IPOC Grief Talks is a Toronto-based collective care group providing support for individuals going through grief and loss. The monthly sessions for queer and racialized people, organized by death doula Carmen Galvan and her colleague Kayla Carter, are free to access.
The Hoser spoke with BIPOC Grief Talks’ co-founder Galvan about what it means to be a death doula helping people die well, the biggest misconceptions of grief and loss, and grieving away from the “white gaze.”
The Hoser: Let’s start simple; what is a death doula?
Carmen Galvan: I always put it that a death doula very simply helps people die well. We help with any sort of process, even just helping people figure out what it is that they need to do and paperwork to get everything set up for people who want to prepare funeral homes, where they want to go, if they want to plan this ahead of time. As well as legacy projects, if there's people who want to leave things behind for their grandchildren or their friends or family, even just something to be remembered by, then we can help with that as well. In the dying process, we can help the family to let them know what's going on, like “Okay, so you might hear certain noises that may scare you, but it's very normal. This is what's happening,” and then also for the person themselves, as well. Oftentimes, people, especially people dying at home, may want what’s called vigiling.
Essentially, you have somebody by you at all times, so that regardless of what happens, you don't die alone. Sometimes families need respite care; so…you'll be vigiling and you're coming up with the schedule and you're telling the family: “Okay, be here from this time to this time, I'll do this time while you guys rest and get food,” or whatever. After the person passes, you can also provide some grief support or things like that just to talk them through it because they might be concerned about what happens to the body after. It can be very scary for folks who've never experienced it before. A little bit of aftercare is also something that we do as well.
TH: How did you get into this field?
CG: I got started because my partner had passed away and I didn't feel that I got the right support or the kind of support that I think would have been actually helpful. I realized that a lot of the work that's being done around grief maybe isn't the most helpful always, or just the way people interpret death and dying. I spent a few years in social work so I've done mental health, social work and HIV AIDS [work]…I decided to try and look into being a death doula because I do find that to be a way to give back to the community. So I did my certification.
TH: Why did you start the BIPOC Grief Talks?
CG: Oftentimes, racialized grief is used in very specific ways in society. One, it's like trauma porn, which is very concerning. The other thing is that it's almost like we're constantly given images and media and things that are so traumatic to us, that are happening to us, and then we're expected to go to work the next day and be normal…So it's like this weird push and pull of like, “Oh my god, this is awful, but also don't care about it too much. And go to work.”
This is a space where we get to vent, we get angry, we get to be upset, and also it gets to be away from the white gaze as we like to call it: “Oh my god, that's so fascinating. Please tell me more about your trauma because I've never experienced it and I'd like to hear more.”
The reason we do it is because we believe that a lot of grief spaces are very white and there's a lot of white supremacy. There's a lot of trauma porn going on. There's a lot of people taking our stories from us in a way that's not equal and it's very exclusionary, and it makes us feel othered which is exactly what we don't want with grief because we all experience grief. It's really important for us to be able to create that space for racialized folks, and that's why people are really interested in joining us because they're like,”Oh, I don't have to worry about white people asking…all these different things.”
I'm Mexican, so I know I've had the experience going into grief and death stuff and then [someone says], “Oh my God, you're Mexican. I love the Day of the Dead. Please, tell me more. I love the movie Coco.” I didn't come here to be your show and tell. I'm sure your ancestors had their own stuff that you could go to instead of coming to mine...I just felt really freaky and weird. There's a lot of that actually, with a lot of our participants.
They come because they don't want that to happen and we don't want that to happen to them. That's why it's so important for us to have a racial space specifically. We also have queer spaces specifically and we've done some for neurodivergent people and people with chronic illnesses. It's about creating the space [where] we're not like a circus freak in the mainstream spaces.
TH: What would you say is the most meaningful part of your work?
CG: The meaningful thing for us, it's just the amount of community that we're building and the healing that we're creating. And we, Kayla and I, every time we run these groups, we never have any expectations that people are going to show.
Regardless of how many times we've done it, we're always surprised when people show up…I feel like we live in a world where everything is so outcome-based. This isn't a space where people are questioning each other or trying to get as much information out about what's going on; people are just there and kind. That's been really good to see because people are also making connections through our group, and that's the main thing we want to do, is create this community [where] you can be death positive and you can be open about your feelings and having negative emotions is not a bad thing. Also, you can have these meetings together where there's not an outcome tied to it where you can just vent and it's not, “Okay, so what are you going to do next?” Because we feel like that's also exhausting and not helpful.
TH: What would you say is the most challenging part of your work?
CG: We really work through a disability justice lens when we're doing the work, and one of the hardest things about working through a disability justice lens is also being aware of all of the ways in which we can make the space accessible. It's always at the forefront of our minds. But it's hard. I feel like we could always do better around accessibility. For us, that's the main challenge, especially when you don't have money, accessibility is expensive. When you don't have the money to do it like other agencies do, then it can be a little bit more challenging or you have to be a little bit more creative.
TH: What misconceptions about death or grief do you notice around you?
CG: God, there's so many. The biggest misconception is that you'll just get over it. The thing is, you don't really get over someone dying. You don't really necessarily get over your traumas. You maybe learn how to live around them, and maybe they make you into a different person, but really they change who you are. And people oftentimes, if they haven't experienced it, don't know what that's like. Especially because we live in a world that's so full of toxic positivity, where any sort of negative emotion is just like, “you just have to think positive and it'll go away, and everything will be fine.”
For us, the main [misconception] is the idea that [grief] ends, and not only that it ends, but that if it doesn't end for you, you're abnormal. That's the main thing we always hear in our groups, is just how openly people are uncomfortable with grief and sadness for other people, and how quickly they want them to get over things. People often come to our groups and [say]: “I thought I was nuts,” and then [everyone’s] like “but we all feel this way.” If there was a way to just get rid of toxic positivity as a whole, I think the world would be a better place, but I definitely just hate it when people are like, “you gotta move forward, they would have wanted better for you.”
One of the things that haunts most of us who are any sort of grief workers or death workers, especially if you're racialized, is the five stages of grief. You know, the anger and denial and blah, blah, blah, blah. That's not how it works at all. It's been very clear that that's not how grief works; that's a myth that it's like these five linear stages, and then it ends and everything is good and you can go frolic in meadows. I don't think we have a society that's really been built to hold people and their loss, and all the many ways we all experience loss.
TH: In regard to physical spaces, what's your favourite place in Toronto?
CG: I love Jane Street, north of St. Clair. I take the TTC so the reason I say this is because I am Latin American. I grew up in Mississauga. I didn't go to Catholic school so I was never around Latinos growing up, which makes me really sad. But in Toronto, I've noticed the majority of Latinos live north of St. Clair. Whenever I take the Jane bus north of St. Clair, there are so many Latinos, like half the bus is speaking Spanish. There's a lot of Latino stores up at Jane and Wilson. There's Salvadoran food and all the other stuff. Whenever I have to go to Jane and go north, it just makes me happy. I know I'm gonna see my people and it just feels nice to hear the sound of the language and hear the different accents from all the countries and see everybody. It makes me very happy.