Just bringing us right here, right now into the body. For the body. I mean.


Jonathan Fields: [00:44:51] Would the practice be as simple as literally almost like feeling, like intentionally? Scanning your body almost. And just like looking for physical sensations throughout the body, I mean, maybe starting in your feet, but then elsewhere, elsewhere to to sort of draw yourself out of your thoughts and into the somatic experience.


Alua Arthur: [00:45:08] That would be incredible if people can carry it up that far. Yeah. But so I just start with the toes. Just feel the toes, you know. What are they feeling? What’s the sensations? We’re right here. Ground here. Yeah. Great. If we make it to the calves. But I think at that point most people are often tomorrow night’s dinner.


Jonathan Fields: [00:45:23] Right. Right. Right. One of the things that also comes up and again, you write about this in this context is family dynamics and how things are being left, not just between the person who is soon to be gone and the family, but also among those who survived, those who endure. In your experience, when you’re sort of like in this mix, are there ways to think about this or there there conversations to have or questions to ask that would help lead towards more of a sense of resolution than just sort of like leaving open angst or questions. I know this is a complex sort of like circumstance.


Alua Arthur: [00:46:04] It’s so tough, especially given how many different family dynamics there are. Yeah, but the thing that I think supports more than anything is having conversations about it before it gets too late or before it gets really dense. It’s much harder to try to determine who’s going to make dad’s decisions about the end of his life, when he’s ill and in the hospital, and the nurses are asking than it is when dad is relatively healthy, even though a little elderly, and then we can carry those forward. But I think to the extent that people can, what I try to do when the family dynamics are really tense is to listen, obviously always acknowledge and validate the experience somebody is having. Try to tease out the root of the thing that’s bothering them, and see if that solution for that root is also a shared root with somebody else. Because often when it sounds like people are saying diametrically opposed things about what they want at the end of life, the root is always it’s something shared. I don’t want him to be in any pain, or I don’t want this to go on longer than it should, or something of the sort. So if we can tease out the root of it, which is possible through a lot of active listening and reflecting back then, we can draw similarities between the roots, and then that allows people to sometimes get on the same page, and sometimes it’s just not possible. A lot of times it’s just not possible.


Jonathan Fields: [00:47:21] Yeah. Have you seen during those times where you’ve seen that it is possible that this sort of process of teasing out the root, I almost wonder whether that is also like a potential mechanism for longer-term healing gap bridging that may have existed within the family dynamic for a long time. But there’s this moment of intense emotion and, you know, the potential to say, like, we are all here in this, we can’t escape this. It’s happening. It’s going to happen. Like you said, death is what if we can use the intensity, the energy of this moment to all dive into, to tease out this root and to explore it, and then so that maybe even as we move past this, there is some healing which is needed to happen, maybe for generations or years or decades, that can move out of this sort of like moment in time. Have you seen that unfold?


Alua Arthur: [00:48:11] Absolutely, absolutely. You can see the worst of people as people die, but you can also see the best. I’ve seen families heal generations-long conflict at the bedside. I’ve seen people put down differences that they’ve had because somebody is dying and everybody needs to get on the same page. I mean, I’ve also seen it go the other way, but more often than not, I see reconciliation. That’s possible. I think when we can acknowledge the very human experience of grieving, and often what needs to happen is for somebody to point out that this is all grief just showing up in different ways. It allows us to put the swords down a bit and see my fellow human as a human in there, and I think that’s a really powerful way forward for many people. I actually think that compassion and being able to witness and be with the experience of the other is a potential to breaking down a lot of the systems that we find ourselves in that hold us better than other humans on this planet at the same time.


Jonathan Fields: [00:49:10] Part of what you’re talking about also, it’s sort of like brings up the notion of legacy. What am I leaving behind? But not just like, what stuff am I leaving behind? What mark am I leaving behind? But also what dynamic am I leaving behind? What context am I leaving behind? You know, like, how are the relationships that we formed being impacted by me having been there and by me now being no longer there? And I think it’s something that we think about a lot. It seems like these are questions that I imagine you ask yourself all the time about the work that you’re doing and who you are in the world, and you’re choosing very intentionally, like, I need to be in these places and these contexts and these systems and these relationships, because it matters to me not just how I show up, but how people are affected by it. When you think beyond the work. That you’re doing. And also now in the context of a book that you’re putting out into the world, you know, briefly, perfectly human. Do you have a sort of intention that you hold for this as it moves out into the world?


Alua Arthur: [00:50:06] My intention, I think, for all of it, even back into the legal aid days, is always to be of use, you know, to be of some use. I want to reach the end of my life, having made the experience of my fellow human just a little bit easier, if possible. Now, that certainly was what I was up to when I was at Legal Aid. It was like, yes, go and see what you can fix and make things better. And now it feels a lot less like that. But if I can offer a shoulder, a hand, a word, if I can help somebody feel seen, if I can help them feel heard, if we can amplify or multiply that any one of us is doing, that creates good for other people in some way, that would be great. I teach death doulas also at going with Grace, and one of the big motivations in getting started there was to share the knowledge that I had built with other people. You know, if I can do it one-on-one, that’s great. That’s one additional family that supported spectacular. But if I can teach five people to do it, that’s five more families, you know? And if I can teach 20, that’s 20 more. And then if that one teaches another one and before you know, it amplified going out there in the world. Ultimately, my hope is always to have been of service, to support somebody, to help somebody have a little bit of an easier ride while we’re here. It’s hard enough already, you know, it’s great to the fact that we all have such individual imprints and unique expressions means that I hold medicine for you and you hold medicine for me. So let’s share as much of it as we can.


Jonathan Fields: [00:51:41] Mm. It feels like a good place for us to come full circle as well. So in this container of Good Life Project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Alua Arthur: [00:51:50] What comes up is the image of a hammock and sunshine and people who I love. The people that make me belly ache, laugh, make my cheeks sore. Um, people who make me feel like heart eyes emoji as soon as they round the bend. The smell of my partner’s shirt. Um. My niece and nephew grown up. My godkids. Ease of being. Champagne bubbles in my blood. In awe of life. That feels like a good life.


Jonathan Fields: [00:52:26] Mhm. Thank you.


Alua Arthur: [00:52:28] Thank you.


Jonathan Fields: [00:52:31] Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode safe bet, you’ll also love the conversation we had with Elizabeth Gilbert about embracing life no matter what comes. You’ll find a link to Liz’s episode in the show notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and Me. Jonathan Fields Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor? A seven-second favor and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life project.

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