When Alua Arthur was 3, her family fled Ghana in the wake of a coup against the government. By the time family members were reunited in the United States, both of Alua’s parents had decided to become Christian missionaries, a life that saw Alua and her three sisters bounce around the globe as their mother and father preached the Gospel in Maryland, California, Kenya, and eventually Colorado.

Like many immigrant children of educated parents, Arthur felt parental pressure to enter an elite profession; she chose law. But even working in legal aid, the arena most aligned with her values, began to feel unbearable. In Briefly Perfectly Human: Making an Authentic Life by Getting Real About the End (Mariner Books, April 16), Arthur braids together memoir and manifesto, tracking the personal journey that led her to become a death doula—someone who works with the dying to help them experience the death they want—while also exploring the ways that reckoning with our own mortality can help each of us enrich the lives we lead, right now, today.

“For me, death work is activism at its core,” Arthur writes. “Fueled by anger but cloaked in love.” Her anger is aimed at the broken health care industry, which keeps many of us from the kind of death we might want, and at a society that silences honest communication about grief and loss, as well as life and joy. We spoke with Arthur on the phone from her home in Los Angeles; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I was fascinated by your childhood—a mix of religion and travel that left you tightly bonded with your family but also a perennial outsider. How did that affect your choice to become a death doula?

Being an outsider—on some level it’s a cross I bear, but it’s also a gift that I carry. For starters, there’s curiosity. I’m really nosy; I just ask so many questions of people all the time. I’m very curious about humans, about their stories, about the world that we live in, about how we relate to one another. I’m down to have the difficult conversations. I don’t fear my tears; I don’t fear the tears of others. I’m not afraid of fear. You know, people that are dying are often treated like pariahs; [others] are worried about them or scared of them or don’t want to come too close. A big part of my job is to walk closer to it.

One childhood moment you describe is when you heard goats being slaughtered and instantly decided to become a vegetarian. It made me wonder how you deal with the physical, visceral, bodily part of death that a lot of us are afraid of.

I was pretty comfortable with it the first time I saw it, which was when my brother-in-law was dying. I was in awe of it. It feels very natural. It looks like a system shutting itself down, which is essentially what’s happening. At some point the breathing becomes mechanical. You can tell that the human-ing part that used to control it is no longer in the room. I’ve never experienced birth, but I hear that in some ways it’s kind of the same—at some point the body just takes over and the human has to get out of the way in order to allow the thing to occur. The body knows how to die. It’s the humans that get in the way.

You were raised in a very religious household, yet you write about questioning Christianity and following your own path. How have you managed to remain close to your family?

There’s a part of Christianity that I like: I like the compassion, the kindness. Yet some of the ways that Christianity approaches death and dying don’t jibe with me. I think that [my parents] would still prefer if I accepted Jesus Christ as my lord and savior. But they also see that maybe the way that I choose to move through the world [follows] the principles that Christianity preaches.

Obviously everyone is individual, but do you see any commonalities in terms of what people are thinking about in their final days?

I think many people want some peace. They want it to feel peaceful. They don’t want to be in pain. Some people really want their loved ones to be there; others wait until their loved ones step out of the room before they actually die. There aren’t a lot of universals, other than the process of the body when it is dying from disease.

It’s a great gift to be with people as they die, but it’s also hard work, emotionally. How do you renew yourself afterward?

I try to spend time in silence. Sometimes I’ll call my mom or my partner and cry. I cry a lot. I eat a lot of potato chips. I take a bath or a shower, wash my body in a ritual of what is not mine to keep. Sometimes I touch the door jamb when I’m going in a place and then touch it again as I exit, to make sure that I mark that I’m going into a place and the me that leaves won’t be the same as the one that went in.

Why are rituals so important in death, and in life?

Our culture has largely forgotten about ritual, hasn’t learned how to properly ritualize those shifts in identity that we experience. I do my best to mark it in some way for myself. And I hope that it’s an invitation for other people to do the same. I love a celebration, I really do. I love honoring what has come before and paying attention to where we’re going.

We Americans use a lot of euphemistic language to avoid even mentioning death. How can we work on changing that?

Talk to your parents or the elders in your life to get a sense of what they want when they die. If we can speak our fear to other people, it creates space for somebody else to talk about it. I think not using euphemisms is helpful—acknowledging our discomfort, our pain, our grief, our sorrow. I wish we could grieve out loud, we could be joyful out loud, we could live the whole human experience very publicly and out loud.

This book is very out loud—you make yourself very vulnerable and honest. You write about a big depression, about sex and drugs. Was it scary to be so open?

It sounds ridiculous, but I was not thinking about people reading it when I wrote it. And then I sent it off to my editor and I was like, “Oh, shit.” It’s terrifying now! But here’s my hope: My hope is that by being as transparent as I’ve been, it gives other people permission to also be transparent in their lives. I hope that somebody feels a little less alone in their struggles, to say the difficult things, to make the hard choices, to recognize the signs of burnout and depression in their own lives, to be with their mortality, to have difficult conversations with other people. I hope that it serves as an example, or at least as a companion.

Kate Tuttle is a writer and editor in New Jersey.