Arlena Marie from Arizona, Texas, decided to take a leap and ask in Side Hustle Nation, a Facebook group, how to become a “death doula” and market herself as one.
While some were aghast at hearing such a profession exists, others had their interest piqued because, morbid as it sounds, every person on the planet is a potential customer.
The word doula originates from the ancient Greek term doule and translates as a person who serves. Birth doulas are now common and, like midwives, provide services during the birthing journey. A death doula, on the other hand, offers emotional support to people who believe they’re nearing the end of their life and would like to make the days count.
Death is the single certainty in life, yet people continue to fear it instead of preparing for it. I wanted to create a death-positive landscape.
Avril Carr, death doula from Al Ain
While professional moirologists (also known as “crying ladies” in some cultures) have been around for centuries and are hired to wail at funerals, the pandemic has brought death doulas to the fore, as an alternative form of mourner.
Avril Carr is a death doula from Al Ain. She trained as a hypnobirthing teacher, breastfeeding supporter and paediatric sleep consultant, and realised that while a wealth of knowledge is available for the birthing process, the reality of death remains largely ignored.
“We’re suspicious of death, which is interesting because not everyone will give birth, and yet there are countless ways in which mothers and fathers are encouraged to prepare for birth. Death is the single certainty in life, yet people continue to fear it instead of preparing for it. I wanted to create a death-positive landscape,” Carr tells The National.
Having a calm presence to see people through difficult moments and celebrate any glimpses of beauty together is a much-needed trait for death doulas. Carr says the feeling of fulfilment when helping someone with death anxiety is an extremely rewarding experience.
“We care for clients in ways that are personally meaningful and affirming to them. Our focus is assisting people with planning, preparing and processing,” says Francesca Arnoldy, a death doula from Burlington in the US, who also developed the end-of-life doula training programme for The Robert Larner, MD College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.
The most heartbreaking thing is to hear someone say: ‘I wish I had known about you sooner’
Lala Langtry-White, doula
Unlike hospice nurses and other end-of-life support providers, death doulas are emotional companions first and foremost, and must be able to customise their services based on what a person is looking to do to help ease the process.
Planning could involve creating schedules to meet others, having conversations that help with the transition, organising a pre-funeral while the person is still alive and sorting through belongings. Some may even want to make a scrapbook or involve family members to help them through the grief.
The amount of grief and uncertainty the pandemic brought has made many – both the ill and the relatively healthy – want to discuss death and have all their affairs in order, be they practical or emotional.
While stay-at-home measures were enforced in many places across the world, death doulas, like most others, turned to technology and came up with creative ways to virtually bring families together during tough times, making people realise they needed tools and information to bolster their sense of readiness.
Jessica Mendivil, a death doula from California, developed free community calls and training for families to help them cope with the loss of loved ones and general lack of preparedness.
Carr realised that while she missed being physically present, she could still impart training virtually on setting the death space, which included different ways to record one’s legacy and sit vigil when death was near.
Small and Mighty Babies, run by Lala Langtry-White and Joanne Hanson-Halliwell in the UAE, set up and continues to offer an online Love Through Loss community, plus monthly support evenings and access to voluntary bereavement doula support and counselling with The LightHouse Arabia.
It’s a lucrative job, but professionals know it can be a vulnerable and intense journey. Death is still not an easy subject for most people and perhaps never will be, but Langtry-White says the most heartbreaking thing is to hear someone say: “I wish I had known about you sooner.”
Rebecca Crewe had mixed emotions the day she dropped her partner Tony White off at the ATMA Urban Journey Clinic in Calgary to undergo a psychedelic treatment that uses psilocybin, the “magical” ingredient found in some species of mushrooms.
She was nervous and more than a bit skeptical. Little was known about the experimental treatment that has only recently been made available to patients in Canada with terminal illnesses. But White, who was dying of Stage 4 cancer, was adamant. He was so doped up on pharmaceuticals (including fentanyl, oxycontin, hydromorphine, medicinal cannabis) that his quality of life was non-existent. Even with all the drugs he could still barely walk. “Tony felt he had nothing to lose,” Crewe says.
When she returned to pick him up after his five-hour treatment the changes she saw left her stunned. White was smiling, joking with his psychiatrist and staff. And, most shocking, he was bending down, walking around and moving with a fluidity she had not seen in months.
“He told me he couldn’t really describe what happened,” Crewe says. “All he knew was that he worked some things out and felt at peace. I wish some doctor could explain it.”
For the past few years, researchers at academic institutions such as Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., Imperial College London and New York University have been trying to do exactly that. They have been studying how psilocybin –a hallucinogen that works by activating serotonin receptors in the brain – affects mood, cognition and perception. So far, it shows promise in helping to alleviate a number of serious mental-health disorders, including acute depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse.
“It’s still very early stages, but we believe psilocybin treatments can truly be an aid in helping society cope with the mental-health crisis,” says David Harder, chief executive officer of ATMA Journey Centers. “The medicine is not a panacea that will magically heal humanity, but in the right settings, these molecules can open our minds to changing our perspective on those things that hold us back.
“They can help us see our own self-limiting beliefs, trauma-related mental-health struggles, and relational tensions that bring us pain,” Harder says. “They truly are a paradigm shift in treatment, where rather than a pill you take for the rest of your life, it is a shift in perspective through one or two treatments that can change our view of reality, and bring about a life of purpose and joy.”
Within the past five years, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States has steadily granted breakthrough therapy status to drugs that were banned in the 1970s and 1980s, including MDMA (also known as ecstasy and molly), ketamine and psilocybin. In November, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, following in the footsteps of cities such as Denver, and California’s Oakland and Santa Cruz.
Currently, Health Canada has only approved psilocybin treatment for people in palliative care. However, a growing number of private companies (startups such as Numinus Wellness, Doseology Sciences and HAVN Life Sciences, all in British Columbia) and academic institutions (University of Toronto and University of British Columbia) are trying to convince government regulators that more money and time should be invested in researching how psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy might be used to unlock some of the mysteries of the human brain.
Dr. Evan Wood, chief medical officer at Numinus on Vancouver Island, says the societal costs of mental illness, addiction and trauma are much too high to ignore the potential breakthroughs that might be possible with psychedelic treatments. “With one in five Canadians currently grappling with debilitating mental-health conditions, we can’t afford not to look at psilocybin seriously,” Wood says,adding that mental illness is projected to cost the global economy US$16-trillion by 2030, according to a recent Lancet Commission report.
At Numinus, where they extract psychoactive compounds from plants and fungi, Wood says they are working toward a psilocybin-assisted therapy trial for patients with substance abuse disorders, as well as depression, anxiety and PTSD.
“There is a part of our brain called the default mode network that essentially enables us to function in our environment by decluttering the stimuli around us and quieting all the information coming into our senses. In depressed patients, and those with PTSD or substance abuse disorders, the default mode network is more active,” says Wood, a professor of medicine at UBC where he helps lead the university’s efforts in the area of addiction prevention and treatment.
“A session with psilocybin seems to disrupt this network, reset it and decrease its activity, thus alleviating the symptoms. The changes it appears to be bringing about with people are really profound. It gets at the root of what’s driving people to these mental disorders. Instead of giving them chemicals that numb those feelings, these treatments help you put that trauma behind you.”
Ronan Levy, co-founder of Field Trip Health, which operates eight psychedelic therapy centres in the world including two in Canada (Toronto and Fredericton; a third will open in Vancouver by the end of 2021) says demand in the last year has been robust. While in Canada they can only provide ketamine therapies at present, he expects both the Federal Drug Administration and Health Canada will approve psilocybin therapies in the next few years.
“I anticipate psychedelic-assisted therapies will rapidly become one of the most important treatment options for most commonly diagnosed mental-health conditions,” Levy says. “The evidence to their efficacy and safety is profound.”
This work is going on while all things fungi are experiencing a curious renaissance. The global mushroom market, excluding psilocybin mushrooms, is expected to be worth more than US$50-billion by 2025, according to the San Francisco-based market research firm Grand View Research. Mushrooms are showing up everywhere in the wellness sector, in coffees, teas, face serums, body lotions and supplements that claim to boost immunity, ease inflammation, improve cognition and relieve stress.
Dr. David Mokler, professor emeritus of pharmacology at the University of New England and an adviser to HAVN Life, says public demand for plant-based medicines is the catalyst driving some governments to slowly start lifting restrictions on psilocybin-based treatments.
“Depression is a life-threatening disorder. PTSD as well. Anxiety causes huge disruptions in people’s lives,” says Mokler, a specialist in neuropharmacology. “Drugs only benefit 40 to 60 per cent of patients with these disorders and there are still a significant portion of patients they have no impact on at all. If we can give them a drug safely like psilocybin, and it eases their suffering, which we’ve seen in many studies, then I am very excited about that. However, there is still so much we don’t know so it’s prudent to move forward with caution.”
Canada is taking baby steps toward allowing even limited use of psychedelic mushrooms – an approach that Dr. Pierre Blier, director of mood disorder research at the University of Ottawa, believes is wise. “The research done to date – by very reputable people in a very serious manner – is, however, still in very early stages.”
He warns that people need to be cautious. “Phase 3 trials are under way, but until we have blind proof of efficacy I would not recommend these treatments to my patients,” Blier says. “The danger is that people hear about these treatments and go buy mushrooms from illicit sources. Some mushrooms are toxic and I fear for their safety.”
For some people suffering from debilitating physical and mental illnesses, waiting is no longer an option. At the ATMA Urban Journey Centre, which opened last January, they have treated three clients so far, with three more in pretreatment psychotherapy.
White died 19 days after his appointment on Jan. 20, 2021, at the age of 46. However, the quality of life he enjoyed in his final days was a gift that Crewe believes all palliative patients should have access to.
“You have to understand how sick he was,” she says. “The day before Tony went into the centre he had a 50 milligram fentanyl patch on his arm and had to take eight bumps of the opioid to keep the pain at bay. After taking the mushroom, Tony’s patch was reduced to 12 mg and he never took another bump again.”
In the last few weeks of his life, Crewe says White found peace – he was happy. “The thing I find amazing is we had to get special permission to try this experimental treatment but we could get fentanyl, morphine and other highly addictive drugs without blinking an eye.
“To me this alternative treatment should be treated the same as medically assisted dying,” Crewe says. “It should be made available to anyone who wants it.”
Last week, Maria Isabel Benites Chamba was laid to rest at age 95 in Ecuador. Chamba’s family and friends were in attendance to pay their respects at her funeral — but one attendee in particular insisted on doing even more.
It was Chamba’s beloved dog, Bumer. He refused to leave her side until the very end.
During the wake for Chamba, organized by Funeraria Santa Rosa, Bumer stayed close by — just as he had done while she was alive.
“You could see the loyalty and affection that existed between her and her dog,” a spokesperson for the funeral home told The Dodo. “He was always there with his owner.”
When the ceremony ended, a procession formed to follow Chamba’s coffin to the cemetery. Bumer, of course, insisted on coming, too.
“He circled the hearse before hopping aboard as if to say, ‘I want to go and say goodbye to my mom,’” the funeral home spokesperson said. “A tremendous example of loyalty.”
Bumer was heartbroken — but in that moment, his immense love for Chamba was clear for all to see.
Chamba may have passed, but Bumer’s faithfulness lives on. Hopefully, in time, his broken heart will begin to heal — but that’s a process he won’t have to face alone.
According to the funeral home, the little dog was last seen in the warm company of Chamba’s family, united in their remembrance of the person they loved so dearly.
The pandemic has forced many to rethink and readjust their present with their future. Some have left jobs that provided steady paychecks and a predictable complacency for unknown, yet meaningful passion projects. Others are are taking more control of their destinies as they see fit. Unwilling to settle in life anymore. So why would you settle in death?
That’s the question Kathy Benjamin, author of “It’s Your Funeral! Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime — Before it’s Too Late,” asks. Amid the book’s 176 pages, Benjamin exposes readers to death in a light, humorous, and practical way, akin to a soothing bath, rather than a brisk cold shower.
The Austin-based writer’s niche is death (her last book centered on bizarre funeral traditions and practices). Having panic attacks as a teen, Benjamin said enduring them felt like she was dying. It was then that she started wrestling with the idea of death.
“I feel like I’m actually dying all the time, so maybe I should learn about the history of death and all that,” she said. “If I’m going to be so scared of it, I should learn about it because then I’d kind of have some control over it.”
It’s that control that Benjamin wants to give to readers of this book. She introduces readers to concepts and steps one should contemplate now, in order to make sure the last big gathering centered on you is as memorable as you and your loved ones wish. Poring over the book, one finds interesting final resting options such as body donation that goes beyond being a medical cadaver, “infinity burial suits” that lets one look like a ninja at burial, but also helps nourish plants as decomposition begins; and quirky clubs and businesses that allow one to make death unique (as in hiring mourners to fill out your grieving space and time, and designing your own coffin).
Now before you think this is all a bit macabre, Benjamin’s book also serves as a personal log so you can start planning your big event. Amid the pages, she offers prompts and pages where you can jot down thoughts and ideas on fashioning your own funeral. If you want to have a theme? Put it down in the book. You want to start working on your eulogy/obituary/epitaph, will, or your “final” playlist? Benjamin gives you space in her book to do so. It’s like a demise workbook where you can place your best photos to be used for the funeral and your passwords to your digital life, for your loved ones to have access to that space once you’re gone. If all the details are in the book, a loved one just has to pick it up and use it as a reference to make sure your day of mourning is one you envisioned.
As Benjamin writes: “Think about death in a manner that will motivate you to live the best, most fulfilling life possible. By preparing for death in a spiritual and physical way, you are ensuring that you will succeed right to the end.”
“Everyone’s going to die, if you’re willing to be OK with thinking about that, and in a fun way, then the book is for you,” she said.
We talked with Benjamin to learn more about the details of death and thinking “outside the coffin” for posterity’s sake. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: How much time did it take you to find all this data about death? You share what was in the late Tony Curtis’ casket.
Kathy Benjamin: I have shelves of books that range from textbooks to pop culture books about death, and it’s something that a lot more people than you think are interested in so when you start doing online research you might just find a list of, here’s what people have in their coffin and then from there, you’re like: ‘OK, let’s check if this is true.’ Let’s go back and check newspaper articles and more legitimate websites and things and those details are out there. People want to know. I think of it as when you see someone post on Facebook — somebody in my family died. I know for me, and based on what people reply, the first thing is: What did they die of? We want these details around death. It’s just something people are really interested in. The information is out there and if you go looking for it, you can find it.
Q: Was the timing for the release of the book on point or a little off, given the pandemic?
KB: That was unbelievable timing, either good or bad, how you want to look at it. I ended up researching and writing during that whole early wave in the summer (2020) and into the second wave, and it was very weird. It was very weird to wake up, and the first thing I would do every morning for months was check how many people were dead and where the hot spots were, and then write … just a lot of compartmentalization. My idea was because people who were confronting death so much, maybe it would open up a lot of people’s minds who wouldn’t normally be open to reading this kind of book, they’d be like: ‘OK, I’ve faced my mortality in the past year. So actually, maybe, I should think about it.’
Q: Is there anything considered too “out there” or taboo for a funeral?
KB: I always think that funerals really are for the people who are still alive to deal with their grief, so I wouldn’t do anything that’s going to offend loved ones. I can’t think of what it might be, but if there’s a real disagreement on what is OK, then maybe take the people who are going to be crying and keep them in mind. But really, it’s your party. Plan what you want. There are so many options out there. Some people, they still think cremation isn’t acceptable. Because death is so personal, there’s always going to be people who think something is too far, even things that seem normal for your culture or for your generation.
Q: You mention some interesting mourning/funeral businesses, but many seem to be in other countries. Do we have anything cool in the U.S. as far as death goes that maybe other places don’t have?
KB: One thing we have more than anywhere in the world is body farms. We have a couple and just one or two in the entire rest of the world. The biggest in the world is at the University of Tennessee. For people who don’t know, body farms are where you can donate your body as if you would to science, but instead of doing organ transplants or whatever with it, they put you in the trunk of a car or they put you in a pond or they just lay you out and then they see what happens to you as you decompose. Law enforcement recruits come in and study you to learn how to solve crimes based on what happens to bodies that are left in different situations. I think they get about 100 bodies a year. I always tell people about body farms because if you’re into “true crime” and don’t care what happens to you and you’re not grossed out by it, then do it because it’s really cool and it’s helpful.
Q: You mention mummification and traditional Viking send offs, what about the burning of a shrouded body on a pyre? Have you heard about that? It was the way hunters were sent into the afterlife on the TV series “Supernatural.”
KB: I haven’t heard of anyone doing it in America but obviously that’s a big pop culture thing. For Hindus, that’s the way it happens in India … you go to the Ganges, and they have places specifically where you pay for the wood and they make a pyre and that’s how people go out. I doubt there’s a cemetery or a park that would allow you to do it in the U.S., but on private land, you’re pretty much allowed to do whatever. I would definitely check on regulations. You would have to get the pyre quite hot to burn the body to ash, like hotter than you think to make sure you don’t get a barbecued grandpa.
Q: In your research, have you come across anything that completely surprised you because it’s so unheard of?
KB: There’s been things like funerary cannibalism, which is where you eat loved ones after they’ve died. But once you’ve read the reasons why different tribes around the world have done it, you’re like ‘OK, I can see why that meant something, why it was meant to be emotional and beautiful.’ Things like sky burial in Tibet, they have a Buddhist monk chop up the body and lay it out for the vultures to come get. Part of it ties back to Buddhist tradition but also it’s Tibet, you can’t dig holes there in the mountains. So, there’s a logical reason for it. When you look at these things that originally seem gross or weird, once you learn the reasons behind them it all comes back in the end to trying to do something respectful for the dead, and trying to give the living that closure.
Q: What are your plans for your funeral?
KB: I definitely want to be cremated. I don’t know if I want people to necessarily come together for a funeral for me but like I have a playlist, and even before the book I had a whole document on the computer of what I wanted. I want all the people to know about the playlist and then they can kind of sit and think about how awesome I am while the sad songs play, and then there’s different places that I would want my ashes scattered.
According to a survey of 1,528 LGBTQ+ people focused on the state of the LGBTQ+ community in 2020, conducted by the Center for American Progress, more than one in 10 LGBTQ+ people say they have been mistreated by a health-care provider, and 15 percent say they put off or completely avoided medical care in response to such discrimination. And those numbers are even higher for trans folks, with 33 percent saying they’ve had to teach their providers about being trans in order to receive appropriate care, and 38 percent saying they’ve dealt with a provider who was visibly uncomfortable with their gender identity.
Historically this has meant that queer folks have had to shoulder the burden of educating others and also being discriminated against in health-care settings, even in their final days. In recent years, though, that’s started to change with the rise of death doulas entering the end-of-life-care industry to help those who are dying make that transition. And for members of marginalized communities, like LGBTQ+ folks, such care can be especially necessary.
Death doula, defined
Sometimes called a death midwife, transition guide, end-of-life helper, or end-of-life-doula, a death doula does for the dying (and their loved ones) what a birthing doula does for a to-be parent (and their loved ones). “A death doula is holistic provider who offers non-medical, non-judgmental support to those who are dying as well as their loved ones,” says queer death doula and death-work activist Tracey Walker, who serves on the board of directors of National End of Life Doula Alliance (NEDA). While death doulas can benefit all people during this sensitive time, they are particularly helpful for members of marginalized communities—just as is the case with birthing doulas. And dying members of the LGBTQ+ community, in particular, stand to benefit in specific ways.
The support a death doula provides—whether logistical, emotional, physical, spiritual, or a combination—varies based on the specific death doula as well as the client’s needs and wants. “Some death doulas primarily do paperwork around advance directions, while others primarily function as liaisons between the doctors, the patient, and their family,” Walker says. Death doula work may also entail doing household chores, sitting vigil, sorting possessions, writing letters to living loved ones, planning the funeral, and offering the comfort of having witnessed death previously.
While the person dying and their loved ones often can see out the services a death doula provides without this extra support, these tasks can skew emotionally (and maybe sometimes physically) taxing, so outsourcing can be helpful for those who have access to such services. To contextualize this point, Walker says “most people also could cut their own—or a family member’s hair—yet choose to delegate the task out.” In that spirit, people may choose to delegate certain tasks to a death doula in order to free up space and energy to be present for the person passing in their last days, weeks, months together, Walker adds.
How death doulas can help queer patients combat queerphobia and queermisia in health-care spaces
Death doulas are not nurses or doctors, but they can take on the emotional labor and mental energy associated with educating health-care providers about their patients’ positionality, says sex educator and death doula Sarah Sloane, host of the Social Intercourse podcast. And that’s important, considering the ongoing legacy of members of the queer community being disrespected and discriminated against (aka, been victim to queermisia) in health-care spaces.
For LGBTQ+ elders in particular, who lived through the AIDS epidemic, which was rife with queermisia (before it was called AIDS, the virus was dubbed GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), the desire to avoid medical care in order to also avoid discrimination and stigma is likely even higher.
In times of need, queer patients need advocates, which is where death doulas can come in for end of life care.
In addition to advocating for the quality of health care that members of the LGBTQ+ community are entitled to, queer-informed death doulas can also ensure that providers are respecting and affirming queer patients’ pronouns, as well as treating their partners as partners—and not siblings, or worse, strangers, for example, she adds.
Death doulas can help model end-of-life transitions that *don’t* prioritize the nuclear family
In many cultures, death is regarded as a family-centric transition, with the dying surrounded by their children and relatives. “But [that idea] assumes that someone’s biological family is a safe and supportive structure in their life,” says Sloane. With data from 2013 showing that 39 percent of LGBTQ+ people have been rejected by or disowned by their biological family members at some point in their life, that’s simply not the case for many queer individuals. (Indeed, society has made strides in accepting the LGTBQ+ community over the last eight years, but that percentage is still not zero.)
Beyond that, in light of a combination of biological factors as well as laws and financial burdens that stand between queer people and parenthood, LGBTQ+ folks are less likely to have kids, and LGBTQ+ elders are also more likely to be single than heterosexual people, Walker says. These factors combined make LGBTQ+ folks less likely to have biological or legal family members supporting them throughout end-of-life care, opening up more need for a queer-informed death doula to be their advocate.
That’s not to say, however, that queer people do not have loved ones or family—many have chosen families made up of people of all ages, for whom they share queer platonic, romantic, or sexual love. “A queer-inclusive and queer-informed death doula will be able to treat these non-traditional family members as family members,” says Sloane.
For example, someone who is ethically non-monogamous may have two or three partners of equal importance, but only one of whom they’re married to, Sloane says. While traditional medical settings would only value and share information with the (legal) spouse, the death doula can value all partners equally.
Why death doulas for the queer community need to be queer or queer-informed
Not just anyone can be an effective death doula for members of the queer community. That’s because all people have unconscious biases that shape our worldview and the care we give. “For queer people, having a queer death doula can be comforting,” Sloane says, because it provides assurance that the death doula won’t bring in internalized or externalized bias against queer people. Furthermore, a queer death doula may be more conscious about asking a person’s pronouns and saving someone from the task of code-switching, or alternating patterns, gestures, and expressions.
As an outsider to queer spaces, “a non-queer death doula will need to ask questions that a queer person would just know the answers to, due to their lived experiences as a queer person,” Sloane adds. Take, for instance, that in some communities, it’s common for a person to be bathed following death, before burial. “A queer doula may be more likely to know that and thus ask questions like, ‘Do you want your body to be washed?’ or ‘What are your boundaries and preferences while being washed?’” Sloane says. These questions are important because, she adds, “a gender non-conforming person may not want their unclothed body to be seen by any family member or friend, other than the lover.”
It bears mentioning that not all effective doulas for queer people need to be queer themselves. Queer-informed doulas—or, doulas who have undergone sensitivity training and who understand the unique discriminations, needs, wants, and wishes of members of the LGBTQ+ community—can be valuable, too. “Queer-informed and queer death doulas typically say as much in their social media marketing and webpage, and talk about specializing in LGBTQ+ elders,” says Sloane.
To help you find a queer-informed or LGBTQ+ death doula, check out the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association provider directory or ring your local LGBTQ+ center. Ultimately queer-informed death doulas can be a profound addition to the end-of-life care team of a LGBTQ+ person to help ensure that they and their loved ones can be present with the time that remains.
When my yellow Lab died last spring, I was flattened by an overwhelming sadness that’s with me still. And that’s normal, experts say, because losing a pet is often one of the hardest yet least acknowledged traumas we’ll ever face.
I was walking home from getting my second vaccination shot last March when I suddenly felt like I couldn’t stand. Everything about the vaccine was fine. It was just that I had lost someone very dear to me a few days prior and I was overcome with crippling despair.
I plopped in the dirt next to the side of the road, wailing while I fumbled with my phone to find the number for Blue Cross Blue Shield’s counseling hotline. I explained my needs to an obstacle course of automated gatekeepers and finally got through to a human.
“My partner died two days ago,” I managed to say between sobs.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” said the woman on the phone, clearly moved by my distress. She gave me phone numbers for grief counselors in my area; I headed home with tears running down my face.
What I didn’t say is that my “partner” was a dog. A beautiful yellow Lab named Sunny, who died at 15 and a half.
When Sunny was euthanized in my backyard two days earlier, I knew that adjusting to life without her would be hard. What happened instead was more like a tsunami of grief that swept me out to sea. Now that I’m pushing 60, I thought I was fully experienced in coping with the death of loved ones. But the sadness from losing Sunny was far greater than what I had previously endured after the passing of my parents, grandparents, and other dogs. I was surprised and somewhat terrified that I had the capacity to cry so much.
If I had lost a human partner, there would have been the usual funeral rituals, and being an emotional basket case would have seemed understandable. But our culture treats the death of a pet more like the loss of an automobile. When it wears out, you should just go buy another one. Well-meaning friends and family members had advised this in their attempts to help me feel better. What they didn’t get was that I had lost a soul mate—an irreplaceable relationship—not a piece of property.During our more than 15 years together, Sunny was faithfully by my side as I went through a bitter divorce, raised my son alone, dealt with caring for my mother and her dementia, and endured the death of my parents, as well as PTSD caused by childhood trauma, empty-nest syndrome when my son went to college, stressful jobs, scary health issues, moving to a new town where I knew no one and, of course, the COVID-19 lockdown.Sunny was like a handrail along the edge of a thousand-foot cliff. Navigating life’s challenges seemed doable because I knew I could hold on to her if needed. Now the handrail was gone. Trying to understand why I was in such pain, I sought out a few experts, who explained to me what it is about these transitions that makes them so difficult.
“Our pets are there for us when other humans may not be,” says Robert Neimeyer, the author of several books on grief and director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. “Pets provide what psychologists call a ‘secure base’ for us where we can feel unconditionally loved and trusted. We often have the sense that they understand our emotions intuitively in ways that others do not cognitively.” Neimeyer points out that the emotional bond with a pet can be especially strong for people like me who are survivors of trauma. And he says one of the great ironies of pet loss is that we’re grieving the absence of the very companion who could have made such a significant loss more bearable.
As is true for many dog owners, my bond with Sunny was strongest in the outdoors. She shared my desire to wander in the wild more than anyone else in my life. And we did it daily, no matter the weather or what else was demanding my attention. I estimate that we hiked more than 15,000 miles together. On summer vacations and weekend trips, we hiked up to mountain summits and down to creek bottoms, through slickrock canyons and across snow-covered mesas bathed in moonlight. But mostly we just rambled for miles in the forest near my house, traveling cross-country on paths created over the years by our feet and paws. Sunny liked to walk about ten feet in front of me and insisted on carrying big sticks that were a minimum of five feet long. She would turn her head sideways to thread a stick through closely spaced trees and often looked back to make sure I was still there.
“Isn’t this amazing?” she would seem to say with her eyes.
“Yes!” I would respond, feeling life’s worries fall away.
We floated through the forest like synchronized swimmers, immersed in the joys of sticks and smells and towering pines bending in the wind. I needed this time with Sunny the way many people require coffee in the morning. It was hard to get through the day without it.
After Sunny’s death, my craving for our daily hikes—and for simply seeing her look back at me—was almost unbearable. I filled my house with pictures of her face and walked so many miles with her leash in my pack that I completely wore the soles off my hiking shoes. Eventually I connected with Richard Mercer, a grief therapist and facilitator of a pet-loss support group in Boulder, Colorado, who assured me I was not going crazy.
“The death of a pet is a very big deal,” he said. “I often have people tell me that they are surprised the experience is harder than losing their mom or dad. And there are many good reasons for why this is so.”
Unlike losing parents or other loved ones who don’t live with you, dogs and cats have an intimate place in our everyday lives. We miss their constant companionship, unconditional love, and presence as motivators: they’re a reason to get up and go on those daily walks. Mercer told me the death of a pet can also “activate grief over previous losses,” and I know what he means. I found myself crying about Sunny and also about my childhood dog Lucky, who was kept on a chain and was relegated to sleeping in a flea-infested doghouse—both at my parents’ insistence.
When Sunny was euthanized in my backyard two days earlier, I knew that adjusting to life without her would be hard. What happened instead was more like a tsunami of grief that swept me out to sea.
But the pain of loss also involves neurobiology. “Our field is just beginning to understand the positive benefits that dog ownership has to human health,” says Kevin Morris, director of research at the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection. Nothing against cats, but Morris says dogs are especially adept at being close friends. “All the dog breeds of today came from wolves that were, according to the theory, living off the garbage heaps of humans eight to ten thousand years ago. Dogs evolved to be companions to people in ways that other domesticated animals did not.”
Morris says researchers have found that a dog decreases anxiety and increases levels of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter, sometimes called “the love hormone,” that’s associated with maternal bonding. A study published in Science documented how simply gazing into each other’s eyes created a positive oxytocin feedback loop between dogs and their owners. Loving stares increased oxytocin levels in the dogs by 130 percent, and by 300 percent in the humans. Another study found that kissing dogs mutually increased oxytocin levels. Research has also shown that prolonged interaction between humans and dogs lowers harmful cortisol levels in both species.
“We are really wired to get that good stuff from our dogs,” says Mercer. “We associate the physical response of the oxytocin release to our connection with our dog and that is a lot of what we miss when they pass.”
I tell Mercer how I put pictures of Sunny all over my house and was walking around with her leash, apparently in a desperate attempt to get my oxytocin fix.
Doing whatever you can to feel better is a good idea. Mercer says that our culture’s widely accepted push to achieve closure by “moving on” after the death of a pet doesn’t really work. “The best thing to do is integrate the loss into your life by building a new relationship with a pet who is no longer physically present,” he explains. “We can give form to this relationship by honoring the memories of our pet, telling stories, journaling, and acknowledging our pain.” These memories embody not only the actions of our pets during their lives but also the events of our lives when the pet was supporting us.
Last March, when my 24-year-old son, Austin, and I decided it was time to put Sunny down, he flew from Los Angeles to my home in southwestern Colorado so we could give her a proper send-off. Sunny was being ravaged by cancer, but she still had an appetite. Our tight three-member pack, which had been the bedrock of Austin’s childhood, gorged for two and a half days on salmon, hamburgers, sausage, and some of Sunny’s unusual favorites, including Gouda cheese and lemon cake. Sunny could no longer hike in the forest, but we waded out with her into the Dolores River, where she had loved to swim. After Sunny was euthanized on her favorite patch of lawn amid swirls of fat snowflakes, Austin carried her inside and placed her on my bed. I anointed her with essential oils of ponderosa pine and blue spruce and tied a big pink ribbon around her neck as we prepared her for the crematorium. I had always joked that pink was Sunny’s best color, even though she was incredibly strong and fearless. In the coming days I would tie pink ribbons around candles, my wrist, the box that held her ashes, and a stick in the backyard where I built an altar, all to remind me of Sunny’s life and the tender, sacred ceremony of her passing. This brought me comfort—maybe even oxytocin—as did some of the other tips offered by grief experts.
One of the best pieces of advice I received was the license to cry as much and as often as I needed to. I have cried every single day since March 25, when Sunny passed.
Plenty of people experience this. “I wailed like a little boy,” Robert Neimeyer says of a cat he had several years ago that was killed by a car. “It was the purest and strongest grief I have ever felt in my life.” Copious crying is our body’s way of achieving homeostasis by physically releasing strong emotions.
Though letting the tears flow is healthy, it’s crucial not to remain stuck in despair. My thoughts often turned to Sunny’s tough final three weeks rather than to the wonderful years we shared. Mercer encourages people to make a conscious effort to focus on the good times and burn these happy moments into their brains.
“Meditate on these memories as if they are happening in the present and remember how you experienced them through your senses,” he says. “This is very grounding and builds resilience so that we are better able to handle the tough memories.”
Following another of Mercer’s suggestions, I joined the pet-loss support group he leads for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. “Pet loss is a disenfranchised grief and not everyone gets it,” he says. “So much of what comes out of the group is just normalizing and validating our feelings.”
The goal of the monthly meetings is to provide a safe place for grieving pet owners to share. Some participants hold a picture of a pet who died a few days prior and simply cry; others tell stories of a pet they lost years ago. I found every meeting to be like a giant hug.
One of the most surprising and hopeful things I learned was that my love for Sunny could be the bridge to bringing a new dog into my life—not as a way to replace her but to honor her.“Some people may feel it would be too painful or disloyal to get another pet,” says Neimeyer. “But the deeper way of honoring the pet is to apply the lessons of loving and living this creature made possible for you by sharing that with another animal when you have reached the appropriate point in your grieving process. This kind of love is so robust that it survives the pet’s physical absence.”
As I stand there soaking in the beauty, Sunny’s physical absence often brings tears. But then in an instant, just as the sun drops below the horizon, all the clouds light up with fiery shades of pink and I feel her essence in every inch of sky.
In June, after speaking with Neimeyer, I decided to reach out to a Labrador retriever rescue operation near Colorado Springs, Colorado—a way to lay the groundwork for the day, maybe a year or two away, when I would be ready to adopt a new dog. I spoke with a breeder involved with the group and told her about Sunny. We agreed to touch base again in early 2022. Then she called a few weeks later.
“I know you weren’t planning to adopt anytime soon, but there is this dog who really needs you,” she said. “You would be the perfect owner.”
The dog was an 18-month-old yellow Lab named Trudy. Her owner had severe dementia and kept her confined to a cement dog run. A neighbor had contacted the rescue operation to report Trudy’s suffering. She’d been left alone in record summer heat and never walked. Nobody knew if her owner was giving her food or water.
The next day I drove eight hours to Pueblo, Colorado, to rescue Trudy. If I had not received counseling on pet loss, I probably would have declined, thinking I was too heartbroken to care for another dog. Instead, I took Trudy home and was soon watching her roll around in the grass and lie on a dog bed and play with toys—probably for the first time in her life. Trudy seemed like a gift from Sunny, or at least a karmic manifestation of Sunny’s positive influence on my life.
I bought her a bright red leash and have been slowly teaching her to walk in the wild. She is partly crippled from being confined to a cage, so there’s healing to do. We are healing together.
Trudy and I wander daily on a mesa near my house. It’s an awe-inspiring, oxytocin-generating landscape where a vast expanse of sagebrush is luminous green in the late afternoon light and the sky is a blue ocean filled with archipelagos of clouds. Some clouds are puffs of popcorn. Others are giant curtains of mist dangling over mountain peaks 50 or even 100 miles away.
I still carry Sunny’s pink leash in my pack. I expect I always will.
“Sunny!” I routinely shout into the sun-kissed abyss while Trudy delights in sniffing the ground. “Isn’t this amazing?”
As I stand there soaking in the beauty, Sunny’s physical absence often brings tears. But then in an instant, just as the sun drops below the horizon, all the clouds light up with fiery shades of pink and I feel her essence in every inch of sky.
On other days I hike alone through the forest following the favorite secret paths that Sunny and I made together. Several times I have come upon a tree or bush that takes my breath away. Tied to a twig in the middle of nowhere and for no explainable reason is a bright pink ribbon.
Dealing with the grief of losing a loved one is emotionally taxing and can lead you to search for coping mechanisms in order to get through especially tough days. But when you’re newly sober and still adjusting to your recovery plan and the different habits it includes (and, crucially, does not include), that search may be especially tricky to navigate. “Loss can directly interfere with [a newly sober person’s] ability to make these lifestyle changes, sending them back to the addictive coping mechanism that worked for them in the past,” says grief counselor Diane P. Brennan, LMHC. Rethinking the grief process, though, while leaning on the supportive elements of a recovery plan can actually help with the task of grieving while sober (and keep you from derailing your progress).
Chrissy Teigen is in the early stages of her journey with sobriety and recently shared her experience of soberly grieving the loss of her third child during pregnancy last year. “I don’t really feel like I fully processed Jack, and now that I don’t have the alcohol to numb it away, things are just…there, waiting to be acknowledged,” she wrote in a recent Instagram post.
However, what grieving experts say is essential to remember is that, first, there isn’t a seamless way to “fully process” or get over grief. “It doesn’t function like recovering from a cold or flu, but instead, we learn to live with it,” says bereavement-care specialist Virginia A. Simpson, PhD. And second, because feelings of loss do beg to be confronted, finding non-self-numbing ways to cope can help with both managing the tough emotions and learning from them. For Teigen, that strategy might be getting her favorite lasagna dish (as she shared in her Instagram post), and for you, it might be something else entirely.
“Loss can directly interfere with [a newly sober person’s] ability to make these lifestyle changes, sending them back to the addictive coping mechanism that worked for them in the past.” —grief counselor Diane P. Brennan, LMHC
And in working through any bout of grief—for folks who are newly sober, long sober, or otherwise—it’s also key to understand that the process is not linear. That is, it’s not one-size-fits-all for every person or type of loss, and it doesn’t present in neatly organized stages to progress through. “The pain comes in waves, washes over us, then stops for a while,” says Dr. Simpson.
But while this is true for all people who grieve, when you’re also navigating sobriety, remembering that undulating feeling—being fine one moment, devastated the next—as something to be expected is key to keeping yourself from reverting to self-numbing whenever it arises. Below, the experts share a few practices to consider when developing your own process for how to grieve while sober.
5 tips for how to grieve loss while newly sober, according to grief specialists:
1. Embrace your sobriety or recovery plan with renewed vigor.
Gripping onto an existing routine—as much as you can, given the logistical upset triggered by loss—is one method experts recommend for managing your mental health while grieving. And, in fact, the rigidity of a sobriety or recovery plan itself may entail helpful pillars to hold onto as forces outside your control change rapidly.
In practice, that means sticking to your usual eating, exercising, and sleeping schedules as closely as possible, says Brennan, and also continuing to do things that bring you joy. That includes seeing the people whose presence you enjoyed before the loss, too: “Spending time with good friends can help support the idea that, at the end of the day, you’re still you,” says Dr. Simpson.
2. Dedicate time to new happiness-inducing activities.
If you feel as though your existing set of joy-sparking activities could use a refresh, adopt new ones that can both support your health and act as coping mechanisms. On the list of suggestions from Brennan and Dr. Simpson: Exercising, meditation, journaling, and drawing—all of which can serve as temporary distractors, release mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, and even engender a new hobby.
3. Drop the need to “accept” the loss.
Dr. Simpson warns against pushing yourself toward acceptance “because to accept means to embrace, and no one wants to embrace loss,” she says. Instead, it’s helpful to simply acknowledge the reality of the situation by establishing a new relationship with the lost person. “That could mean redefining your role in life so it’s no longer tied to that person,” she adds. For example, consider who you are and how you might define yourself among your friends, at work, or in other contexts, rather than as solely a mother, father, child, sibling, or the like, to the lost person.
4. Lean on a support system.
Rather than self-isolating, tap the loved ones in your life for additional support, both with processing the loss and staying on top of your sobriety plan. Bringing those people into your space more often allows for more accountability, as does joining a designated support group with people who’ve experienced a similar type of loss as you have, says Brennan.
5. Practice gratitude when you feel moments of positivity.
Sure, you won’t be able to just find life’s bright spots any time of the day. But whenever the tidal wave of grief subsides just enough for some degree of calm, take advantage of the moment to remind yourself of the things you’re still grateful for, says Dr. Simpson. “Gratitude is like building a muscle, and the more we teach ourselves to seek it out amidst our pain, the stronger our gratitude practice will get and the more things we will find to be grateful for.”