A conversation with doulas Roxanne Baker and Saralee Gallien
As full-spectrum doulas and soon certified nurses, Roxanne and Saralee have a lot of professional experience with life and death and many of the difficult things that happen in between. And yet, they reject the idea that you need certification to do their work. As anti-prison activists and anti-authoritarians, they seem to place themselves within a legacy of people who’ve done this type of work for each other as a form of love and care and survival – against the medical industrial complex and in resistance to capitalism.
I was introduced to Roxanne Baker and Saralee Gallien and their work around death through a performance and workshop called How Do You Want to Die at the Recess Gallery in Manhattan, NY on October 29, 2016. The performance was organized by Canaries. Roxanne and Saralee had come up from North Carolina for the talk, and they introduced themselves with a vulnerability that felt both natural and serious.
In their introduction, we learned that Roxanne and Saralee have been doing work together in and around Durham, North Carolina for six years: first as birth doulas, and later as abortion doulas. After experiencing many deaths in their community and doing support work for friend and family, Roxanne grew into her role as a death doula and currently offers her services under the moniker Foxfire Doula. Saralee is a prospective nurse and community health worker, and together they host workshops and performances under “How Do You Want to Die?” in the hopes that conversations around end of life and death become acceptable at all levels of health and care.
During the workshop, cards from a handmade deck were drawn. Each card held a question for participants to read aloud and for us to answer privately, and share with the group if desired. Some of the questions were, “At what age did you first realize you were going to die?” or “What would you want done with your stuff?” A few days later I had the opportunity to sit down with them at the Mask studio to learn more about them and their work.
How did you come to this work?
RB: When I was a kid I got to watch my grandfather die and that felt really powerful. I got to watch my mom and her sisters make the decision to take him off of life support in the home. Several years later I went through my father’s death. I was his nighttime caretaker and the only person who physically watched him die. Then every six months after that we watched one of our friend’s parent die, like really close friends.
I watched all of us get better at it each time a friend’s parent died, supporting that friend, trying to figure out ways to support them and their family.
SG: Both of us started in the birth doula movement. I think a lot of people who’ve been socialized to provide care and have been part of radical communities have gone through that phase of asking themselves: “Do I want to be a midwife? Or a birth doula or an herbalist?” Like, how do I want to continue this lineage of care? I think there’s been a lot of wrestling with that, getting into it and then rejecting it. I held critiques of affective labor and unwaged caretaking labor and being like: Fuck that, I don’t want do that anymore. We’ve seen each other go through these phases of trying to figure out how we want to position ourselves within the world of care but also want to transform.
After hearing that you could be a doula for people going through abortions, miscarriages and adoptions, our group of friends who were trying to do birth doula work transformed quickly. We wanted to experience the full spectrum.
There’s a collective here that we were trained by, the New York Doula Project. We’ve been doulas for women going through abortions, being there with them when they wake up and helping them with the whole bodily and emotional breakdown and dysfunctions and helping them piece back together. I realize now that that was the first kind of death work I experienced. At the time I would not have felt comfortable calling it that, because I feel like we need to be careful about how we ascribe concepts of life and death in those moments; that’s for the person going through it to decide. But it’s important to recognize it as a loss. Regardless of whether it’s the most relieving and positive experience of their life or not, they’re still experiencing a form of loss –physically that’s what’s happening. I think it was important for us to learn to acknowledge it as such. When you’re politically invested in abortions being free and accessible to all it can be easy to completely dehumanize that process. We were really lucky to be trained and to realize that we didn’t want to do that, that we wanted to acknowledge the wide range of experiences people go through. For some people this is going to be a death of a child and for some people this is just a procedure they really need.
RB: I’m kind of obsessed with old people and if you really love the elderly you’re going to have to face death a lot. After so many of our friends’ parents died I was taking care of a 94-year-old woman. Six months after our best friend’s dad died, my beautiful sweet angel Elna passed away and I was just devastated.
SG: Through Roxy having that job, our friends had also become caretakers and friends with Elna and her daughter Judith. After she died, we were invited to come hang out with her dead body. That was my first experience of being around a death that wasn’t either in a medical facility or a family. I was like “Are you sure I can come over?” Roxy and Judith were like “Yeah, why not?!” There was this hospitality to it that was really natural. And I know that for some people that’s not going to be how they want to deal with it, but I thought that was really special.
Another reason I came into this work was through my experience of supporting a neighbor and friend who died unexpectedly in California. My group of friends had always helped take care of her children. After she died there were no guardians in California who stepped up for the kids, so my friends took my car and drove to California to go get these kids. No one cared that she died, she had no money, she had no rights to anything. In California, when a homeless person dies the body is automatically cremated and kept in a storage facility – you have up to three years to pay for it or it’s destroyed. We recently raised money just three months before the deadline. We got all the kids together and were like, let’s do this. Before that, we got on the phone with the crematorium every day, being like, here’s where we’re at with the money, we are looking after her, she is not forgotten. That is a place where I’ve realized death work can happen. I will be the guy who can sit on the phone and use the right words and talk to someone and be like we know who this person is and you’re not going to destroy them.