Today Sevenponds speaks with Alua Arthur. Alua is an end-of-life planner who founded Going with Grace to provide consulting services for those facing death and for their families. She is a former lawyer and a trained death midwife whose mission is to help those facing dying and bereavement with everything from emotional support to logistical and legal support.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ellary Allis: I was wondering if you could give me a brief introduction to you. What led you to the work you do and got you interested in working in the realm of death and dying?
Alua Arthur: I practiced law for 10 years at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. I started out doing domestic violence work and government benefits and such, but I wasn’t really happy. I went to law school in order to be of service, and I was of service. But there was something that still wasn’t quite clicking. I ended up getting terribly depressed and taking a leave of absence to go to Cuba.
Serendipitously, I met a German woman on a bus who had terminal uterine cancer. We started chatting about her illness and what it would mean. She was on a trip to see a place that she wanted to see before she died. She was 36 years old and was healthy enough to travel on her own, but she was ill. So we spent time together on the bus, talking about her life, talking about fear of death, doing a super deep dive into death and dying. I remember feeling very frustrated that there weren’t more professional people around to support her.
I asked her if she had a therapist, and she said she had an oncology psychiatrist. But they were talking more about her illness than what a terminal diagnosis meant for her. I understand that there’s a way strangers can open up to one another that perhaps we can’t with people that we know in our lives. But I was also wondering where the professionals were. Why wasn’t there anyone to talk with her about the fact that she was going to die? We’re all going to have to do it at some point. Why don’t we talk about it more?
That was really the genesis of my career change. I was looking out the window of the bus and a light bulb went off. And that was it. I came back to the states about two weeks later and began consuming information about death and dying, and found my way to death midwifery. I did that for a short bit and then my brother-in-law got ill. After that happened, I identified what I saw as real gap in services that were offered to support people in the practical affairs after somebody dies.
So I started Going with Grace, which is the organization I’m running now. We support people in dealing with the practical affairs that come up after a family member dies. Naturally, it also means that we give emotional support and all the rest. While doing this, I also realized that if we spent some time planning before our deaths, we might be able to avoid the big mess that comes afterwards. So I started an end-of-life planning component to Going with Grace. And with it all comes death education and awareness.
Ellary: It sounds like you really responded to a gut feeling about about your calling in a way that not many people do. It also sounds like you’re very satisfied in this line of work as opposed to your previous career. Is the realm of and conversation about death and dying something you’ve always been drawn to?
Alua: No. I’d say it wasn’t even really on my radar. Although when I look back, my first summer in law school I worked with the HIV/AIDS social services project in Brooklyn, New York. I was helping people write wills and trusts and estates and helping them get their affairs in order before dying, essentially. I did that job because I started a non-profit when I was 19 years old to do HIV/AIDS education work in a bunch of different countries across the world. I’ve been interested in HIV/AIDS for a long time. The reason I went to law school was to further my work in HIV/AIDS. There’d been an estate planning component to my work, and in issues that lead to death. But I’d never been the the girl that was drawn to grave sites and cemeteries. I never spent a lot of time thinking about the afterlife and existential matters.
Ellary: So for you it sounds like it was the realization, through your conversation with this woman in Cuba and then your experience with your brother-in-law, that you could be of service in really specific ways where work wasn’t really being done.
Alua: Yes. The type of serendipity that led me to her is bananas, and in times like that it’s impossible to ignore that there’s something there for me. There was a flame sparked within me that continued afterwards — a flame that grew into a fire when I came back.
Ellary: So you became a death midwife pretty soon after coming back to Los Angeles from Cuba?
Alua: I came back to Los Angeles from Cuba and then spent three months consuming death and dying information. I quit my job. Then I went back to meet up with the German woman in South Africa, which was the last leg on her journey. We spent about three weeks there. Following that I met a guy and traveled with him for about two years. During that time, I started my death midwifery training and got really clear on what direction I wanted to take with my death and dying work.
Ellary: Did you do a specific death midwifery training?
Alua: Yes, I did it through Sacred Crossings, and it was wonderful. It was enlightening; it was great.
Ellary: You call yourself an end-of-life consultant. So is death midwifery part of what you do now with Going with Grace?
Alua: Yes, I call myself an end-of-life consultant or end-of-life planner. Death midwifery is part of it, definitely. And when there’s an opening for other services that I can provide, I provide those.
Ellary: How do you describe the role of end-of-life planner?
Alua: I say that my job is to support people as they prepare to die and to support the family right after the death. That means a lot of different things. Sometimes it means referrals and resources. My most recent client is a family whose 80-year-old mom has Alzheimer’s and dementia. She’s been kicked out of two residential care facilities because the disease was progressing and she’d gotten aggressive. They wanted to transfer her back home. So my job was making sure the home was appropriate, preparing them for what to expect as the disease progresses, and preparing for the actual end of her life. We looked at her finances, and I explained to them how the long-term care bills were going to get paid. We also looked at how to get the home set up in a way that made sense. Lastly, we looked at what advanced care directives she filled out before she got sick, and how much of that can be honored now.
Check back next week for part two of our interview with Alua Arthur, when we continue to discuss the work of an end-of-life planner.