Embracing Life on the Day of the Dead

Andrea Deerheart is looking for artists inspired by Dia de los Muertos.
Andrea Deerheart is looking for artists inspired by Dia de los Muertos.

Most know El Dia de Los Muertos as a celebration marked by building alters decorated with sugar skulls and colorful flowers to honor and remember the dearly departed. The tradition originated in Mexico recognizes death as a natural part of a continuum of birth, childhood and growing up. The dead are awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones, according to the National Geographic education website.

To Andrea Deerheart, the Mexican tradition seemed a well-suited thread to weave into her first ever fundraiser for HeartWay, which provides end-of-life care to families and individuals.

Deerheart invites artists inspired by the Day of the Dead to submit their work by Sept. 15 for sale or donation. “I don’t imagine we’ll be turning anyone away,” she said. A $50 per person donation is suggested for the Sunday, Nov. 1, fundraiser at Anneliese’s School in Laguna Canyon; proceeds will benefit the Laguna Beach-based organization that became a non-profit last year.

Deerheart, 55, describes herself as a “death doula,” who attempts to soothe the souls of the dying and those near them with companionship, counseling on nutrition and exercise, and assistance with the management of chronic illnesses. She also makes funeral arrangements and performs memorial services, something that a generation ago might have been the sole domain of the clergy. Today, like birth doulas, who bond while tending to the needs of expectant mothers while a midwife focuses on the newborn, a death doula often becomes a trusted family confidant.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in counseling psychology from San Diego State University, Deerheart worked as a marketing executive for several years before making the dramatic shift to becoming a hospice volunteer.

For the past 28 years, Deerheart has devoted most of her energy to the field she calls “conscious living and conscious dying.” Her organization offers end of life services that are not typically emphasized in the doctor’s bag of Western medicine. For those grieving over a loved one, she offers support for as long as it takes the “grief to find its path to full expression.” “Grief can be an enriching and empowering process in life,” she states.

While similar to traditional hospice treatment, which focuses on relief from pain and stress, Deerheart says HeartWay provides care that is continuous. As a hospice volunteer, she saw limitations in their approach. “You are expected to see a certain number of patients per day and the time you’re allowed to spend with each one is therefore limited,” Deerheart said, adding that the length of her patient visits are not determined by anyone other than herself or her volunteers.

Deerheart also holds a doctorate degree from Pacifica Graduate Institute of Carpinteria where her studies focused on mythology, depth psychology, comparative religions, and death and dying. Her dissertation, to be published as the book, “Ellie’s Ride: Beyond Imagination,” chronicles the care and companionship she offered to the family of her daughter’s best friend, Ellie Khamanian, who died in 2008 at the age of 11 from bone cancer. “Andrea comforted my soul and brought me so much peace,” Ladan Sahafi, Khamanian’s mother, said in a statement on the organization’s web page.

While Deerheart mostly counsels families in Orange County, where she was born and raised, she also works with patients by phone or Skype. Clients come through referrals from doctors and social media and her own website. They “pay what they can,” she says, noting that she views this work as her calling.

The end of life typically can be overwhelming for families, Deerheart acknowledges. But through her doula practice, she has seen that the end of life can also allow loved ones to grow closer, share stories, heal and forgive one another and find peace.

Deerheart currently works with a team of three volunteers, committed to her approach, who “step in with an open heart.” Their training involves music and art therapy as well as instruction in her philosophy. Attending a death “is often a transformational experience for them, too,” she said.

At Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Deerheart teaches movement classes and works with the emeritus population offering a variety of classes on the philosophy of aging. At the Susi Q Senior Center in Laguna Beach, Deerheart and Mary Franz co-led a support group for aging baby boomers who were experiencing midlife challenges, including dealing with aging parents as well as their own children.

The sessions prompted the creation of “Conscious Aging” workshops where aging gracefully is emphasized. Deerheart “has created a soft and spiritual approach to teaching and dealing with end of life issues,” said Nadia Babayi, executive director of the Susi Q.

Deerheart starts a series at the center shortly called the Death Café, aimed at helping people make the most of their lives, added Babayi.

HeartWay’s Dia De Los Muertos celebration will include food, music, dancing and a performance art piece depicting what Deerheart calls being “carried through.” The event will culminate with a candlelight procession to, and dedication of, a cherry tree that was planted on the Willowbrook campus of the Anneleise School to honor Khamanian.

The cherry tree was chosen because Deerheart says the blossoms in Eastern culture symbolize “the cycle of life, death and rebirth.”

More details about the party are available at TheHeartWay on Facebook.


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