Prelude: Death as Homecoming
Updated: Oct 14, 2021
Ever since childhood, I have been intimately acquainted with the ache we call loneliness. It manifested in many guises: the despair that swept through me at family gatherings where no one really saw each other, the pain of many nights spent sobbing inside my closet, the fog of disconnection that held me at arm’s length from the world around me. Loneliness was forged in the chasm between the certainty in my bones that we are made to belong to each other, and the sterile reality of cold separation even within the communities I was supposed to be held by. Chronic loneliness calcifies over the years, eroding the ability to feel true intimacy and to taste the sweetness of life. It is a numbing agent, a survival mechanism that ultimately deadens the senses. And according to recent studies, my experience is not uncommon – some of them report that three out of four people in the US experience chronic loneliness.
My hunch is that loneliness is such an acute and devastating injury because we have deep bodily memories of the opposite. We remember what it felt like to exist in a village, to know ourselves as parts of a larger ecosystem. To belong to each other. As babies, we crave comfort and attention from our caregivers, because at that time we cannot avoid the truth that belonging is absolutely crucial to our survival. This need for unconditional belonging in the arms of others doesn’t go away as we grow, but it often becomes harder and harder to come by. Not to mention the shame attached to even admitting our need for each other. So, we continue year after year to suffer in silence and solitude. The muscles that allow us to build true intimacy have atrophied from centuries of disuse.
I am an idealist though, and even though I wasn’t sure if I’d ever truly felt it, I still believed in the possibility, the truth of intimate belonging. When I was eighteen, I got my first tattoo, one short word delicately scrawled across the back of my neck: “beloved”. It was an invocation inscribed on my body, a declaration of yearning and defiance, locating my identity in my ability to be loved. I knew even then that my who I am is bound up in belonging, that before all else I am held. I am always and intrinsically in relationship, even if that intimacy often felt far removed. I needed to believe in this truth, even if I rarely felt it, because it was the only thing between me and the gaping abyss.
I craved deep intimacy and wanted nothing more than to belong in community; yet the pain of unfulfilled desire was so great that I often distanced myself from others to avoid the inevitable disappointment. My subconscious seemed to self-sabotage most every attempt I made at love and belonging, out of misguided self-protection. Even if people betrayed me, I believed that my ideals could not, so I built a life based on ascetism, discipline, self-sacrifice; devotion to service of others that was rooted in denial of my body (I could not let myself feel my bodily sensations, because that was where the pain of longing resided) and a paradoxical striving to always separate myself, to avoid the pain of loss.
And then, the summer after I graduated from college, my older sister died at 37 years old.
Her death was unexpected, even though it was precipitated by years of alcoholism and then a few brief months of rapid physical decline in the hospital. We knew she was in deep emotional pain, and that her ability to function had dwindled significantly in recent years; but we did not know how powerful her loneliness would prove to be, in its ability to consume her physically as well. She had been stigmatized as the bearer of shame in our family for decades already, because while many family members hid their traumas and dysfunctions in the shadows, she wore the scars of our generational agonies in public for all to see: unplanned pregnancy, divorce, trauma from abuse, alcoholism, and mental health struggle that kept her inside her apartment almost 24/7 by the end. Rarely was her pain taken seriously, until it was finally too late.
After she was denied a liver transplant in the hospital, despite her youth and her two young children, it seemed that she gave up, slipping so far inside herself that none of us could reach her any longer. The fierce love of our mother, who would have traded places with her in a heartbeat, could not even break this barrier.
It is almost too much to bear to think of how truly lonely she must have felt in those last weeks, when she knew she was dying. How completely alone she was, taking her last breaths on hospice in the front room of my mother’s house. We did not know how to reach her, how to hold her.
And then, she was gone.
We were left to pick up the pieces, although that seemed an exercise in futility. My mother was so consumed by the grief that ravaged her body, she almost didn’t survive the first year. My younger sister’s last year of high school was overshadowed by the cloud of pain that hovered above our home. And as for me, everything had turned upside down, my future plans shattered and my identity transformed as I moved home to tend to my mother and figure out how to exist inside of a gaping wound. I finally let go of the religious faith I had been doubting for years, alongside of the dreams for my career that I had pinned my identity on. The roar of guilt & loneliness was so loud in my ears, so raw that I could no longer ignore it. I would get drunk and cry in the arms of anyone who would hold me, allowing myself to drown in waves of grief.
I had always felt lonely and disconnected from others, but at first, this pure, unvarnished pain separated me even further. Grief and death can make you feel so isolated from everyone, especially those who have not experienced such a loss.
Everything in me was laid bare. Raw truths at the core were all that remained when everything else was burned away. Eventually, as I surrendered to Death’s turmoil, I touched a tender and smoldering place inside of me that felt more real than anything before. It felt like intimacy. It felt like belonging.
One reason my sister’s death felt so unbearably lonely was because our ability to care for her was undermined: we felt helpless in the sterile environments of the hospital & the funeral home. Her care was not up to us, but to the professionals and their protocols; we did not know we could keep her body at home for several days to say goodbye. She was no longer ours, taken from us long before her last breath. We felt we had failed her when she needed us most, and it was because none of had even been shown how to hold each other while we are dying.
As I allowed Death to transform me, I discovered that dominant society’s denial of death is actually a major reason for the loneliness and separation I had always felt. Ironically, death-phobia restricts our ability to live our lives abundantly, and has cut many of us off from the deep intimacy we crave. No wonder we feel so lonely when the specter of death looms over us at all times; death in our culture is unspeakable, undesirable, a failure, a punishment, a medical event. Death could be an opportunity to care for our beloveds all the way until the end, but instead it has become an event around which we have no say. This is a wound that refuses to heal.
Eventually, while I waded through the depths of grief after my sister’s death, I started to hear from her. Subtle whispers, gentle nudgings. I realized she was still here, and a bit of my loneliness started to thaw.
As she had always done in life, her pain was the alchemical window through which we could see the uncomfortable truth when others would hide it. In death, she was doing the same, and in the process pointing me toward a different way. She began to breathe wisdom into my ears, infusing me with the slightest bit of hope that we do not have to be so lonely, that caring for each other through dying and death could restore a sense of belonging when nothing else can. Paradoxically, developing a relationship with Death has alleviated some of my loneliness. I am invigorated by the dream that we can care for each other at the end, that our ancestors wait for us beyond the veil, that we can deliver a final act of love & belonging through the way we die. And that even when death is lonely or painful, or we must care for someone we detest, giving ourselves the space to speak the truth about death in community is liberating.
I am still achingly lonely. But deathcare has given me hope.
Coming to terms with Death in a society that does all it can to deny mortality felt an awful lot like liberation. Thanks to my sister, discovering my calling as a community deathcare advocate & death doula is a homecoming for me. I am relearning how we can care for each other at the end, and in the process teaching others how to do so. I want to serve in direct deathtending with folx who are in the liminal space before, during, and after death, providing comfort in navigating heartbreaking and sacred times. I know that my family would have benefited greatly from a death doula, and I want to serve that role for others, helping us all remember how to care for our dead.
As I continue to apprentice myself to Death and Grief, I will share my personal musings, ancestral messages, and deathcare resources here. I learn best through relationship, so I will interact heavily with the words of others, building my deathcare philosophy and skills in collaboration and conversation with my teachers, peers, and guides.
And because death touches everything in my life, I expect this blog and my work to explore a whole kaleidoscope of parts of myself that impact how I show up in the world. Influenced by the wisdom of many Black feminists, I have come to understand that our current embodiment is the inherent ground for all thought, feeling, exploration, and liberation. I cannot separate myself into pieces as this capitalist-colonialist society requires, and I have suffered inside when I try. I am done apologizing and compartmentalizing, and I yearn to be truly authentic in this body. I am going to die someday soon anyway, so there is no reason to hide parts of me out of fear or shame. In this blog and this work, I will strive to be authentically, erotically me – to honor my sovereignty, my sister, and that of my ancestors by refusing to hide. I will be sensual, bold, spiritual, witchy, mythical, kinky, queer, radical, recovering.
I believe that is what Death demands of me, and so here I am.
So why is this blog called Fiercely Beloved? Because everything lasts, but not in the way we think it does. And everything ends, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.
Because death is both natural and devastating. Peaceful and heartbreaking.
Because as my preeminent teacher Alua Arthur says, “deathcare is a form of activism”, in all its contradictions – made up of a serene acceptance of What Is coupled with a fierce and angry rebellion against that same reality.
And because I believe we deserve to reclaim what is ours, in all its unending and ever-changing glory: to be held as Beloved, and to hold our Beloveds. In life, and in death, and in whatever may come after.
I’m called to death doulaship because when I think about the centrality of our relationship with death, my heart quickens and my breath hitches and I feel that I’ve touched a central nerve of What Is, brushed my fingers up against some Truth. I’m choosing to heed the call to be a deathcare advocate because my family sorely needed one, and my communities sorely need one; and perhaps most of all because healing my relationship with Death has finally helped me feel less alone. I want to continue this healing, and to see if there are ways I can carve out some space for others to do the same.
Death teaches me to be in awe of the fact that who I am is grounded in my ancestors and my ecosystem, in all those whose deaths made way for my life. Now when I rub my fingers across the tattoo on my neck, a warmth spreads through me, invigorated by new meaning. Coming face to face with death has only confirmed to me that Beloved is our inherent nature, and we find home in each other.