While some of us are just now relaxing into the warm embrace of stretchy waistbands, Raina Casey’s been sporting tomboy chic sweat suits since well before the pandemic. It’s no wonder she opts for comfort when her life’s work is dedicated to, well, death. Casey is an end-of-life doula—a profession that evokes a mix of emo teen and otherworldly sage and one perfectly suited for this cannabis activist/empath. Equal parts caregiver and spiritual guide, the death doula is like a midwife during labor, coaching clients through a life-changing transition, only unlike childbirth, the goal here is eternal peace.
The work wasn’t a big jump from Casey’s early stint as a mortuary affairs specialist, but after suffering a stroke following a complicated brain surgery eight years ago, she took time off to reconcile her own feelings of grief, pain, and loss. During her self-imposed sabbatical, she researched the benefits of cannabis for pain management (she was already familiar with its recreational perks) and saw the potential to incorporate it into palliative care.Casey’s first client was in hospice for breast cancer, enduring pain from wounds and a broken leg. On one visit, Casey casually broached the subject of cannabis (not unlike her go-to first date icebreaker where she asks about their fave strain). For this client, smoking was not an option, but a little sativa tincture and suddenly her appetite increased. And after applying some herbal salve, even her wound care team was amazed at the results. The care provided by Casey improved her last days, but the inevitable outcome is emotionally depleting, no matter the circumstance, and requires a kind of self-care not found in a bath bomb. For her, taking time off to grieve between clients is of utmost importance. “You have to have a way to deal with that, or it will deal with you,” she says. Death is a lot like cannabis, which needs a good publicist to convince people there’s nothing scary about it. Similarly, the death doula industry is still in its infancy with no official regulations—yet. Despite only word-of-mouth promotion, Casey maintains a consistent client load and, as expected, the pandemic has infiltrated her docket. She recently cared for a family devastated by the disease, in ways both expected and indirect. Casey was caring for a mother who rapidly declined after suffering a lung condition. After just a couple of days she passed away, leaving behind two young sons and a teenage daughter who were living with their grandmother at the time. While the two sons were taken in by their father, the teenage girl remained with her grandmother who eventually succumbed to the disease. An aunt, on deployment in the military, was called upon for help, but by the time she arrived, her teenage niece, despondent from the sudden loss, had already taken her own life. The family’s tragedy is just one example of how those who are affected by COVID-19 and survive the virus are hardly living. Immediately after and unsurprisingly, Casey took a break from the business. Her most recent client loved hikes and his family planned to honor his passing with an aftercare kit Casey created for them. The kit includes painted rocks they’ll leave on a hillside, along with his dog collar, a makeshift tombstone for their beloved weiner dog. A reminder that death takes all kinds. Even though Casey’s work has her toggling between life and death, she’s also carving out space for BIPOC to make a living in the cannabis industry. She realized that the $100 Marijuana Worker Permit insisted upon by the state was just another barrier to entry for many BIPOC folks. So this past spring, she founded the Oregon Handlers Fund (OHF), a non-profit that covers the cost of the permit for eligible applicants, whether they plan on becoming a budtender, botanist, or engineer. OHF just completed funding their first group of 14 people who will receive their permit along with any necessary criminal expungement (courtesy of Cannabis Workers Coalition), as well as job placement assistance. Casey dismisses the role COVID-19 played in the traction OHF’s gained since launching, and instead attributes the support to the surge in visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement and the public’s sudden interest in patronizing Black- and brown-owned businesses. Whether it was the global pandemic, national quarantine, social justice uprising, or the coalescence of all three, Casey is finding herself in the right place to capitalize on this moment in time. Eventually, she wants to move away from Portland, ideally back to her hometown of New Orleans, a city renowned for their celebratory funeral processions. Maybe that’s the genesis of her calling, where she learned we may not enter this world by choice, but at least we can leave it with a smile, trailing behind us a plume of smoke.
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