Taking Ownership of Death: An Interview with Becky Aud-Jennison

An honest conversation about death is not something many people like to have. But Becky Aud-Jennison of The Death Dialogues Project hopes to change that perspective and “further these conversations globally.”  Part of that mission has turned into a book, Death and its Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Beautiful Lessons: Field Notes from the Death Dialogues Project, which released on February 22 by Motina Books. Laura Davis calls the book “luminous” and “filled with hard and tender truths,” while Karen Wyatt, MD, says the book is “transformative” and “shows us that the awe-full journey of grief is unique to each person but is ultimately traveled by everyone.” Becky is hard at work producing more podcast episodes, writing, and living her very full life, so I’m especially grateful that she took the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.

Christina: Congrats on your book Death and its Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Beautiful Lessons: Field Notes from the Death Dialogues Project, which released in February. The Death Dialogues Project is four years old. What made you say, I think it’s time for a book?

Becky: Thank you! I’m thrilled to have this book out into the world. Throughout my life I felt called to encourage a more open dialogue surrounding all things death and during my career advocated for improving death literacy.

While working in clinical settings, the correlation between the less than optimal bedside manner and the “helper’s” inability to deal with death well in any context, especially their own, was obvious to me. I found it disconcerting and not fair to the people who were being cared for, or the helpers who might be avoiding much of what a person is going through because of their own discomfort surrounding death or viewing death as a loss within a win/lose context. There’s a difficulty in shifting from the only “win” being saving someone’s life to understanding that compassionate end of life care is also a “win.”

Understanding emotional and psychological contexts, it was clear to me that exposure to these topics and conversations is required for a societal shift away from death-denial. Thankfully, even since the formation of this project, there has been a wave building of death workers, death talkers, openly grieving people and advocates that I believe is instrumental in some very positive movement. One of the caveats of this book is that the reader is pointed to resources for further exploration. Our project is about celebrating everyone out there who is doing good work in promoting better end of life care, death work, showing up in the aftermath of death and improving literacy surrounding it all.

Originally what is now two books was going to be one. Firstly, I was responding to the repeat inquiry about my own story and how someone can be so mired in death all the time. Then I was going to do discuss common themes surrounding death observed, shared with me, and experienced throughout my career where I’d sat at the bedside of dying folks, experienced personal deaths, and conducted Dignity Therapy with dying individuals, as well as, providing therapy to the grieving. Per my publisher’s request, this has turned into two books. This book is the field notes from my decades of work and hundreds of stories shared with me through The Death Dialogues Project. My next book and then the stars spoke is my memoir through the lens of death and that will be out May 10, 2022.

Christina: The book is based on your own experiences as well as those of others. How did you choose which stories to include?

Becky: Honestly, the stories chose themselves. Much of my writing is done in flow and the words and stories appeared as they were relevant during the topic that called to be discussed. When you’ve spoken with hundreds, maybe thousands of people surrounding death, it is not difficult for a relevant story to reveal itself during any conversation surrounding end of life, death and the aftermath. I never planned a chapter around a certain story. Even the early chapter of Madeleine and Mahyan’s story to illustrate the power of “verbatim” (using one’s verbatim dialogue to create a piece of theatre, monologue, or writing) was an afterthought. Their story was part of our staged debut of the project. Madeleine was then a guest on our podcast more recently, when the book was basically complete. As we were talking it came to me how appropriate it would be to include their verbatim piece and it was added in the book to concretely illustrate the power of storytelling and using their verbatim words, which was the foundation this project was originally built on and has expanded from.

One of my previous podcast guests whose son had ended his life sent me a gut-wrenching piece of writing one day, and I asked her if I could include it in the discussion on traumatic grief.

Just when I was looking at the area of exploring feeling connection with our loved ones in the beyond, I had two powerful stories of connection appear before me and the storytellers were so pleased to share their words. Although I had endless such stories and plans for writing on that topic, these accounts were so detailed and concrete, I felt they were a gift for the non-believing readers. I believe when work is in alignment with the greater good it’s imperative to be open to the flow that presents itself and that is what you will read in this book.

Christina: In the About section on your website, you state, “We need to have the same types of conversations that The Vagina Monologues bravely created surrounding Death,” which is partly why the project came about. What have you learned from these conversations surrounding death? Has anything surprised you?

Becky: I’ve not been surprised by conversations because I’ve professionally interfaced with death my entire career, first as a nurse’s aide and nurse, then and as a therapist and mental health clinician where sharing one’s story is the foundation of the work. I’ve worked in medical settings as well as clinical mental health settings, have been at the aftermath of people ending their lives, through to parents grieving the loss of children to violence, overdoses, accidents or illness, to doing Dignity Therapy with folks with heart failure at their end of lives. And everything in between really.

Within that time, of course, death has not stopped for me and my loved ones. Maybe the bigger surprise is no matter how literate and awake you are to death, there is no inoculation. My personal deaths of soul-connects have dismantled me and put me back together differently. My husband, a retired cardiologist, and I are extremely open surrounding death. We took care of my mother at the end of her life and have worked professionally in that terrain. We’ve been literate with our own end of life planning. But with a recent serious brush with death I was given the preview of how I would never be fully prepared for his death. We’ve been reminded of how imperative it is to openly process and share our emotions with each other. It saddens me to know that so many people stuff all things surrounding death and are not having those important conversations. And as I speak about in the book, we can stuff those difficult feelings in the moment but those emotions and thoughts will likely surface in less functional or destructive ways if we don’t put effort into openly processing them.

Probably the most surprising aspect is the amount of “helping professionals” who are illiterate or avoidant surrounding death.

Christina: Piggybacking on the previous questions, what is one thing we, as individuals, can do to help make the dialogue more comfortable?

Becky: Talk about death. Role model that is okay to have these conversations. Ask the questions. Listen deeply. Show up for others. Explore your own relationship with your impending death and how death has touched your life. You can always gift this book to break the ice.

Christina: You also talk about “taking ownership of death.” What do you mean by that? How and why is it so difficult to do?

Becky: Just like with birth, patriarchal capitalism hijacked these natural stages of life that were once handled by families. When President Lincoln was embalmed so his body could be brought from the east coast to Springfield, Illinois, with viewing stops along the way, the funeral industry, embalming and mortician services was born. So were rules and mandates that made more business sense than practical person-centered sense. We are in a transition now where, much like happened with births in the ’70s, people are seeing that death can be done differently.

On our podcast you can hear from women who have been practicing taking ownership of death for decades and it’s gradually becoming more understood. I hope this book helps to spread that awareness. Depending on the circumstances of death, we can keep our loved ones’ bodies at home and honor them in a profound and loving way, as we we did with my brother and mother, rather than having brief viewings in a funeral home setting. Progressive traditional funeral services are starting to support people in doing this and it’s all the more reason we need to consider increasing our literacy surrounding death.

At the time of the death of someone very close to us, we may not have the emotional and mental capacity to do things differently. But when we hear stories of alternative ways of dealing with death and if we feel in our bones that this is what our loved one would want or what we want for ourselves, we can become more proactive and have the conversations and make plans that speak to our personal needs and desires

The traditional funeral director we called after my brother died was extremely supportive of us not embalming him and keeping him home as long as we desired. He said he knew this was a trend that was coming and although they had never done this, was happy to support us in any way. They did and it was such a gracious gift. You’ll read all about that in both of the books, each exploring different aspects of our experience. I’m delighted that these choices will be more available, but people need to be aware and literate about them and how to advocate for their desires.

Christina: What does your publication journey look like? How did you decide to pursue a small publisher? Do you have any tips for someone who might be hoping to put together a book around their own podcast?

Becky: I’d previously written a novel written in first person from the perspective of a woman who suffers from a horrid personal situation that enhances her postpartum depressive psychosis and is accused of murdering her infant. Professionally, I felt this was a story that needed to be unpacked and told. These characters came to life for me and was written in flow as previously described. It was an amazing experience.

Shopping around for agents, publishers, and the like was not so amazing, feeling like all the creative process was then squashed. I aborted the effort fairly quickly. I’ve recently realized that one fatal flaw was not sharing the ending of the book in the few pitches I sent out to traditional agents or publishing houses. For me, the relentless pitching that I could see was going to be involved felt so ego-based and removed from the writing, I gave myself a small finite number of pitches and called it a day.

Flash forward eight-ish years, Ronit Plank, who’d interviewed me for her podcast, had used Motina Books and I was very impressed with the service and quality she received and decided to pitch my book(s) to Diane Windsor, the publisher. These books would have come out one way or another because I was convinced they served a mission, but I’m thrilled to work with Motina Books and have the care and consideration that Diane has given me and my process.

My only tip would be to follow your gut if you are considering starting a podcast or writing a book. A podcast wasn’t on my radar until a younger intern informed me that most people listen rather than read blogs these days. She found me an easy platform and off I went. This proved providential since the pandemic put an end to staging the storytelling productions.

Most writers or creatives, can’t not create. If you have to convince yourself to do either, produce a podcast or write, then it’s probably not the right time or modality. Both are extremely labor and time intensive endeavors that work best when you decide you cannot not do it.

Christina: As you mentioned, you have another book forthcoming—and then the stars spoke: a memoir through the lens of death. Would you share a little about that work? Do you find writing to be a part of your healing process?

Becky: The short answer is yes, it has been a painfully healing process.

Having had lengthy career in the therapeutic arena, I’d processed my childhood throughout my life. It was necessary for my therapeutic training, but also because I’m a firm believer in engaging in proactive intervention as part of self-care. I’m a natural processor/words person and part of me thought, “There then, that ground is covered …”

Enter the deaths of my family of origin, caring for my mother in my home for the last two years of her life, my brother dying of brain cancer nine months before her, and then writing these books. All bets were off. I was surprised by how much still came up for me emotionally while reviewing familiar terrain during the writing process.

Another aspect I wasn’t prepared for was the discomfort of when my personal story overlapped into others’ stories. I stood in awe of the myriad memoirists who divulge so much of others’ complex stories as they write their own. That did not feel healthy for me and I endeavored to stay in my own lane and share only the parts of others’ stories that affected me. To be fair, I found myself gazing around thinking, where are the support groups for those writing memoir?

Granted, I’m not sure I could have written this as honestly as I have without some of the “characters” being deceased. I have a tattoo on my wrist “♥︎ wmmd ♥︎”  that stands for “what would Max do.” My brother, seven years older, was always my hero and biggest support and if I could channel how he would handle it, I knew I was on the right path. His legacy inspired The Death Dialogues Project.

and then the stars spoke illustrates a troubled childhood foundation with a complex, troubled father who dragged me along as he showed up for death and dying when I was quite small, as well as the exposure and lessons from many other deaths, moving on into adulthood and how death continued to be a teacher. As mentioned earlier, this book was meant to answer the frequently asked question of the “why” behind the project and was to be part 1 of Death and its Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Beautiful Lessons: Field Notes from the Death Dialogues Project. My publisher felt the story would be better served to stand as its own book. I expanded its breadth and the memoir through the lens of death was born.

Years ago, I’d listened to author Dani Shapiro speak of writing multiple memoirs addressing similar times of life, all through different lenses. I ran with that concept. Obviously, I couldn’t avoid sharing a historical context of my life, but, within the pages of this book, I’m always driving back into the lane of death and its lessons and what it has brought to my living.

Thanks so much for your interest in the books and my writing process. I welcome hearing from any readers with questions or comments. My email is deathdialogues@gmail.com.

Becky and the Death Dialogues Project can be found in multiple places!
Website: http://www.deathdialogues.net/
Instagram: @deathdialoguesproject
Podcast Platforms https://anchor.fm/deathdialogues

Thanks to Becky for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.

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