decolonizing death, part one of many

a dark path lined by trees, looking toward a break in the horizon bright with sunshine

cw: discussion of death, discussion of cultural harm

I had an epiphany today: I’ve been thinking and pondering for two years now on the concept of how to be of service to they dying and their loved ones. The risk to my personal health, as an immune-compromised individual, is too significant for me to be able to consider traveling yet; not to mention what I may unwittingly bring back into the place where I live, where many of us have chronic conditions that leave our immune systems susceptible.

The fact that right now, I can’t be physically present for someone as they are dying, is hard for me to accept. That I can’t hold a hand, or create a safe and sacred space in person. The distance inherent in this time of apocalypse and separation is a source of grief for me.

what if, instead of staying in my own grief, I could hold yours gently instead?

My epiphany was that I’ve been thinking about this from a direction that doesn’t make sense to what’s true right now. Rather than try to imagine what I can or can’t do, I could instead spend my time imagining how to help us help ourselves.

It’s a catastrophic example, but I think we’ve all heard stories of people without flight training being given instructions on how to land a plane safely, because there was no one else to do it. Maybe the future end of your life doesn’t feel like a plane about to crash, but the metaphor seems to work for now.

I have been doing a lot of internal work trying to understand how to decolonize my thinking and my frame of reference of myself and of the world I live in. I have been studying abolitionist ways of being, and I am incredibly blessed to be living in a house full of my chosen family, who are all learning better ways of being and choosing. And I think that my urge to be helpful, it stems from a sense of power imbalance in which I am the one holding the power-over.

We train and learn and become experienced so that we can be the best version of us that we can — not to engage in a fight with our shadow self or to punish and root out what we view as wrong, but to find the living truth within ourselves and bring it into the light so that it can grow to compassionately cover the ways we’ve been taught to harm ourselves and each other, like a climbing flowering plant that holds but doesn’t suffocate.

Now this is the law of the jungle —
as old and as true as the sky;
and the wolf that may keep it must prosper,
but the wolf that may break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk,
the law runneth forward and back —
for the strength of the pack is the wolf,
and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

Rudyard Kipling

It follows, I think, that in feeling cut off from what I expected to be doing, I have fallen into a habit of seeing things I think I need to fix or adjust, and trying to scoop up all the responsibility and necessity that would help me feel useful. But this is a harmful way of being. It is a harmful way of seeing, of choosing, of becoming.

I know things about grief and death and traversing the liminal pockets of space-time we enter when it is time to experience these things. This doesn’t mean that I need to ever be an authority on any of it, and it doesn’t mean that my knowledge or wisdom is necessary to anyone’s experience of dying. What it means is that I can be someone to hold that sacred space, to be there so you aren’t alone, to listen to what you need to say, to advocate for you.

It is not my job to save you. It is my Work to be the light for you if I can, when or where I’ve been invited. In remembering this, I’ve have arrived back at the place I was when I trained as a death doula.

I don’t want to support the kyriarchy in my efforts as a deathworker.

I don’t want to take money from people who need me.

I don’t want to take time and attention that many of us do not have.

I want to be aware of what kind of dangerous world we inhabit.

I want to be aware of what I can affect; and what is not mine to touch.

I need to be that which is needed, but no more, so that I don’t take up space that isn’t for me to occupy.

This is a thread of thought that I’ve had for quite a bit more than two years: how can I offer my Work to the world in way that will not reinforce the harm capitalism has caused us all? How can I expect anyone to see me trying to do that as anything but a trick to draw you in and then pounce on you for money once you’re psychologically dependent on me?

Judging by the dozens of asks and fundraisers and desperation that I see each week, most of us are not in a position to assume we can pay for something, especially if it’s end-of-life care, maybe because of the ways that dying has been commodified. It costs money to be sick, it costs money to die, it costs our loved ones money to honor us in death. Everything we desperately need seems to come with a price tag. Notarized wills and last wishes. Funerals. Coffins. Urns. An ambulance ride. A burial plot. Time away from work for laying our dead to rest. Emotional bandwidth we don’t have, to decide what to do with our loved one’s possessions. This all, directly or indirectly, costs us money, whether we have it or not.

What if, instead of money, the price could be connection and time? What if the price is to be vulnerable and to trust that we will not be harmed? The most precious things we have to give are our time, our love, our trust.

Our kyriarchic culture of scarcity, structural racism, punishment, shame — it has stomped its boots onto our broken hearts and left scars that may not ever heal.

There is still a lot here that hasn’t occurred to me yet. I’m very aware of how close to the beginning I still am of understanding concepts as big as abolition.

I am doing my best to find the most harmonious way to hold my candle in the darkness so that you can see it and find me, bringing your own light, so that we have more light together.

The only way to survive these many griefs is in community with each other.

Hold on
Let us take it slow
We need to stay strong
Right here
I’ll stay here and keep you warn
As you sing

Help me guide me through the night
Help me conquer all of my fright
Keep me sheltered from the storm
Play the song of warmth

from Song of Warmth, by Nekonomicon

You are loved, and you are not alone.

featured image is a photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Nix Kelley
Co-parent to multiple kids. Writer. Death doula. Member of the Order of the Good Death. Seeker on the Path of Light. Queer, non-binary, & trans.


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