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What would a "good" death look like?
Julia Bray shares her experience ushering her grandmother from this realm to the next
In life, only one thing is certain: death. Yet we are taught that death is the ultimate failure. We fear death above all and speak of it in hushed tones and metaphors, or avoid the topic altogether. What if we could better confront our mortality and even befriend it, as we attempt to do with the other unknowns in our lives? If you were given the choice to have a “good” death, what would that look like for you?
These are the questions my friend Julia Bray helped me explore for the first time. Julia, a performer and astrologer who I met through an improv class in New York City, moved back to her hometown of Portland, Oregon a few years ago. On her Instagram—amidst captivating, ethereal posts of her dancing, doing yoga, and musing about tarot, sobriety and spirituality—Julia shared stories of her frequent visits to her grandmother’s assisted living facility. For a couple of years I watched Julia and her grandmother, Catherine Snow Cordoba, talk and laugh and share memories and play games. It was an intimate look into maternal bonds and attention to our elders.
Then, Julia began to share her experiences of Catherine’s transition toward the end of her life. Julia made it her mission to give Catherine a death of comfort, support and as much choice as possible. Catherine died on January 9, 2020 at 92 years old, surrounded by her family. Julia feels profoundly changed by the experience and hopes to share what she learned with others—that death can be an incredible teacher, and does not have to be the end.
Catherine Snow Cordoba, Julia Bray’s grandmother
Jillian Anthony: What has your next chapter been like since you moved away from New York?
Julia Bray: Part of the deep, intuitive soul calling to go to Portland, which is my hometown, was to be with my family and focus in on feminine lineage energy—meaning my relationship with my mother and my grandmother. I had recently gotten sober and found more spiritually attuned practices and was like, Okay, I need to go to a place where there’s more trees than people.
Why was reconnecting with your female lineage important to you?
To speak honestly, I had a lot of critique and challenge with my mother and I noticed that my mother had similar critiques and challenge with her mother. And even though my mom and I have a beautiful and strong relationship, it’s still a mother-daughter relationship and it’s fraught with all of the ways that we teach women to engage with one another. [I wanted] to be a bridge between that for my mom and her mom.
How did you explore that?
From 88 to 92 [my grandmother] went through many life transitions and changed considerably. And I got to witness that and form an actual adult relationship with my grandmother. In my younger years—and probably most people can relate to this—you think about your parents or your grandparents as that title, not necessarily these whole, complex, living, breathing creatures.
I really enjoyed the process of going to [her] residency in downtown Portland with probably 100 other older folks who are in need of a little bit more support. I would go and teach yoga and meditation at her place once a week. A lot of times they would nap. But it was such a sweet experience of offering something that I loved and helping people.
I wanted to come out to [my grandmother] before she died. She was incredible about it. She would always ask, “Who’s your boyfriend?” I’m queer, I identify as bisexual, so yeah, there might be a boy in my life but there also might be a female or a gender non-conforming person. I said to her, “Grandma, I’m queer, and this is what that means for me.” She said, “Sweetie, you’re not queer, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re allowed to love whomever you love as long as you’re not hurting anyone.”
Wow. What would she have described her spirituality as?
Staunch, profound atheist. She believed in the power and goodness of human beings.
“We see death as this antithesis to success. My grandmother was an extraordinary advocate for her death. She wanted to die.” –Julia Bray
What happened at the end of her life?
After her husband died about 14 years ago, depression set in very big for my grandma. It was this process of watching her wanting to die. Something that is fascinating to me is that there’s a death process that we are not taught about that starts sometimes years before. These are cycles that have been tracked by health professionals, hospice nurses—losing interest in life, starting to give away your things, losing interest in food, sleeping more, being less social. These are things that we’re typically taught are negative. We see death as this antithesis to success. My grandmother was an extraordinary advocate for her death. She wanted to die. She wanted to die soon. She wanted to be gone from this world.
That’s very scary for anyone we love.
Totally. And it created a lot of conflict in my grandmother and my mother’s life. My mom, showing up day after day to get her groceries and tend to her and my grandma being despondent, saying, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to eat that.” Her whole personality changed. Back to me being a bridge, I was over here with a very different relationship to my grandmother, able to see her now in this phase and accept where she was. It was a lot harder for my mother to be in acceptance.
Around November , my grandma was really going downhill. She had a couple falls in the month of December that really destabilized her in her body. When it started happening and it happened fast, my mom was like, Something’s wrong, we have to fix the situation—versus being like, This is the process we’ve been in, she told us what she wants, and here she goes. It was a six-month period where I was a primary caretaker. And then there was a three-week period where I was very much alongside my mother, there 24/7 helping take care of her and usher her through this death process.
After [my grandma had a fall on Christmas Eve], my mom pushed for her to come over Christmas Day. I went over to my Grandma’s and got her all dressed, and she was like, “I’m not going. You’re not listening. I want you to call hospice. I’m ready to go.” I kept saying to my mom, “She’s serious about this and we need to take her seriously.”
So the whole family came over for Christmas and spent the evening around her bed. It was the bedside goodbye that she had wanted. That was when we had this whirlwind two weeks of incredible education from hospice, which I could not recommend enough. There’s so much literature out there [about the dying process]—it’s just like birth. Once we reached that threshold of acceptance, my mom and I could be like, Let’s make this process really good for her.
What were some of the most important things that you learned about making that process as good as it could be?
Making her really comfortable. Making sure that she had access to painkillers if she wanted it. Morphine doesn’t kill patients but it definitely helps sedate them into this state of consciousness that allows you to let go of your body. We got this little hospice book [that told us] the signs when we’re three days from death, [18 hours from death]. Some of those are picking at the bedclothes and flailing the arms and sleeping and moaning and being really auditory. This means that someone is trying to psychically, spiritually work something out. They’re deep in some other realm, and their bodies are responding like in a dream, thrashing [in ways] that family members are often really turned off by. [They] think that their loved one is in pain, but really they’re just going through something. All we can do is just be there holding the energy and supporting.
It’s amazing that her will was so clear and strong. Any of this would be hard and unsettling, but I also feel like someone who doesn’t want to let go would be so challenging.
This pastor that came in said to us, People who have a profound relationship to faith that exists within a realm of believing in an afterlife or heaven or hell or judgment have a much harder time letting go, ironically. So many people are looking back on their lives being like, Am I going to be judged for this? Whereas he said atheists and agnostics tend to go easily with a lot of peace and acceptance, like, “And now, who knows? It’ll be over or it won’t, but I don’t know.”
“What is truer to life is that it is in a perpetual circle of becoming and changing and growing and dying and decaying and being reborn. It feels logical to me that I would just have a different relationship to her now that she’s not in body.” –Julia Bray
What were your rituals around your grandmother’s death?
I knew that she was present. All of the literature that we read says they’re still here, they can still hear you, they can feel your touch. She loved little dolls so I arranged this altar of her dolls and her photos of her family. We put up this big pool of water. It was this water ritual that [my friend Stephanie, who is a death doula] taught me. I told my grandmother that everything she wanted to leave behind in this lifetime she could just funnel it into the water and I would change it for her every day. How much was this for my grandma, how much was this for me? I don’t know.
I arrived [to my grandmother’s hospice] on Wednesday afternoon and I was like, Huh, her breathing sounds different. I had a lot of trouble sleeping that night. Something told me powerfully at 4am, You need to be by her side and you need to call your mom. On the way over my mom said, “I’m looking at this giant full moon, and it’s a wolf moon and your grandma is obsessed with wolves, and I’m so excited for this part of her journey.”
It sounds like your mom came a long way in the process too.
Super profoundly. So my parents arrive. My dad dressed up and wore a bow tie for her, and he started reading her Robert Frost. And my dad said, “Julia, get at her feet because I once heard that if you hold on to a dying person’s feet then their spirit knows to go out the top of their head.”
There’s this little blue book which basically teaches you how to be a death doula. The book said one of the ways to usher someone into this passage is through a meditation. So my mom started guiding her through this relaxation meditation: “You’re letting go of your body, you’re sinking into the water, you’re moving down this beautiful stream into this waterfall.” And then the last image that my mom presented to my grandma was, “You’re dissolving into this golden-purple energy.” And my grandma took her last breath and passed. It was incredibly powerful. My mom [gasped and said], “She’s gone. Wow, she did it. We did it. This was so profound, this was incredible. I wish that everybody could have this experience.”
That must be such a rare experience for families. This is the point of Cruel Summer Book Club—learning wisdom about loss. Loss is woven into everything we do. It’s why we cherish things, why we love things. So it’s incredible to hear a story like that, and I’ll hopefully craft for myself a better vision of what dying and death can look like. And I would hope that for all of us.
I really got to witness what someone goes through when they’re tasked with letting go of all earthly things. And then what we are tasked with whenever we are in a death process in our lives, meaning these small deaths that we go through of becoming a new person or breaking up with someone or making a big life decision. That has been totally revolutionary to my relationship to life itself.
How did you celebrate her life after her death?
We washed her and anointed her with oils and dressed her and that was a really special process. It was all the women that I really love caring for her body. She is someone that I have a little altar to and pray to and call on for guidance and am in relationship with still. The grief that I felt was not dissimilar to the grief that I felt in heartbreak, romantically. Like, wow, there’s a profound loss here of our physicality, and yet spiritually there’s no end to this connection.
I think one of the hardest parts of grieving is that you feel the relationship is over. So that must open all these new possibilities for you to not feel that loss.
Cultivating that mindset is definitely an easier way to maybe cope with death. I think someone that approaches it from, this is severed and this will never be again, that there’s truth in that. But what is truer to life is that it is in a perpetual circle of becoming and changing and growing and dying and decaying and being reborn. It feels logical to me that I would just have a different relationship to her now that she’s not in body.
I would love to leave your readers with the the invitation to think about our own death. What would it look like? What would you want there? Who would you want there? In what energy do you want to pass on to this other realm? Do you want it to be a party, or do you want to be alone? I think these are important things to think about.
Further reading: Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience by Barbara Karnes
More about Julia Bray:
Julia Bray is a theater creator, writer, astrologer, magician and activist who has lived and created in New York City for the past 10 years, and is now located in Portland, OR. She spends her time giving astrological readings from a trauma informed lens, creating theatrical solo shows, and producing community performance platforms for emerging artists. She is fascinated in the intersections of consciousness, science, comedy and ritual, and each of her offerings thrive to dance between these crossroads. Her plays have been seen at NYC's Dixon Place, Fresh Ground Pepper, Theater in Asylum, The Habitat Theater Company, and Portland's CoHo Theater. To learn more about her work as a creator, astrologer, and teacher, visit her website at www.the-magic-is-you.com.
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