Manage episode 301719749 series 1432128
“My brain is waking up”: Taya Dunn Johnson on going back to school alongside her 7th grader this fall, and the personal passion that pulled her to a field of study she had never even heard of before the day she enrolled.
Find Taya on:
- Website – www.TayaDunnJohnson.com
- Essay on Upworthy: Please Read This Before Your Post Another RIP On Social Media
- Listen To Your Mother Anthology
- Ep 96 Listeners’ “Still in Rotation” Albums – hear Taya’s contribution at around the 25:20 mark
Some Baltimore sound for ya ears. The title of the song is also 100% of the lyrics of the song
Thanks as always to M. The Heir Apparent, who provides the music behind the podcast – check him out here! ***This is a rough transcription of Episode 104 of the Midlife Mixtape Podcast. It originally aired on September 7, 2021. Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and there may be errors in this transcription, but we hope that it provides helpful insight into the conversation. If you have any questions or need clarification, please email firstname.lastname@example.org ***
Taya Dunn Johnson 00:00
I feel like my brain is waking up in a different way, so I feel reinvigorated. School has made my critical thinking skills pop back to the forefront.
Nancy Davis Kho 00:12
Welcome to Midlife Mixtape, The Podcast. I’m Nancy Davis Kho and we’re here to talk about the years between being hip and breaking one.
[THEME MUSIC – “Be Free” by M. The Heir Apparent]
This episode of The Midlife Mixtape Podcast is brought to you by Audible. Get a free audiobook download and 30 day free trial at www.AudibleTrial.com/midlifemixtape. Over 180,000 titles to choose from for your iPhone, Android, Kindle or mp3 player. And hey, one of those 180,000 titles is my book, THE THANK-YOU PROJECT: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time. The book is about a year I spent writing thank you letters to people who had helped, shaped, or inspired me up to that point in my life.
I have to tell you last weekend, I had such a cool experience. I spoke with a community organization here in Oakland about The Thank-You Project and the science of happiness and gratitude. We talked for about an hour, and then we spent a half hour together writing thank you letters. One man in the audience wrote to his first-grade teacher from 71 years ago; another woman wrote to a former boss whom, she told us, she disliked when she worked for her. But all these years later, she recognizes how many important lessons that woman taught her. And I just love stories like this. I hope by listening to my book or reading my book, you’ll think of similar stories in your own life and you’ll maybe even put some letters in the mail. Go to www.AudibleTrial.com/midlifemixtape for your free audiobook.
Hi, Midlife Mixtapers. It’s me Nancy Davis Kho, the host and creator of the Midlife Mixtape Podcast and if you like me, have once again lost track of time in this never-ending pandemic, it is September 2021!
September means autumn, autumn means back to school, and that’s not just for the young people in our lives. When I was scheduling out episodes for this fall, I knew I wanted to do a show dedicated to midlife learning, and when I found out that my friend, today’s guest, she decided to start a master’s program at age 45, I knew she’d be full of insights and encouragement for listeners who might be considering a similar return to the classroom.
But when I learned exactly WHAT my guest has gone back to study, and how she’d latched under that field in the first place, it made this episode that much MORE compelling and I hope you’ll agree.
I’m not going to give away what she’s studying, but I will say this: This episode is like Certs. It’s two, two, two stories in one!
My guest today is Taya Dunn Johnson. Taya is a writer, speaker, panelist and workshop facilitator. She’s been published in the anthology, Listen To Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now, which is an anthology of personal stories about mothers being one, having one, losing one and everything in between. And hey, I’ve got an essay in that book too and that’s in fact how I know Taya, through the Listen To Your Mother community.
The book sprang from the Listen To Your Mother Stage Show which is a live stage reading show where local residents across the country come and share their personal thoughts about motherhood and all the various emotions that go along with it. So Taya was a member of the DC cast in 2013, same year I was a member of the San Francisco cast. She then became a producer of the Listen To Your Mother Baltimore show for four years and in 2014, Taya was asked to join the Listen To Your Mother national team as the diversity and inclusion outreach consultants, a role she served for in three years with her unique combination of humor, warmth, bluntness, vulnerability, and honesty. I will attest to all of the above.
As part of her mission to empower others to tell their authentic stories, Taya has been facilitating storytelling workshops with nonprofit agencies in Maryland, including House of Ruth and HopeWorks of Howard County. Taya has won about a bajillion awards and recognition. She’s on all kinds of boards. Most recently, she was selected by the American Mothers Inc. as 2020 Maryland Mother of the Year and she says she’s humbled by the honor.
So put a little notebook and pen by your bedside table – you’ll hear why in this episode – and let’s chat with midlife master’s degree candidate, Taya Dunn Johnson.
Welcome to the Midlife Mixtape Podcast, Taya Dunn Johnson. I’m so glad to have you here again, because this is actually your second appearance on the podcast, but the first one was kind of a sneak attack.
Right. It was.
So Episode 96, we went back and had people talk about the albums of their lives, the music they love the most, and Taya wrote this beautiful piece that she actually wrote for me years ago when I used to remember to blog. We had a Still In Rotation Segment where we had guest writers talk about the albums that meant the most to them, and we’ll talk about Donny Hathaway again if you like. I love talking with you about Donny. But first, Taya, we have to ask you the most important question, which is what was your first concert and what were the circumstances?
Thanks for having me back again. Of course, I love spending time with you.
I’d like to just do a Taya Dunn Johnson Podcast, like a little subpodcast where I call you and we talk.
We could. I doubt anybody will listen to us. But I’d love to do it.
I was thinking about my first concert and it’s funny because I come from a music family, like both sides of my family are real musical. My dad played drums growing up. He was in a band when he was in high school and all that. So I grew up in music.
And my very first concert, I’ll never ever forget it. It was 1983. I was only seven years old and my mother, my grandmother and a couple other family members, we went to New York City – we lived in Long Island – we went to Central Park to see Diana Ross.
And this is a legendary concert. It rained the whole time. So we literally stood in the rain for hours as we waited for the show to start for her to perform. But it was such an amazing concert you didn’t care and people even danced in the rain. That was my first concert and I was already hooked on music, but that just put me…to be surrounded by so many people who would just move with the music in the moment to not even care about the rain. I mean, honestly, like a whole bunch of black women, rain, hair, seriously? You didn’t even care? It was amazing.
That’s next level. I mean, you must have been so bonded with your mom and grandma over that.
Absolutely. So awesome. It was one of those times that my grandmother was still pretty mobile and young and still very much with it. So for us to do that, it was pretty epic.
You live in Baltimore now?
I was trying to remember because I love Go-Go Swing. I’m an aficionado.
Ah yes, Go-Go.
That’s more DC than Baltimore – or is it both?
No, totally DC.
You get run out of Baltimore talking about Go-Go.
I can do it from Oakland.
Yeah, unless you have roots from DC, of course. Then of course, people are transplants who brought it with them and then obviously, there are some people who still go to DC to party. But Baltimore’s big thing is Baltimore Club music, which is not to be confused with Philadelphia House music or New York Club music or Chicago Club music. Baltimore Club is a different kind of club music.
Can you characterize it at all? I know you’re all at the clubs all the time. as a single working mother in school. I’m sure they’re like, “Oh, here comes Taya, AGAIN. She’s dancing on a Tuesday night.”
I can’t say that I love Baltimore Club music. I got used to it. But I think I was too old by the time I moved here to be out seeing live music or going to clubs to appreciate it enough. So I only know someone like their really mainstream hit songs. Most people have heard the song, “It’s Time for the Perculator.” That’s like the big Baltimore Club song.
Alright. Well, we always put one song in to the show notes. So it’s gonna be the one I put in because I want to go research it.
Taya, when we were talking…well, actually, it was before we started recording your story about the album that you began listening to a long time ago and still do, which was Donny Hathaway – you told me a story about what you’re up to now that just blew me away. And I said to you at the time, “I’m going to have you back on the show to tell all the listeners about that,”and that’s where I’d love to start today. Can you talk to me about how you decided to go back to school, and what you’re studying?
So I took a pause. I went to college right after high school like most people. I was at the University of Virginia, UVA, in the early 90s and I took a pause when my father got ill, and I never went back. After that, I got married, I had a baby, we had a good family life, I had a good job, I worked for the government. I wasn’t really thinking about my bachelor’s. I didn’t feel like it impeded me, but I had this deep-seated promise to myself and to my grandmother that I wanted to finish.
My husband passed away in 2012 and after that, I realized that one of the things I really wanted for myself and in order to shape the future for my son and I, since it was just us, is I wanted to finish my bachelor’s. So through various starts and stops from 2012 up until 2020, I finally finished my bachelor’s in December of 2020.
In the fall of 2020, as I’m in my final semester of my undergraduate and we are, I guess at that point, I don’t know, six months into the pandemic: I’m working full time from home, my son is in sixth grade at home virtually, the world is in absolute turmoil, there is death and grief and loss around us in so many forms. And part of my life’s purpose – I didn’t realize until after my husband died – was sort of to work toward death education. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, but being vocal about my own grief and my own loss was going in that direction. So I was looking forward to finishing my bachelor’s. It’s October 2020, I’m looking forward to finishing in December, I have no intentions of graduate school or anything beyond just finishing my bachelor’s. That’s it.
So, I keep a notepad next to my bed, for all things. I’m working on two fiction novels, one memoir that I will hopefully get finished one day. I keep a notepad so I can write down special words and names and things that hit me in the middle of night.
I woke up one morning, and I saw a word written on my pad that clearly was my handwriting. I know what my writing looks like. I think I was probably possessed when I wrote it. But the word meant nothing to me. As in, it was a word I had never seen before, a word I had never heard before, I had no memory of writing it, and no context for how it had gotten there.
So sort of being the little nerd that I am, I said, “Well, I’m curious now. Let me at least talk to Mr. Google and see what this word means.” I typed it in and for the next two hours, I did that Al Gore internet thing where I just fell deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole and by the end of the day, I found myself on a phone call with the director of the graduate program at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
The word that I saw was thanatology, T-H-A-N-A-T-O-L-O-G-Y. I’ve never seen that word. Never heard that word. My late husband wasn’t really a Marvel guy, but I kind of thought I remembered a cartoon character named Thanos or something and then I was thinking, well, that sounds Greek. I’m not really sure. But when I typed it in, indeed, it was.
So thanatology is a thing. It’s the academic study of dying, death, loss and grief.
That is an amazing story and I actually found myself wondering, is there a way your husband’s spirit could have written that?
I wouldn’t doubt it.
I mean, I am secure enough in my faith and spirituality to know that I have sensed his hand in my life since his death, in my son’s life. So I don’t doubt that, I really don’t, that I was pushed toward it. And as I started looking at it, and considering, wow, people do study this, and then I’m thinking, okay, so this is counseling, this is grief counseling, this is therapy and I fell further into it.
And I was like, oh, it’s NOT that. It’s actually a scientific discipline. It examines death from all different perspectives, physical, ethical, spiritual, medical, sociological, and psychological. So thanatologists are not grief counselors, although we’re exposed to training in grief counseling. It’s not the primary job or destination for thanatologists. You find licensed thanatologists and those who get their masters in it in places like hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, churches, nonprofit organizations, sometime within the military, inside bereavement organizations, etc. It’s people who realize that death is sort of a universal equalizer in that it’s a faith that none of us can escape. It is the end and we are all veering toward it at different speeds and through different circumstances.
Did you start the program this fall? I mean, what’s the actual program?
I am. Yeah, I talked to her and I decided on the spot that day, I want this. I want to do this and crazy me, I don’t even have my bachelor’s yet and I’m applying for grad school.
That’s amazing, though. I mean, the fact that you were pulled so strongly to it and you knew it was the right thing for you. How many of us wish we could have clarity! I love that story.
Yeah, it felt purpose driven. It really did and so things kind of fast tracked from there. I finished up my undergraduate stuff, I got my degree conferred like, January 14th or something and classes began January 20th.
Oh my gosh.
And I jumped in. It’s a two-year program. Well, it can be longer. Of course, I’m pacing mine to be two years and I’m taking two classes per semester. There’s a capstone and a master’s project and I am excited. I love it. I love every part of the things that I’m learning and the cohort that I’m talking to and learning with. It feels like I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
One of the pieces of your writing that has impacted me the most was a piece you wrote called, Please Read This Before You Post Another RIP On Social Media. You mentioned your husband passed away, he was far too young, he was only 36. It was a 2012. Right?
You wrote this essay that went viral and it’s about the circles of communication that are appropriate when there is death in this social media world we live in. I wonder if you could just kind of summarize what somebody said. Of course, I will leave a link to this because I think everyone listening should go read that essay. It’s really thought provoking.
Yeah, that essay was a long time coming. Like you said, my husband passed in June of 2012 and I didn’t publish and write the essay until June of 2016. It was kind of percolating in my head for quite a while. It’s one of those things with the internet being what it is, I felt like I had to write something.
And everyone is never going to agree on any one topic. However, over the years that I had been a member of the widowed community and as I had talked to other people who had encountered loss, I kept coming back to this universal idea that too many people were getting important information about a loved one’s death, a close loved one, via social media, via Facebook, via Twitter, etc. It felt horrible. It felt invasive, and it felt like we should do something about it.
To me, I love social media. I’m 45. So I’m just old enough to remember time before the internet, but I’m young enough to still love it. Right? I remember the Dewey Decimal System. I love paper books, but I also love my Kindle.
So I felt like I had to say something because even I, in the hours after my husband’s death, I was trying to deal with important business, things that have to happen after a person dies, not even the emotional part, just the logistical part. And I couldn’t do that because I was starting to field phone calls and text messages from people saying, “What’s going on?” People I don’t talk too often, people who were within my family and friends, but it’s like, how do you even know something is going on today? What’s happening here?
Unfortunately, someone had prematurely put it on social media. On the article, I just kind of say, let’s take a step back and let’s decide and figure out what our role in this really is. Are we looking simply to scoop TMZ? Do we want to be the first person to announce this, or are we writing this from a genuine place? If we’re writing it from a genuine place, and we just want to express it to the family, and the friends, and the people who are close to the deceased, we can wait a little. That’s all I ask people to do, is kind of think about who is the most impacted by this death and how does my posting affect them.
If someone’s spouse has not posted that they’ve passed away, maybe you shouldn’t. If someone’s child has passed away, and the parents haven’t posted, maybe you shouldn’t. It’s just sort of think about your role.
Some of the feedback I’ve gotten over the years, the majority has been positive. After posting it, and it’s been across the internet, I get so many emails and stories that talk about kids who are in school, and there’s a traffic accident and their classmates are in there, and they’re showing grotesque pictures of the scene and saying, “Oh, my God, I think that your dad’s car.” Things like that. People say, “Yeah, this happened to me,” and all these long drawn-out stories. And I just want people to take a moment to think about how that might impact you.
The little bit of negativity I’ve gotten regarding the article is people say, “You don’t get to control what other people do. There aren’t rules about this and you don’t know how important someone was to another person.” And I fully agree that we don’t always know the circumstances and the circles of influence and that to a person. However, I think my advice is still prudent. It does not hurt or harm anyone or anything for you to pause for 6, 12, 24 hours.
There is no prize for giving bad news early.
There you go.
I mean, when my mom died in December, in the days afterwards I was thinking about your essay again. In part because I also think when you are suffering the death of a loved one, people don’t necessarily realize or, if it’s happened to them, then maybe they don’t remember that time starts to lose meaning. The way time works in a regular world isn’t quite the same as how it works when you’ve just been told that someone you love has died. So it might be logical to think oh, she must have already told person X, person Y, person Z. It is logical. But logic has nothing to do with grief.
Absolutely not. And logic and timing and circumstance. What about the person who’s on a flight, the person who’s teaching a class, the person who is working inside of a job where they have no phone reception? All these different things. What do you gain by being the fastest person on the gun? What do you gain by having the fastest fingers on Twitter to simply announce that oh, my God, so and so died? Okay, they died. They did. While we appreciate the love and support, let the family, let the loved ones, let the close business associates, let the people who need to communicate the information, those who actually have a viable stake, personally, emotionally, financially, logistically – give them a few moments to take care of business. And then, absolutely, they would love to hear from you and have you express your condolences.
Beyond that, Taya, what are other things that you wish people knew and practiced around death and grieving? And maybe this comes out of your studies, but maybe this also comes out of your personal experience?
Yeah, a lot comes from personal experience and as I dig deeper into the field itself, I sort of see where human interests and the heart go awry. One of my biggest motivations once I started looking at the program and I got into it is that I don’t think that we talk about death enough. I think that we, especially right now, in this moment in time that we’re in August of 2021, a pandemic that began in, well, say March…
I can’t even remember now. I’ve lost all memory.
Was it in early 2020?
So let’s say we’re almost a year and three quarters into this pandemic, and we’ve lost almost a million people. And the circles that those people have, and the family and the friends and the neighbors and the coworkers that they’ve affected and what those deaths really mean, I don’t think that we will understand the gravity of our nation’s grief for some time to come. Because I simply think that we do death badly.
What I mean when I say that is as a Western society, we don’t acknowledge that death touches us all. Death is the future for everyone. A person’s death has ripples so far beyond the day they pass, and the days of their formal ceremonies and funeral rituals, whatever they may be that we try to pretend that death won’t touch us all.
So in that, what we do is, we are very uncomfortable when people talk about loss. We’re very uncomfortable when people express how they feel. We’re uncomfortable with tears. We’re uncomfortable with expressions of love, discussions about it beyond the surface. And what that does is it really starts to stigmatize people who grieve openly and it forces those people to then grieve in silence, grieve in private.
We don’t have universal laws regarding family leave, and hours out of the office, time away, funeral leave, things like that to recognize that a serious emotional thing has happened, and that we all will experience it in some way shape or form. But we take each incident almost like it’s a new thing that’s happening and we kind of silo a family or a community by themselves for a couple of days and then we send the card, we send the casserole, we come to the service, we may call one more time, and then most people fade to black. They go on with their lives, which, on the one hand, yes, life does go on. There is no question about it.
However, for the people that are most intimately affected by the death of a loved one, their lives will never be the same. We have this common assumption that things should go back to business as usual and all of our systems function like that. You’re out of the office, when are you coming back? How many days? You’re not over that yet? Why are you still crying? What she’s still doing? She’s still out? He’s still out there? Her mother died a month ago, she still hasn’t returned my call. She’s not back in the office yet? We say all these things and they’re built into the fabric of our country.
I think that we are doing ourselves a real disservice on the heels of this pandemic where we have untold numbers of children who are now orphaned, and we have families that are broken, and the loss of people, the loss of resources, the loss of homes, the financial losses, the loss of pets, all these losses that just keep getting compounded in a place and a system that doesn’t respect loss with the type of reverence that it should.
So part of my goal, part of what I’m hoping to do…I can’t change the entire world, but I hope to be able to touch a small part of it, is to get people talking about death a little differently and discussing it and being open to talking about it before it happens a lot more. Then being armed to accept it and be as empathetic and supportive as possible once it does happen. That comes from being in the trenches myself. That comes from having now, unofficially, I’ll say, mentored many, many handfuls of widowed people since 2012. I’m definitely not an expert of any sort. But people started looking to me to say, “Hey, my sister just lost her husband. Would you mind calling her? Or somebody from my church just passed away I forwarded your blog, do you mind if they email you?” And things like that. So I kept thinking, why me?
Because you were a closet thanatologist. You just didn’t know it.
I didn’t know it, right? So I was like, “Well, sure. I mean, I’ll talk to anybody.”
I mean, my big experience and my observation is that the pain is gonna come out some way or another. You can either cry it out, talk it out, express yourself, or you can give yourself an ulcer, give yourself migraines, whatever, because your body knows that it’s holding grief. I learned that when my dad died in 2016. Thankfully, my family was not freaked out when I had the terrible out-of-the-blue crying attacks. I think it’s funny because I had been seeing a therapist during the pandemic – finally, at age 54, I’m like, “I’m gonna give this a go for the first time!” But after my mom died in December, I stopped. I said to my therapist, “I’m fine from here on out because I know how to grieve. I know how to let it out because I learned that.”
But it’s fresh in my mind because I’m just back from the memorial service we did for my mom. We had to wait eight months, but we were able to gather in her memory in upstate New York and I had forgotten… I grieved when she died, obviously. It was a pretty hard time, but I kind of was back on an even keel and I didn’t expect it to hit me so hard eight months later when I went back, but, what a dummy, of course it did.
My first stop when I got to Rochester was to the cemetery where my mom and dad’s headstones now are side by side and that was the first time I’ve seen my mom since last August. When I tell you, Taya: I was keening and rolling around in the grass and at one point, I looked up and I’m like, “Oh, this is so embarrassing,” and then I’m like, “Oh, forget it. It’s a cemetery, I bet lots of people do this,” and I went back to just sobbing uncontrollably. Then luckily, they have sited this graveyard directly across from a Farmer’s Market where they have pies and doughnuts. So I was able to go there afterwards to make myself feel better.
To me, I was like, I’m not gonna be embarrassed about this, because these tears have to go somewhere. I think what you’re saying is really important about us pretending that you’re going to bounce right back. I mean, once you’ve hit midlife, you’ve probably lost someone you love. You’ve probably watched friends had that happen to them, if it hasn’t happened to you directly, and we just need to be compassionate not just with one another, but with ourselves.
Absolutely. It’s the idea that we are not gentle enough with ourselves or one another. We all have different capacities for empathy. But usually, tragedy brings out the best in some (we won’t mention the worst in others.)But the fact that people do rally the moment that a death occurs, that gives me hope that we can talk about it more, and that we can put some things in place to encourage people to do more.
People will ask me, “What’s one thing I can do? What’s one thing, one tip you give?” One universal thing that I always encourage people is: mark a calendar. This is a close friend, a close family member who’s lost someone very close, especially a spouse or a child. This, of course, can absolutely work for parents and anyone, but I’m usually giving advice to people who are asking about widowed people and people who lose children. I’ve often said, mark the calendar so that you know when this date is. This date will always mean something to the other party in a way that they can’t always express to you.
I’m not telling you that you need to cross the moon and back when this day occurs. But what I would encourage you to do is to say like, let’s say, January 1st someone passed away. In general, people lose most of their support within the first 30 days. So I would say if you know a person died on January 1st, just go ahead and mark your calendar today and say, on April 1st, I’m going to call them. Just mark your calendar. It’s four months, it’s out of the blue, it’s a moment when they are least expecting it, but the reality of their loss has started to hit very realistic moments. They’ve now had some major firsts, they’ve had some hurdles, they’ve had things happen and in general, the rest of the world has tried to go back to normal, minus their very immediate family, and even sometimes those people.
So I say reaching out, and just saying, “Hey, I was thinking of you. Sending you a hug,” that can be it. You can pick up the phone, you can mail a card, you can send a text, you can send a Facebook message. It really doesn’t matter. Whether or not that person replies or not has to do more with timing and their personality, but I guarantee you, they will appreciate it.
One of the kindest things somebody said to me, it was actually after my dad died and I tried to do this myself now, because it meant so much to me. This was somebody who didn’t know my dad and said, “Can I take you out for coffee, and you can tell me about your father?” And I was like, that is the most beautiful invitation because I was longing to talk about him. My dad was a delightful guy. So I’m happy to tell other people about him. Just doing that and I think, even if the other person doesn’t take you up on it, the fact that you’ve shown an interest is so kind.
The flip side of that is that there is somebody who was close to my mom, who never said a word to me. My mom didn’t have COVID, but she was sick for a long time at the end and this person knew that our family was trying to come together to support my mom and all this stuff.
I was so hurt and shocked that this person was silent and the person said to me, eventually, I didn’t want to make you feel sad, so I never wanted to bring it up. That’s the wrong approach because you not bringing it up doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it. What it means is you’re not helping me.
Maybe this is personal. I’m sure in Thanatology 101, maybe they cover this. But for me, I’d rather have you bring up my mom, don’t worry if you’re gonna say the wrong thing, but let’s not pretend she’s not dying. That’s just hurtful.
Avoidance, unfortunately, is a huge thing with death. Death makes people uncomfortable.
The conversation, the thought of it.
What I encountered a lot and very similar to what you were saying is that when my husband died, I lost a lot of friends. I kind of expected some of our couple friends to fade away. It was disappointing, but I expected it – I’m no longer a unit. So the units that we used to hang out with didn’t have any need for me anymore as a solo artist.
That wasn’t as shocking to me as some of my actual personal girlfriends. Now, I did make an absolute new set of friends, people who were not in my inner circle who stepped up and reached out to me and surrounded me in a way that I never expected, and those ladies have a place that’s so deep in my heart now that you couldn’t imagine.
But I finally heard from a few people who disappeared. They finally resurfaced 5, 6, 7 months later and the common thread was that his death scared THEM. So I had to sit with that for a while, and I had to decide whether or not I was going to sort of hold on to that or not. I was angry. I let them know that. I shared that and then I decided to forgive them. But I chose not to retain those friendships because to me, in my moment of need, you prioritized how YOU felt.
I was just gonna say… that’s kind of the definition of friendship. If it’s missing that, what’s left? “We both like brunch.” That’s not friendship, that’s just a shared preference.
I was a 35-year-old woman with a three year old autistic son who didn’t talk and I had just lost my high school sweetheart of 20 years and your discomfort was more important than you letting me know that you were there to support me. It doesn’t even make sense when I say it out loud.
All these years later, it makes just as little sense. I mean, it is kind of a clarifying moment where you do see. I was doing my thank you letters in 2016, the year my dad died, and that informed some of the letters I wrote and sent. And some that I decided NOT to send. Because same thing.
Yeah, it clarified everything.
So Taya, as someone who has served in roles for diversity and inclusion for Listen To Your Mother, the stage show and also in other venues, I’m curious to know how that side of your work will intersect with thanatology. Does this inform the way that you’re approaching your studies?
It does. I didn’t know that it would until I jumped in, of course.
What I started finding through my studies and through – there’s a national organization, The Association for Death Education and Counseling – it’s a thanatology association and people who get their masters are can be certified with thanatology through the association. What I’m finding is that as in most things, we realize that there are health disparities amongst the living and they fall across racial and socio economic lines. And what I’m finding in death is that there are the same disparities.
So the amount of research that is in the field that relates to things like end of life decision making, having funerals, things about cremation, discussions about hospice, things of that nature, they fall along racial and socio economic lines. With a set of research where there is very little research on blacks in America and the population, or Native Americans or Hispanic Americans, then when you have people who are on the frontlines of industry, who are not familiar, who are not culturally competent, who are not available to be what another person needs, you have disparities.
So as I’m working towards my capstone, my master’s project, and how I’m going to apply what I’ve learned going forward, it’s more than likely that I’ll be focusing on the population here in Baltimore City of black people.
It’s interesting to me, I’ve often joked – I have bad sense of humor at times – but I say that there are three places where segregation is allowed to flourish, and none of us complain. And that is, churches, barber and beauty shops, and funeral homes. Those three things require cultural competency.
You would like to go worship on Sundays and be 100% free of everything that disturbs you, amongst people who accept you for who you are. You would like to relax and get your hair cut and done amongst people who you feel comfortable with.
The same thing goes with death. There are funeral rituals and practices. There are things related to clothing and makeup and stereotypes and things related to music and programming and how black funerals work, or homegoings as they’re called, if you’re religious. So without that level of cultural competency, the end of someone’s life can really go badly. And so to say, a family can be treated badly. If you don’t have someone who is familiar and aware of ethical decision making, and they have let’s say someone who is a devout Baptist in the hospital, and the family is becoming very reluctant to talk about organ donation or things of that nature…if you don’t take a moment to understand the people that you’re working with, and why they have the belief that they do, you can’t do your job very well, nor can you service them well.
I definitely am finding that this is a thing. This is sort of part of the Great Divide, if you will. Death education and disparities in death, I didn’t expect to find it as deeply as it is. But there is definitely a problem and my Inspector Gadget Hat has sort of narrowed in on it and I’ll be focusing in that direction.
I mean, it is a pretty perfect fit for you, I’m just saying.
I have to tell you, my husband and I were so honored this year, our next-door neighbor of 20 years passed away in March, which was terribly sad for us, because we just adored him. And his family gave us a huge honor and asked us to come speak at his funeral, and we were the only non-black people in a black funeral service. We were both so nervous we were going to screw it up. I just wanted to be respectful to Chester and his family, and not say the wrong thing.
And it was such a beautiful day and it went fine, but I will say… So Chester was a religious man and his whole family is really involved in their church and really wonderful family. But everybody who spoke before us was a black preacher. And I just looked at my husband – because they had specifically said, “We want you both to say something” because we each had our own friendship with Chester – and I said to my husband, “Yeah, you’re going first. I’m not following this.”
Luckily, he has a good sense of humor and good delivery. They told us afterward they liked what we said and like I said, it was just so honored to be included in that. But I have seen firsthand that that was a very different kind of funeral from the kind that I have gone to in my family, and that is okay for people to point out. That’s a helpful thing to know.
And also I will add, I love the repast. I love that word and I don’t think there is an equivalent in white funeral rites. I don’t know what they call it, the after party or something? But I just call it repast now. Because that’s the right word.
That’s the right word, yeah.
Regardless of how tragic the circumstances are, we talk about young people and we talk about homicide deaths and things of that nature and obviously, all these COVID deaths and things.
But there’s – obviously, I can’t speak to every black person in America – but I will say that typically, culturally, across the board, a funeral is a homegoing and it is a celebration of life in a way that I think is a little bit different than other cultures.
So the singing, the emotion, and then how that transitions to the repast, which is an after party. The idea that we are together in this space, let’s love on one another and let’s take amazing pictures that we haven’t been together in so long to take and let’s celebrate this. We didn’t want the person to die, but they are – particularly if of faith, they are now in heaven, they have gone on to a place where there’s no pain, and we are here to celebrate everything that they’ve done and accomplished and how they brought us all together. I think you need a certain amount of cultural competency to be able to navigate the different things.
The speed at which some other cultures handle funeral rituals, like Jewish people, and then there are rituals related to Muslim deaths. So I think that if you are not aware of these things, or you don’t take the time, if you are a professional in the death industry, then you can be very insulting and you can make a very difficult situation even more difficult.
That much worse.
Right. Nobody wants that. I mean, you just don’t. So I think that’s really important and I hope to talk about that more and to sort of bring light to some of those things in a way to help people.
I could talk to you about this for six more hours. I’ll ask you one more question. Is it a growing field? I mean, now a whole bunch of listeners know the word “thanatology”, so count us in.
Yeah, right. I know.
It really is a growing field. Again, not to be confused with counseling or psychology or that, but it’s the idea that death education begins with the living. Well, we should be preparing for death while living and so some of the choices that we make while living help ease our transition toward death. It’s the way in which we plan for how the elderly will live to die with dignity, all these things.
Absolutely, the COVID pandemic has absolutely rocked the industry and has forced people to talk about death more, which is a good thing. We’re fans of that. But it’s also proven and shown where the problems and the pitfalls in our society are because we have a lot of people who are now grieving with nowhere to put it. They are frustrated with nowhere to take it. They are feeling overwhelmed by the weight of the entire world right now and what do I do next. So that’s where we kind of try to come in and fill the gap.
Alright. I’ve just got to ask this. You are a single mom, you have a full time job, you have a seventh grader who started class on Monday, and you’re 45 years old, and you’re back in the classroom. What advice do you have to somebody who’s listening who might be thinking of going back to school, but falls in the same category where they’re super busy already with all their stuff and they say, “I can’t go, I can’t go?” What advice do you have to say, “Come on. Give it a go!”
I would say you can. You can do it.
It’s not going to look the same for everyone and so I would want someone to take a realistic assessment of their situation, look at your community and look at your resources, look at how much time you can feasibly spend on your own schoolwork, how much time your child needs, how much your outside activities need and how much your work needs. Is your commute a factor or not? I work for the federal government, thankfully, and I’m still 100% working from home and I have been since March of 2020. So what that allowed me to do was to get three hours a day back when I would be in the car and commuting.
For me, that, plus deciding to binge a little less TV, I found time for homework. So I think that if we’re realistic and we set a goal… I think you can sort of look at your own personal thing and say, well, do I really need to watch three episodes on Netflix or can I watch one? Can I carve out a little bit of time for myself? Then think about why you’re doing it. Are you doing it for the right reasons? Do you feel purpose driven to do this? What are you going to do with what you’ve learned? If you feel like it will enhance you in some way, then approach it at your own pace. My program, I’m taking two classes a semester, but I could be taking one, or I could take a semester off, take a semester off. I’m kind of in the get-it-done phase because I’m getting no younger. So I’m heading in with…
You’re still 10 years younger than me, come on. You’re a baby.
I know. But I gotta get a real job and join the industry! Look at it and say, “How will this work for me?” and also recognize, like how I did with my bachelor’s – just because you start and because your trajectory doesn’t follow the traditional one or doesn’t follow anyone else’s, it doesn’t mean that that’s a problem or that you’re giving up.
If I decide in January that, you know what? It’s the winter, my son’s classes are harder, work is getting more stressful, this is not the semester for me to take two classes, I might take one or I might take a semester off. I’m giving myself the flexibility to recognize that my dream doesn’t have a deadline, nor does this goal have a deadline. Except I’m on it and I’m going to do it in the way that works without making me any more crazy in the process.
I love that. “My dream doesn’t have a deadline.” Progress is progress. I say that all the time. You can go whatever speed. As long as you’re moving forward, good for you.
Alright, so last question. What one piece of advice do you have for people younger than you, or do you wish you could go back and tell yourself?
Oh, that’s a good one. Well, I would say that I had to write a letter to my 21-year-old self a few weeks ago. I’m going to publish it at some point, but I haven’t yet. I had to give myself five pieces of advice, but the one piece that really stuck out to me is that my grandmother had a phrase that I never understood until I got into my 40s and she used to say, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I didn’t know what that meant. It sounded like a riddle. Grandma, what do you mean? She said when you’re old enough to figure it out, it’ll be too late. What? Okay.
What that means is that you don’t know how wonderful you have it at 18, 19, 20, 21 and everything is at your fingertips, so much so that we waste it away thinking that there’s plenty of time and that we can go back and we can do it. Now, again, your life can be long. I’m not saying that it’s ever too late to change course or do something different.
But my advice to the teenagers in my life and the 20-year-olds that I know is to embrace today with the energy and enthusiasm as if it were your last day. So take what’s in front of you and make the best of it. I would encourage anyone who was in school to not leave. Many of us left after our first, second, or third years without finishing our degrees and it’s so much harder later. So embrace it while you can, grab it while every opportunity is right in front of you in a way that makes it easier for the taking, and you’ll be a little bit further along later as you look at other opportunities. You give yourself more choices if you can get some of the other stuff out of the way earlier.
That’s great advice. I love it. Alright, Taya Dunn Johnson, we want to make sure people know where to find all of your writing and your other activities. You want to give us the best place to go for people to learn more about your work?
Sure. They can just go to my website, and it’s just my whole name spelled out. So it’s www.tayadunnjohnson.com. Or you can just type my name in Google and find me there. I write kind of sporadically. Like you said, I forget I have a blog sometimes.
Same. I remember the login ID. So I think that’s progress.
That is progress. But I do promise to start blogging more because I have a lot more thoughts in my head. The one thing that school has done especially at the older you get, I feel like my brain is waking up in a different way. So I feel reinvigorated. School has made my critical thinking skills pop back to the forefront and so in that, I want to write more.
If that doesn’t get you off the bench, Mr. or Ms. Listener, who is deciding whether or not to go back to school, what more do you need? Get your brain reinvigorated. We all need that.
That’s awesome. Alright, Taya, I loved speaking with you. Thank you again so much for making the time today.
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Take care, everybody.
Okay, everybody, please go use the word “thanatology” in common discourse at least 17 times. Yes, I actually googled it. So we can remember, you have to say a new word 17 times before it really sinks in. Reinvigorate your brains with “thanatology”! By the way, Taya’s piece that we talked about regarding how you should be cautious about sharing RIP in social media, it struck a nerve. As of December 2020, that story had been viewed 3.9 million times and shared 1.3 million times since its original publication date in 2016. And of course, yes, I will link to it in the show notes.
Are any of you going back to school this fall? I would love to know. First of all, hats off to you and I am cheering on your academic success. Secondly, what are you studying? How is it going? How did you decide to go back? What’s up?
I’m not gonna lie. There’s a lot of Arlo Kho content these days. Our rescue dog who we adopted mid-June continues to thrive. His bald spots are growing in. He’s getting a little sassy. Around 11 o’clock every day, he starts chewing my feet because he wants to walk. But he’s awesome. We’re enjoying him.
Thank you so much everyone for tuning in today. I hope you’ll come back in two weeks. I’ve got a corker of an episode coming up and I will speak to you then.
[“Be Free” by M. The Heir Apparent]