Karina Totah spends a lot of time thinking about something you and I probably try to avoid: death. Through her work as a death doula, Karina supports and coaches people through the end of life, while also working to rethink the systems that impact aging and dying. We caught up with Karina to learn more about her work as a death doula, the changes she’s working to make in end-of-life experience, and how she prioritizes balance and self-care.
GatherDC: Tell me about what brought you to the DC area, and why you’ve stayed.
Karina: I grew up in Rockville, Maryland, attending Magen David Sephardic Congregation and I moved back to DC from Brooklyn, NY to be close to my family (and to enjoy city life with more trees than New York!).
GatherDC: Tell us, do you have any special ways that you connect with your Jewish identity or the Jewish community?
Karina: I think Judaism wins in the ritual department and, over time, I have come to appreciate those rituals more and more and make them my own. I celebrate Rosh Chodesh in my women’s Well circle (shoutout to @atthewellproject). I mark Shabbat consistently, sometimes in personal ways, other times in communal ways—wishing a loved one a Shabbat shalom, baking challahs and giving them to friends, sharing a Shabbat dinner or just refraining from “to dos” for 24 hours. I like to stay attuned to the Jewish calendar because it gives me milestones for reflection, rebirth, a little transcendence, and gratitude. Oh, and I just started saying the Modeh Ani prayer when I wake up! It’s such a cool ritual—expressing gratitude for having our soul returned to our bodies after it left us in sleep.
GatherDC: What is something people might be surprised to learn about you?
Karina: I am a death doula (with a business background). I try to support people physically, spiritually and emotionally through the end of life, like birth doulas do for the transition into life. I’d like to transform the way we die in this country (as it stands right now, quality of life really deteriorates and our loved ones suffer from the logistical overwhelm) and I think one way to do so is scaling the doula concept. [Editor’s note: Karina is the founder of Nevit, a consulting practice specializing in end-of-life care]
Also, I competed in two all-female, very amateur powerlifting competitions! Squats. For. Days.
GatherDC: Wow, that is such powerful work! Was there something in particular that led you down that path?
Karina: I experienced directly with a family member how medical care in the US extends the quantity of life but not the quality, and how it tends to the body but not the mind and soul. I believe that to change a system you have to know it from the frontline. So I trained to become a death doula. I served with palliative care and hospices, and then worked in healthcare technology designing patient experience and recruiting the support team for cancer patients.
GatherDC: How do you emotionally manage being around death? Do you struggle with that in your personal life?
Karina: It definitely forces you to confront your own mortality! Which I think COVID-19 has done for many of us, anyway—existential angst abounds these days…It requires really intentional self-care and burnout management, and I am constantly learning the boundaries of what I can and cannot do.
GatherDC: After all that important work, what do you do to relax and get that intentional self-care at the end of a long week?
Karina: Go on hikes and walks, take my nieces and nephews on adventures in the city, bake (recently, challah and olive oil cake), sing!
GatherDC: Do you have a Jewish role model? If so, who and why?
Karina: Rabbi Hillel. There are so many great lessons to learn from his teachings: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”; Carpe diem; Tikkun olam; Take action now; Don’t look around, you’re the answer. Hillel covers it all.
GatherDC: We’re headed into a new year (come on, 2022!). If you could learn one new personal skill this year, what would it be and why?
Karina: How to not suck at swimming laps.
GatherDC: When Jews of DC Gather…
Karina: …we ritualize.
Looking to learn more about Karina’s work or how to have conversations around death and end-of-life care? Check out these resources she recommends:
You can follow Karina on Instagram @seekoh1563.
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