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Normalizing Death with Ashley Johnson; An interview with Marla Bautista

I can't recall many times I've been left speechless in my life (you can confirm this with my 6th-grade teacher); yet, having a conversation about death left me without words. Ashley is a unique human with a job I never knew existed; she is a Death Doula. You know, similar to a birthing doula except for the obvious death thing. I cannot begin to tell you all the things I've learned during my conversation with Ashley. But I promise you this; you will not leave her TEDx Westshore talk the same as you entered. The knowledge and fulfillment she offers to an experience we will all one day have is extraordinary. Read more about her quest to normalize death.

Marla: Congratulations on your TEDx Talk. Tell the audience a bit about your topic.

Ashley: I am an end-of-life doula. In today's day and age, we are so disconnected from death and dying up until COVID, that is. During the pandemic, death and dying were hurled into our faces. I want to use this time to make this uneasy part of our lives a normal conversation.

Marla: What is a death doula?

Ashley: Everyone is pretty much familiar with a birthing doula; a death doula has many similarities; however, the most obvious difference is that we don’t just assist pregnant women. We help everyone; the elderly, disabled, Men, young people, terminally ill, and perfectly healthy people. We can be there at any time in a person's life. Because to be frank, we all will die. As death doulas, it's our job to strengthen the relationship between a patients’ medical team and a nonmedical team (meaning caretakers, family, and others). We provide services ranging from respite care, advance directives, vigils, legacy projects, etc. Down to the most basic handling of difficult conversations. We are there as companions and advocates to help make a person’s transition process one that makes them feel good.

Marla: How long have you been doing this type of work?

Ashley: I’ve been in death care for over ten years. I went to school for forensic anthropology. Afterward, I began doing autopsies and whole-body donations. It wasn’t until my friend was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer at the age of 27, I realized how important having support at the end of my life was. I would go to work, get off, and spend every day with her until she transitioned. We had some of the most challenging and candid conversations during that time. We talked about how she struggled with breaking the news to her family. Also, how her mother would react, being that she was an only child, together, we decided that having a Bon Voyage celebration was the best way she could say goodbye. We had her family fly over; it was like an impromptu family reunion. During the party everyone was happy, there wasn’t a sad person in the room. They saw her looking healthy and happy. About a month later, she transitioned. Everyone was shocked when she passed because they had just seen her. But that’s what she wanted. She wanted them to see her happy and smiling. That’s the memory she wanted to leave.

Marla: Why do you believe this type of work is necessary?

Ashley: I have been in death care for so long. I saw the gaps in care for individuals and families going through the transition process. It is a process. Grief is a process. Generally, after a person’s funeral, the family leaves, they get a call or visit a week or so later as a courtesy from the funeral home or hospice care, but that’s it. It’s a business transaction, but there too, is a human aspect to this transaction. Even in hospice, the employees are only permitted to do so much on their shifts. Some families need more grief support than others. Many families aren’t truly prepared for a person's transition process.

Marla: You mentioned legacy projects before; what is that?

Ashley: A legacy project can be anything you want it to be. It is an opportunity for an individual to use a creative platform to connect with others after they’ve transitioned. We offer scrapbooking, bookmaking, in-person events, videos, etc. It’s beyond a will or an advanced directive. It’s whatever medium they choose to leave the message they want to resonate with their loved ones.

Marla: So Ashley, if we don’t understand it by now, explain a death doula in Layman's terms.

Ashley: Being an end-of-life doula is simply rebranding the ideologies of the end-of-life transition. Instead of being morbid and dark, it can be enlightening and empowering; death is a part of life. None of us knows what’s beyond that veil. It could be nothing; it could be everything. It seems scary because it’s the unknown. As an end-of-life doula, I embrace everyone’s unknowns when they are approaching death. What we should remember is everyone is actively dying. How we are actively living is what we should be concerned about within our day-to-day lives. Death is what you make it.

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