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What Brought Me Here (Daniela Othieno)

Feb 13, 2023

(This guest blog is by Daniela Othieno a member of our end of life doula community)

What brought me here

“But why do you want to work with death and grief?” is a question I do get asked, and I guess it’s a valid one. I too find it fascinating to understand the many different paths that bring people to this space and what can happen when we take the chance to immerse ourselves in it.

In my case, I have been journeying with death my entire life, and in truth, since before I was born. My brother died aged eight of leukaemia. Seventeen months later, I came into the world, but before that happened, my parents lost an unborn baby. It took me years to see how my arrival into a grieving family and the loss of my brother has shaped my entire life. It is strange to grieve someone you have never met, whose echo still resonates through every layer of a family and even a community.

My parents handled the situation admirably, considering there was no support or awareness whatsoever around what it takes to truly grieve in those days. We’re talking the late 1960s. Their relationship survived, just about, which is often not the case.

I have always known about my brother Michael. I inherited his toys, there were photos of him and we spoke about him often. In many ways, I had a happy childhood. My parents never openly compared me to him or made me feel I had to replace him. And yet I felt it was my role in life to remedy this terrible disaster, the incomprehensible injustice of a young child dying, of my parents losing their son. For the longest time, I operated under the belief that I was there to “make it right”. My mother became seriously ill, we nearly lost her many times since I was four years old. I’m convinced that unexpressed grief played a part in it. In all this, my parents really did the best they could. In their own ways, they both carried their broken hearts around, and I carried - well, something that took a long time to unravel. It put me on a journey that will in some way continue forever. In my early life, I was often deeply lonely. None of my friends had death residing in their lives the way I did. It was painful, an unspecified sadness always with me.

After much searching for relief, answers, meaning in all kinds of places, I’ve come to realise that my early awareness of death is in many ways a blessing. It showed me something valuable - that death does not wait for us at the end of our lives. It is always with us. Death walks with us from the beginning. As soon as we are born, there it is, right by our side, always a possibility. As soon as we love, we invite grief into our hearts. What I took from it above all is how precious life is. Not just our own, but all of Life, with a capital L. The more I allowed myself to feel this, the more my fear of death settled. And the more I saw how most people were blindsided by death, whether it was their own impending end or the loss of loved ones. It became painful to watch how hard everyone seemed to work to maintain the denial of the elementary truth that everything that lives will die. I saw this denial in relation to human deaths as well as all kinds of other loss and grief, from menopause to climate change. I began to feel that, maybe, I had something useful to share around this.

When my parents died, just over a decade ago within eleven months of each other, I saw in them the same knowing that I felt. Maybe this allowed them to die in what I might call a graceful way. Despite the circumstances not being exactly what I would have wished for, how they met their deaths became examples to me. Since then, my urge to do something with all this grew. People seemed to seek me out even more to talk about death and grief, sometimes breaking down in my presence and let it all come out. I saw that I was able to listen and witness without trying to fix them – something I often struggled with in other areas of life, they urge to fix I mean.

There was something about death and grief that I knew deep in my bones, even deeper into my lines of ancestors, which I would understand la lot more when we engaged with this subject in the doula course. Then even deeper, into the way I had always experienced the world through, for want of a better word, an animist lens. It was when my mum died in 2011 that the image of a compost heap kept coming to me. It was the most soothing thought, and it felt like her death brought me fully back to how I experienced the world as a child. I started properly remembering, in my body, how much I have always felt a part of the world, of life and of its cycles. How, even though our individual lives are immensely precious, and their loss an immeasurable tragedy, at the same time, Life creates Death creates Life without end…One not possible without the other. Everything in nature shows us this, and denying it seems to put so much agony into the world. I’m not denying the pain of grief, far from it. The physical reality of someone being here and then not being here is a wrenching pain. It is so valid and cries out to be witnessed and held. It is hard to exist on these different planes simultaneously: me and my precious life and me, a precious part of the thriving compost heap of the world. But holding those different dimensions in my consciousness has been the most profound healing for me. I wrote about this at the time of my mother’s death and it sparked more writing in a now long buried blog. Still, I wasn’t sure what to do with all this in a practical way in the world.

Eventually, I discovered the concept of a death doula and eagerly looked for training, but nothing I saw seemed quite right until I came across an interview with Alexandra and knew instinctively that Sacred Circle was the place for me.

Since the retreat in 2020, much composting of a life changing nature has happened, and this is testament to how deep this work can take you if you are up for it. It took effort, and still does. Moving out of many comfort zones, finding lost parts of myself, finding courage. All of it is resulting in a homecoming of sorts, for which I’m grateful.

In the beginning, I probably did expect that I would be sitting with the dying in a hospice, but this was not what happened, though I’m not saying it never will. Instead, a huge vista of possibilities has opened since engaging with this work and the community.  The many eclectic paths I have pursued in my life are coming together, and I am composting it all into something that makes sense. It became clear to me quite early into the course that I’m drawn to supporting those who are grieving. It is what I have done all my life of course, through circumstance, often to the detriment of my wellbeing. Now I have much more clarity and a firmer ground from which to work. Just over a year ago, I started volunteering on a bereavement helpline, and I still do. While I absolutely see the limitations of this model, I also see the desperate need for it in the system as it currently is. It is a “first responder” job, at the frontline of grief emergencies. It constantly shows me the deep need for grief in community. When we build those communities, fewer of those heart-breaking emergencies I witness each week on the phone will need to be endured by individual people, because peoples’ grief will be held in a different way.

This is something I absolutely believe in: working collectively to help bring awareness and to support the thresholds that we are presented with in the unfolding of life, to explore how to move through these cycles of endings and beginnings in community. As bel hooks said in All About Love, "Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion."

I feel that the future of this work – and the world in general - has to be in community. And this includes finding our right place beyond the human, within the entire community of all that lives and dies. That is not an easy task. I don’t think we can rely on unspecified feelings of “Oneness” to carry us through. The web of relations is complex, entangled, with uncomfortable edges, porous surfaces that meet in unclear boundaries. It will take everything we can give to it - ancient knowledge re-discovered, creative re-mixing with new eyes and open minds. Love. Radical acceptance. The will to experiment. Steadfastness.

And that is exciting work to be involved in.

Daniela Othieno 12/02/2023

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