Raina Casey is my final of four "Badass Black Women.” Raina is a true survivor and has a calling to help people at the end of their lives through her witness and presence. This episode discusses cannabis, which is legal in Oregon and other states.
You can reach Raina on Facebook here.
Raina has an extensive grit story, but we were barely able to scratch the surface during the podcast because I wanted to learn about her experience as a death doula. These are some of the obstacles she has faced:
Child of alcoholic whose father passed away from AIDS when she was 11; her mom made the grieving process difficult and strained their relationship
Worked at Ground Zero site as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve (a mind-searing experience, but still not enough to prepare her for when Katrina hit)
Washed out of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina
Raised a son with autism (who she says is way more dope than she can ever be)
CNS lymphoma patient, which allows her to connect to her patients on a deeper level
Survived a stroke, abdominal aneurysm, and brain surgery by the age of 33
Survived a financially abusive ex
Still grieving the transition of her father, grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles
Still lives with a seizure disorder and residual damage in her left hand from her stroke
Raina has a bachelor’s of science in international public health and an associate’s degree in funeral service and mortuary science. She also served in the U.S. Army as a surgery technician and in mortuary services. Featured in Oregon Leaf in November 2019, Raina now she works as a death doula and cannabis practitioner. Oregon Leaf said this about Raina’s work:
“She is a veteran - and veterans were a huge part of legalization and the medical program - so she is working on increasing cannabis advocacy and access for current and future veterans...Beyond Raina’s advocacy for veterans, she is also a death doula, meaning she provides safe cannabis access for people in late stages of life. As controversial as this topic may be, Raina works with clients to provide as much comfort in the end of their life through cannabis.”
If you’re like me, you have never heard the term “death doula” before. I first learned of death doulas a few months ago when I met my friend Amira Stanley, who has a calling to become a death doula. What are the chances? Within that week, I met Raina online and connected Amira and Raina to each other.
The term “death doula” (also called “death midwife”) is relatively new. The first known death doula movement arose in New York in 2000, as a volunteer program that paired so-called "doulas" with terminally ill people. Death doulas assist with the dying process, like a midwife or doula does during the labor and birth process. They help clients and their families adjust to death by recognizing it as a natural and important part of life. Their services might include creating death plans; providing spiritual, psychological, and social support before and after death; and assisting with logistical activities such as funerals and memorial services. In Raina’s case, she helps her clients with pain and comfort care using cannabis.
Although the concept of death doula might be new, women have always been involved in shepherding people through the end of life. When the embalming and funeral industry arose, women were pushed out of the practice around the time of the American Civil War. Now women are taking the lead by resurrecting their roles in the death doula practice.
Always fascinated by the concept of death and dying, Raina got into the mortuary business in the U.S. Army. She shares a story on the podcast about her dad taking her to a funeral home and literally introducing Raina to her first dead person at the age of nine. Later on she was working for the medical examiner when she suffered from a devastating stroke and had to have brain surgery. She was using cannabis for medical needs and then started doing more research about the benefits of cannabis. That led her to start fusing cannabis with death and dying and noticing that cannabis can be very beneficial in quality-of-life care.
Raina’s experience with her own medical problems, including a few near-death times, gives her a special insight into what her clients are experiencing.
“I can really look them in the eye and know what it feels like when doctors give up, insurance runs out, support becomes less existent, wondering how you're going to make a living, what your living will look like.”
She’s seen amazing relief in her clients when she treats them with cannabis.
“It’s cured their pain, and it’s not brought on the anxiety that Ativan cures...they’re pain free, but they’re also able to engage with their loved ones. They’re not stuck at home in bed...and if they are stuck at home in bed, they recognize the people who come to see them. They’re able to engage with their visitors.”
We talked about the importance for Black people, especially, to have culturally sensitive end-of-life care.
“I’ve learned so much about people and the way that they grieve and the way they want to celebrate their life.”
We talked in depth about death and dying. She regrets that her mom didn’t give her a good head start on how to grieve, and that she didn’t do the same for her own son. She calls it a generational curse that she did not break.
You can learn more about Raina’s work as a death doula by using the hashtag #DeathDoulaDialog on Facebook. She is working on revamping her death doula business by training doula on cannabis usage to improve the quality of their clients’ lives.
Raina and I also spoke about what it’s like to be a Black woman in Oregon and in the cannabis business, and raising her son, Mason Deuce Williams, who was a preemie like my son was. Mason is a track star and is attending the University of Oregon on a full ride scholarship. Listen to the blog post to hear Raina talk about their connection to track and field star Tommie Smith, who won the gold medal for the 200-meter dash. Smith, along with bronze medalist John Carlos and silver medalist (and Australian) Peter Norman raised their fists into the air to protest racism in America. They risked their careers and became another example of white America (and Australia) disliking the way Black people protest in nonviolent ways. The International Olympic Committee suspended Smith and Carlos from the U.S. team. Finally, 50 years later, Smith and Carlos were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame.
When I asked Raina who has inspired her in her life, she talked about her son Mason. Mason is following in Tommie Smith’s footsteps as a track and field star and great human being (Tommie Smith's niece is Mason's godmother). He had to go through a lot of trials during his school years with teachers who didn’t understand or appreciate him. At his first parent-teacher conference in high school, one of his teachers suggested that they should think about working toward a modified diploma, which would have counted as a dropout. Raina was not going to let that happen. At his last parent-teacher conference of high school, when he was getting ready to graduate, Mason made sure to say to that teacher, “You said that I wasn’t going to graduate!” We talked about how important it is for parents to advocate for their kids who have learning disabilities.
During COVID, Mason has gone from having a job and being in school to having no support system. Raina asked a trusted friend (his barber) to give Mason a call, and now he’s adjusting to this new situation. Raina is so grateful to her village, what she calls the “community cousins,” for additional support for Mason. She knows they won’t give him any bad advice. Mason loves people, especially other people who are on the autism spectrum or who have any other kinds of developmental disabilities.
“He’s my wildest dream come true and the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Raina gave a big shout-out to her god-diva, Sharon Gary-Smith, who has always been there for her and Mason, no matter the time of day or whatever she is doing. Raina even named a cannabis strain after her...one that is potent, powerful, and beautiful!
“She’s the dopest of the absolute dope.”
Everyone needs a god-diva!
Next week I release my interview with Sankar Raman, who immigrated to the U.S. from Madras, India, to attend graduate school. After a successful career in high tech, he now applies his technical knowledge, managerial skills, and pragmatic mind to founding and leading The Immigant Story, one of my favorite nonprofit organizations, which fosters empathy and builds a more inclusive community by sharing immigrant stories. Read about our "live" (previously recorded) storytelling event this week.
Podcasters for Justice
I am a member of #podcastersforjustice. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many many others at the hands of police. This is a continuation of the systemic racism pervasive in our country since its inception and we are committed to standing against racism in all its forms.
We believe that to be silent is to be complicit.
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We believe that we have a responsibility to use our platforms to speak out against this injustice whenever and wherever we are witness to it.
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