#19 Alua Arthur: A Life's Work With The Dying

It's just not every day you ask someone about what they do and their response is, "I am an end of life consultant." If you're curious about what that means and how Alua found herself creating a company that manages the affairs and emotions of the dying and their families, read on... 

Alua took a winding path that led her from caring a lot about what other's thought: marrying when her intuition said no and pursuing a career in law despite it feeling "not right." She 180'd to single woman in her 30s who found her life's work with the dying. Alua's story is full of those serendipitous moments perfectly fitting for a movie script. This is a longer interview than most, but I couldn't help but keep the storylines in tact so you could experience a bit of the magic that is the life's journey of my friend Alua Arthur. 

180 changes can be In career, lifestyle, relationships, geography etc. Can you share about your 180s in relatIonship and career?

My adult life has been defined by my 180s, the hard lefts.  

The Relationship 180…

When I was 29, I married a man who wanted the tradItIonal whIte pIcket fence and buckets of chIcken served in front of the TV on frIday nIghts. In his dream, we’d be sIttIng on a porch watchIng grandchIldren play on the front lawn drInkIng lemonade In our 80s.

But me? I am a vegetarIan and I want art gallerIes, treks through Morocco on camelback, and sIlent retreats on isolated islands for my retIrement. Clearly our vIsIons for lIfe dIdn't match up but I thought I was doIng the rIght thIng and I loved hIm very much, so I marrIed hIm.

The nIght before our weddIng I had serIous doubts.  We argued about my doubts all day long, but when 5pm came around, the photographer and the florIst showed up, and my dress was steamed and delIvered, so I put It on and walked to the beach ceremony where we got marrIed.  

Very soon after I was certaIn I'd made a huge mistake.  And, six months of marriage and a beautIful townhouse later,  we separated. We had been married in Costa Rica and by foresIght, intuItIon, or perhaps sheer lazIness, we never fIled our marrIage certIfIcates so we dIdn't have to officially dIvorce. Still, we crIed a lot, talked nonstop, separated our belongIngs and saId goodbye. Gratefully he's stIll In my lIfe today and I still love hIm very much.  

The Career 180…

In late 2012, I took a leave of absence from my work as an attorney at the Legal AId FoundatIon of Los Angeles. I'd had a sense that my lIfe was going to take another hard left but didn't know what was approachIng, only that what I was currently doIng wasn't workIng.  I felt empty and was depressed.  I'd envIsIoned a life of servIce and whIle that was exactly what I was doIng as a publIc interest attorney in domestIc vIolence and non profIt development, I stIll felt wholly unfulfIlled.  

I took a 3 month leave, went to the home of a great frIend In Colorado where I medItated and walked around a lake and started followIng my lIttle curIosItIes. At the end of those 3 months, my callIng had become clear. I never went back to my job. I became a certIfIed death mIdwIfe almost 2 years later.  I am currently an end of lIfe consultant at Going WIth Grace whIch is an end of lIfe plannIng organIzatIon.

What did you learn about your intuItIon through your 180 experiences?

My intuItIon never lIes. SometImes I try to put an interestIng spin on it to tell the story my mInd wants to hear but then she (my intuition) gets louder than ever.  When I don’t lIsten, she manIfests in the form of some impossIble to ignore scenarIo. In the case of my job, my intuition and mInd were at odds and It manIfested in a powerful wake up call to my spirit in the form of depression.  She screamed 'somethIng AINT WORKING GIRL!!!"  

I love this quote:

"The short term paIn of acceptIng the truth is much better than the long term pain of believing an illusion."--unknown game changer.   

Alua in Cuba, 2012

Alua in Cuba, 2012

Tell us about your epIc trip to Cuba. Why Cuba? How dId your near-death experience there support your change of course (your career 180)?

I can't quite tell you. I was followIng my curiosity, whIch started wIth a thought about Elian Gonzales. I'd always been curIous about Cuba but hadn't made it a prIorIty.  Also it was Illegal for AmerIcans to travel there without a license. Still, I read about about the country after Elian Gonzales news stories and my curiosity grew. By chance, the afternoon I started my research, I also met a Greenpeace worker outside of my local library and his bag saId 'Cuba te espara' which means Cuba is waiting. I really don’t believe in coincidence and so I bought a tIcket that nIght.

Because of Cuba, I met Jessica, a meeting that would change the course of my career.  

I'd been dancing and drinking Cuban rum all nIght in a limestone cave in Trinidad. DespIte an early mornIng bus trip planned, I had stayed out late, sleeping only two hours before realizing that I stIll had a scrunchie from the Cuban woman who had taken me out the night before. Wanting to return her possession and say my goodbyes, I raced through and, along the way, I was almost hit by a car.  I slammed my hands on the hood and realized that I was being careless and I should be more aware. I made It back to my guesthouse just in time to throw my bag on a bicycle taxi and arrIve at the bus station wIth a few mInutes to spare. Upon arriving, I noticed a woman with a tattoo of a quill pen on her forearm. I asked about the tattoo and we struck up a conversatIon.  

JessIca, just 36 years old, revealed to me that she had uterine cancer and was on a six month journey to see the places in the world that she had wanted to see before she dIed. Cuba was her second destInatIon. More questIons revealed that she hadn't spoken with anyone of her fear of death and the meaning of her life, even at this critical juncture. That profoundly saddened me. I couldn't understand why there was a lack of support for people in her position. The medical community is based upon healing, not dyIng.

I trIed to recall the last conversatIons I'd had about my own mortality and the meaning of my own life. I recognized that they were just a few. Yet a stranger and I had taken a dive into the deepest pools of it in a few hours on the bus. We spoke of her passions, her regrets, her wIshes, her future, her thoughts on the afterlife, and what we thought dyIng felt like. Maybe ironically, I felt more alIve than ever before.

In that moment I felt clear: my lIfe's work was with people that are dyIng.

Seven hours later we arrIved In CIenfuegos whIch was supposed to be her stop. We decIded she would come wIth me instead to SantIago.  We made fun of music vIdeos on the bus TV, coveted our neighbor’s ice cream cone and meditation on death.  Another seven hours and we reached Santiago, making our way to the guesthouse I'd booked. We drank rum and danced to the Backstreet Boys. I also helped her with a lymphatic massage and her medications - she was sIck, afterall.  

At the very end of the night, she shared something that shook me more than any of the conversations we’d had all day. She asked if I remembered beIng in Trinidad and almost gettIng hit by the car. I was confused as to whether I'd prevIously shared that wIth her in our time together, but I had not.

As it turned out, JessIca was a passenger in the car that almost hit me 14 hours prior.  Intuition, rum, and a near car accident delivered me an unimaginable gift--my life’s work.

Were there any obstacles you encountered In your new lIne of work that you dIdn't expect? How do you approach It?

About a year and a half ago after a circuitous route to fIndIng my nIche in the death and dyIng industry, I started an organizatIon called GoIng WIth Grace, which is an end of life planning organization that is committed to supportIng people as they answer the questIon 'what must I do to be at peace wIth myself so that I may live presently and die peacefully?' I work with healthy people and grieving families alike to navigate the emotional, legal and practical affairs of nearIng or contemplation the end of life.  

There are quIte a few challenges. I just read an artIcle whIch stated, "death is the ultimate enemy."  A busIness based upon the only remaInIng taboo is quIte a challenge but I'm commItted to the vision. There Is no doubt that the work I am doIng is necessary, healIng, and helpful to individuals, families and our culture. That makes it pretty sImple for me to keep goIng. The Ideas in our death-avoidant culture are based on the desIre to eliminate grief and pain whIch we sImply cannot do. It is part of the human experIence. We cannot know joy unless we know paIn. SunshIne and raIn. We do not celebrate life until we have awareness of death.   

What do you want the world to know about death?

You are going to die. Live like your life matters. Determine what brings YOU joy, spread that around, and prepare for your death. Also, death is messy. We can make some of that mess easier on those left behind by gettIng our affairs in order while we are still healthy.  My lIfe's work is about these prIncIples.

Alua celebrating life at Burning Man

Alua celebrating life at Burning Man

What do you belIeve to be true about death and the journey of our last breaths on earth?

It is a part of our story. We can’t say we love something and not also love its end.  OtherwIse it is condItIonal love.  

The last breaths are such a sacred tIme, much like our first breaths were. They should be treated the same way: with awe, wonder, befuddlement at the mystery of life and with planning, pomp, and celebration of LIFE.  There is no denying that it is sad,  but that sadness doesn't have to be amplified by the duties whIch remain after death like closing accounts without passwords, disposIng of possessions, and makIng decisions about the body are so much easier when there are instructions!!

What have you learned about life and life's choIces through the work that you do?

I've learned that when we live wIth the awareness of death as an ever present possibility, we can live authentically.  If you were to die tomorrow what would you prioritize today?

Life is short--buy the shoes!!  And please tell someone what to do with them when you die because one day you will.

What was your fIrst experIence lIke In supportIng someone as they passed?

I was wIth my brother in law Peter SaInt John when he died. I had been supporting him and his family two months prior to his death. During that time I saw how essentIal it is for family members to have support in theIr non-medIcal needs durIng this tIme.  It was sad and isolating--where were the people who have the knowledge about this process?? It was confusing too--there was hope, followed immediately by a wIsh for hIs suffering to end. It was profound. It was delicate. It was rich. It was confronting. It was a great honor to walk him as close as I could to the other side. Most of all it was life affirming. Peter died six months after beIng dIagnosed wIth BurkItt's Lymphoma. Our time here is short.

What's been your greatest challenge in 180?

Re-wrItIng my story. Explaining why I left a defined career in law for the murky waters of death. Explaining why I left a marriage wIth a man who would love me until I dIed and gIve me all the babies I wanted for the great single unknown. Explaining that lIvIng a life fully true to myself is the greatest gift I can gIve myself and this planet. So basically the biggest challenge is people not understanding. But I'm clear!  

I also struggle with if I should keep payIng my bar dues!! What if I need my law license in the future, I do not want to take another bar exam!

What's on Alua's Must Read List?

I could answer thIs for a year and they would all be MUST reads.

I snapped this shot of Alua in her element among books!

I snapped this shot of Alua in her element among books!

The AlchemIst--Paulo Coehlo

Dying to be Me--AnIta MoorjanI

Half of a Yellow Sun--Chimamanda NgozI AdIchIe

Radical Forgiveness--Colin TIppIng

It’s Ok to Die-- Dr. Monica WillIams-Murphy

Being Mortal--Atul Gawande

If you could visit a former versIon of yourself and share one thing wIth her, how old would you be and what would you share?

I'd tell the recent college graduate Alua to do what feels right to her cause her lIfe is her own and she will ultimately arrive at the same place anyhow. I'd also tell 17 year old me to eat all the cake she wants! I'd tell her that J-Lo would be coming and her booty is going to be appreciated for beIng juIcy, so savor every bite.

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