I lived in a number of states throughout my childhood, and my parents grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. As a result, my parents both grew up in highly religious, southern Baptist households. When I think back to my childhood, I recall that mortality was addressed a lot in my family in the context of religion and spirituality, and when it was talked about, it was discussed indirectly. The conversations about mortality were always nebulous and vague and never direct. As a counselor, I now know that conversations about death and end-of-life are challenging to have -- even for professionals who encounter it regularly. Looking back, I remember I would hear my parents talk about relatives who had “passed away” and were now “in a better place” and had “gone home”. While conversations about mortality are becoming increasingly encouraged, I believe that the way mortality was discussed in my family resembles the way it was discussed within the broader culture at the time. As I look back, I now understand that it was discussed largely in symbolic language in my family that I didn’t quite understand as a child.
I grew up as an only child, so aside from spending time with my friends, I mainly spent time with my mother and father. As I think back to these days, I recognize that, as a child, I learned most of what I knew about the aging process by observing younger and older relatives in my family. I determined other children and cousins to be younger than me based on my observations of them being smaller than me, and I determined some to be older if they were bigger than me. My first observations around aging were largely based on using myself as a reference point. As a child, I knew that aging was associated with getting older, but I don’t think I had quite made the connection between aging and mortality. When I was a child, I associated youth with ability, as I observed those who were young like me as being more active and able to engage in play, and I observed those who were old as being less capable of these things.
For example, I recall thinking my grandma was old when I was around five years old. Looking back, when I was five, she was probably in her mid-fifties. I remember vividly spending time with her throughout my childhood. As she aged, I would see her when I visited her during summers. I noticed over time that her stride was becoming slower and that wrinkles became more pronounced on her skin. I also recall talking with her on the phone throughout childhood and being surprised by the frequency of her doctor appointments, as they were increasing as she got older. I remember my mom explaining that she had been diagnosed with chronic illnesses that could be managed under the care of a physician.
Ultimately, however, I recall being absolutely struck by her unwavering love for life. How could she face the world with a smile unceasingly? How can she recover from the days that are just really, really hard? Could I do that? Will I be able to do that? These are questions I’d often think growing up, as my grandma and I have always been close. As a counselor who aims to be equipped to help her clients with whatever issues they present with, I have grown to recognize and appreciate the value of reflecting on, contemplating, and questioning my own experiences and beliefs regarding death, dying, and mortality. It is my hope that these reflective processes I engage in serve as a small step toward being better suited to help clients who present with these issues.
Amber M. Samuels is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University working toward a PhD in Counseling and a Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor (LGPC) in the District of Columbia. She is board-certified as a National Certified Counselor (NCC) and is an MBTI® Certified Practitioner. Amber takes an intersectional approach to counseling and utilizes an integrative theoretical orientation to guide her in helping the individuals she works with move toward optimum mental health. Her research centers around using research as a tool for advocacy and as a way to inform culturally sensitive clinical practice. You can learn more about Amber at https://www.linkedin.com/in/itsambersamuels/