Can you believe it? We’re already halfway through November! The onslaught of weather (rain! wind! almost-tornado!) feels like it’s hitting pretty fast and early—so is the oncoming holiday season.

Love it or not, it is that holiday shopping time of year. More than ever, we’re really embracing local gifts, whether that’s an experience or an item. Since local, women makers are kind of our thing, we encourage you to check out upcoming craft and holiday markets that feature tons of handmade goods so you can shop small, including the classic Urban Craft Uprising (winter edition) and the November Native Art Market and Holiday Gift Fair. Also consider supporting the arts community with tickets to performances, such as dance, theater, or concerts; lectures; or classes.

This month, and next, we’re trying something new and slowing down with the season, moving to a monthly schedule—meaning you’ll be seeing one more issue from us in December before we all say farewell to 2021.

In this issue, Nia talks with death doula 
Lupe Tejada Diaz of Doula Damn Thing about how she helps people and their loved ones talk about, plan for, and process death and the ways that inequities and the pandemic impact end of life and grief. And Niki talks with a quarantine baker whose pies have taken off.
Reminder, if you like our work and support our mission of valuing the work that women do, please consider contributing, if you’re able. Every little bit boosts our efforts to provide original, quality journalism and helps us grow in order to bring you more voices and stories. Thanks to those who’ve already pitched in!
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Good Grief 

A Seattle-based death doula explains how she—and others in this growing field—help ease end-of-life burdens for people and their loved ones—and how, even in death and grief, inequities persist.

Marigolds are often used to decorate cemeteries and ofrendas during Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead; their strong fragrance and colors are believed to guide the dead back from the afterlife to their altars and offerings. Día de los Muertos is just one piece of death doula Lupe Tejada Diaz's Mexican heritage that has informed her views on how different cultures process death. Photo by Chirantanusaikiaphotos.

“More than ever before, in any of our modern memory, death has been at the forefront of our interactions and in our daily lives,” says Lupe Tejada Diaz, the death doula behind Doula Damn Thing, “and, because of that, there’s been a crisis of heart, and soul, and humanity.”

As of this writing, over 755,000 people have died from Covid-19. As a country, we’ve witnessed a
surge in police violence and hate crimes, and an intensity of violence against women, globally—all of which have made grief increasingly ubiquitous.

However, the nature of the pandemic has also made grief impossible to process in traditional ways. Experts say
the effects of that stunted mourning process may have collective repercussions for years to come.

Part of this can be attributed to the enormity of loss that has occurred over the past nearly two years; but in the United States, people in mourning are also affected by a
prevalence of what’s known as “toxic positivity,” which often suppresses grief, sadness, and claims of injustice for the sake of progress and maintaining the status quo. The Western world, including the United States, is considered a “death-denying society” by many social scientists—a term commonly used to refer to societies that avoid thinking or talking about death—and this attitude can create an increased sense of fear and denial about mortality. But increases in loss of life and violence are forcing death to the foreground. “People are thinking about death more than they ever have, and so they’re starting to think of all the things that go along with death, all the planning and all the practicalities. Not only that, they’re thinking about what happens after,” says Tejada Diaz, “and they’re really starting to think about what happens in the moment of death. For people who are kind of death avoidant, it’s a very daunting and confronting thought.”

If you're not familiar with death doulas, you’re not the only one. Though people offering support at the end of life has existed for centuries, the profession itself is relatively new—starting around the early 2000s—and has gained momentum in recent years. Death doulas basically support people and their loved ones during the end-of-life process in practical and emotional ways—like a birth doula, but in reverse.
A significant number of death doulas are millennials and the last few years have also seen the rise of the Death Positive Movement, which aims to end the cultural silence around death and promote acceptance that it’s a natural part of life.

The United States’ general cultural denial of death was a major reason in propelling Tejada Diaz to pursue work as a death doula. She launched Doula Damn Thing in January of 2019: “In my culture, death is something that is not as taboo as it is here in the West. I think that, over time, as I was growing up, I noticed here that people in the States—they weren’t really prepared to handle death, or even talk about it,” she says. She was born in Mexico City and moved to the Kitsap Peninsula as a toddler. “So, I wanted to help people. And [death] seemed like a really good place to start.”

In order to prepare for a career as an end-of-life care specialist, she trained for 12 weeks under Alua Arthur, a nationally prominent death doula and founder of
Going With Grace, a professional network that provides end-of-life support. To become a death doula, no certification or medical training is required; but programs like Arthur’s help would-be death doulas learn what to do and what to expect—especially when it comes to preparing for people’s reactions to the processes of dying and grieving in a society that’s grief-averse. “In Mexico, it’s not that people are necessarily more open to talking about death, but there’s an understanding that it’s a reality—and that there’s nothing you can really do to avoid it.” She points to traditions of mourning and remembrance, such as Día de los Muertos. “It’s helped us come to terms with how small we are as humans and how we don’t have very much power against the natural world and the order of things.” She observes that funerals and memorial services in the United States, particularly among many white Americans, are dominated by formality and focused on sadness—which is in line for a culture that circumvents talking about mortality and seems to chase immortality. “In the U.S., there’s this thought that life support and anti-aging products, and all these things, are somehow going to cheat death or somehow going to avoid it, but they’re only prolonging the inevitable.”

Part of Tejada Diaz’s work is to provide a safe space for when the reality of that inevitability can no longer be denied. “As an end-of-life care doula, it’s not necessarily my job to tell people how to react to their death, but it’s my job to sit with them in that reaction and help them through it,” she says. Death doulas all offer different services, but they can cover everything from companionship and emotional support, to advance directives and legacy planning, to assistance with after-death paperwork. Typically, Tejada Diaz conducts an intake appointment to assess a client’s needs and desires and helps them put a plan together.

“A lot of my work comes from clients who have someone who is near death. In that case I meet with them and with the family and we talk about what they’d like to see for their funeral, for their body disposition and for the days leading up to their death when they’re no longer responsive. In that case, we form a good plan that makes them feel heard and seen and held in that death space,” she says.

“In other cases, I have clients come to me where there has been a recent death and they are confronted with the realities of dying in America—which is a lot of paperwork.” In these situations, Tejada Diaz is there to help sort that often complex paperwork and close out accounts—things that tend to be required immediately from surviving, grieving loved ones by banks, insurance companies, and other corporate entities. She also gets clients who just want to get ahead of it and have some plans established beforehand for peace of mind.

“People are thinking about death more than they ever have and so they’re starting to think of all the things that go along with death, all the planning and all the practicalities. ... For people who are kind of death avoidant, it’s a very daunting and confronting thought.” 

Another facet of  Tejada Diaz’s work is patient advocacy. “I get a lot of clients who are victims of racism, of police brutality, murder, things like that,” she says. “And so, in those specific cases, it’s not only my responsibility to protect my clients from the media, or sources that might want to cause them harm, but also just protect them and hold space for their grief while we’re trying to put the pieces of their life back together.”

Tejada Diaz says that there is a lack of respect for the life and death of Black and Brown bodies that dates back throughout the history of the United States, such as when enslaved people were buried in unmarked graves and endured harsh laws restricting funeral gathering. Today, that continues to manifest in end-of-life inequities, such as in the way funeral homes handle these bodies. “Very few of them know how to treat Black and Brown hair, Black and Brown skin tones,” says Tejada Diaz; embalming can also make these bodies look clownish, she says, and not like themselves. “That of itself is very traumatic to families. When we die, and we want to be presented in an open casket or just for a viewing, we want to look like ourselves. But it’s difficult to hide, or to not highlight, the incredible amounts of violence and pain that these bodies have suffered.”

“[Black and Brown people] still aren’t necessarily important to the fabric of America as people perceive us. It’s disappointing that, although we’ve come very far, we still have a long way to go,” she says.

It’s well documented that Covid-19 has hit communities of color harder, and the death doula notes that Black and Brown people are also more likely to die of preventable diseases. “We just aren’t allocated the right care or we aren’t given necessarily the same resources in preventive medicine. So, later on in life, we have to seek more aggressive treatments to sustain life. Not only that, but Black and Brown people are more likely to go on life support, just because there really aren’t any other resources for us.” It’s for this reason that she often acts as a patient advocate when families deal with hospitals and medical institutions. “It’s unfortunate that I have to do that so often.”

That mountain of paperwork she helps people with, too, can also be steeped in larger biases and racist attitudes. “It’s really difficult sometimes to get the most basic services and the most basic care for, let’s say, my clients who are undocumented. It’s really difficult to get the right paperwork, or get the paperwork in the right language,” she says.

Grief, too, can be compounded for communities of color in several ways. And in immigrant and undocumented communities, being away from home and familiar death rituals means losing a loved one can be extra difficult. “It brings out different types of grief. Grief for the dead, grief for the loss of home, for the loss of security, grief for the understanding that we’re really not important in this society,” says Tejada Diaz. “There’s a lot of different layers—and this constant assault on Black and Brown bodies, and our psyches, is just never ending. And so, to have someone like me, to come in and take some of that off of them, I think is really helpful.”

As honored as Tejada Diaz is to do the work she does for people, it can take a toll on her own mental wellbeing and cause burn out. “I’m a big supporter of mental health advocacy. I love my therapist!” She also sets boundaries. “I think that’s really revolutionary in this capitalist state that we live in, this capitalist mentality, to say ‘No, my health and wellbeing is more important than the bottom line.’ It’s something that we’re seeing more and more [from] our youth, because we’re just so sick and tired of it, we’re tired of being worked until we die.” She prioritizes good nutrition, moving her body, being out in nature, and connecting with her tribal community to help care for herself. She also gets occupational support through a local organization called A Sacred Passing where she is on the board of directors: “I don’t ever feel like I don’t have somewhere to turn to,” she says of the network of end of life professionals.

However, death is not only attached to stress or sorrow—which comes as a surprise to some. In fact, humor can very much be a part of dying—it’s even reflected in her business’s name. “Bringing back in those mundane and human aspects, you know, humor, laughter, it’s really important to the duality that we’re dealing with at the end of life,” she says. She recalls working with a woman whose husband was dying from an advanced form of cancer: “Near the end, she turns to me and says, ‘Well, I don’t really know what I’m going to do.’ And I had remembered that their favorite movie had been The Addams Family. And so, in a moment of shared humanity, I said, ‘Well you have a black dress,’ which is one of the quotes that Morticia’s mother says to her in the movie, and she laughed really really hard. It’s that kind of close humor that really makes things, if not easier, at least bearable.”

Tejada Diaz wants to build awareness that these supportive services are available—and for people to not be frightened of reaching out. “Death doulas and end-of-life care workers aren’t scary,” she says. “We’re not weirdos, we really do just want to provide help and provide a service for people.” It’s OK to be afraid of death, she says, but she thinks that the more people learn and prepare, the better they’ll be able to accept what’s coming and understand their own thoughts, feelings, and reactions around death and dying. Planning for these realities can be an act of kindness that brings those who are left much needed support during one of the hardest and rawest moments of their life. “Talking about death isn’t going to bring death, planning for it isn’t going to make it happen faster,” she says. “I think planning for your death is an extension of love for your loved ones so that they know exactly what you want and so that you can almost accompany them in their grief while you’re gone.” After all, there’s great comfort, whether in dying or mourning, in knowing you’re not alone. By Nia Martin

“I’m deeply humbled and honored to be able to serve my community the way that I have," says death doula Lupe Tejada Diaz, who started Doula Damn Thing a year before the pandemic hit. "I’ve had to be very careful with burnout, because of the amount of work I’ve had to do in the past couple years. I got started, and a year later, things got pretty tough pretty quick. But it’s been an honor.” Photo courtesy of Lupe Tejada Diaz.
More on Death and Grief

Doula Damn Thing is one of a few resources that can help you get the end-of-life conversation started with loved ones. Here are a few more organizations and social media accounts to check out:

A Sacred Passing: Based in Seattle, this organization provides resources for death doulas, as well as those seeking to learn more about grief, death, and dying.

Recompose: This Seattle-based company practices natural organic reduction—converting bodies to compost—a more natural and environmentally friendly process. Death doula Alua Arthur serves as an advisor. See our feature from last year

People’s Memorial Association: A Washington-based nonprofit that offers resources, education, and advocacy around affordable and compassionate after-death arrangements.

Death Cafe and The Dinner Party: Communities that hold both virtual and local get-togethers all over the country for grieving people to discuss their loss and feelings without judgment—the latter is specifically for 20- and 30-somethings.

Social Media Accounts are a good place to find community and additional resources. Here are a few lead by women: @a_sacred_passing@going_with_grace@refugeingrief, @ttfapodcast@alica.forneret

She Made It

Who's behind this pandemic hobby-turned-business? Tap the drool-worthy, savory pie below to find out...


What to see or do this week/end

With Covid-19 variants like Delta still a risk, outdoor large event and indoor masking is in effect in the state of Washington—even if you are vaccinated. Protect the health and lives of your community and get vaccinated if you haven’t already. Below, we’ve highlighted some ways to support and engage with the community.

Join Deb Schwartzkopf and guest artists on Nov. 29th for a Holiday Ornaments Online Workshop. Each of the four presenters will demo creating an ornament using their clay techniques at White Center’s Rat City Studios. Learn more about the artists and register here, and be sure to check out what else RCS has to offer.

Through Nov. 27th, find Kellie Talbot’s exhibit, “What Remains,” at Rovzar Gallery downtown; oil paintings focused on signage and symbolism right here in Talbot’s rapidly changing hometown, Seattle. She captures angles and details of familiar landmarks that give a new perspective.

Tonight! Activist, author, scholar, and American hero Anita Hill discusses her latest bookBelieving: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violencewith the cofounder of Washington State-based Black Future Co-op Fund, Angela Jones. Presented by Elliott Bay Books and the Northwest African American Museum.

Dec. 3rd–5th, catch Writing With Fire at the SIFF Film Center, which won the Audience and Special Jury documentary prizes at this year’s Sundance Festival. The film features the journalists of Khabar Lahariya—India’s sole newspaper run by Dalit women.
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