Editor's Choice

Briefly Perfectly Human: Making an Authentic Life by Getting Real about the End

Jasmine Gonzalez

April 18, 2024


Alua Arthur’s exploration of mortality and stories about the end of life reveal the wonder that it is to be alive, and offer us a reminder to revel in it.

Briefly Perfectly Human: Making an Authentic Life by Getting Real about the End by Alua Arthur, Mariner Books 

Alua Arthur, a death doula, recounts an anecdote about one of her clients, Leslie. During their first meeting, Leslie, who has terminal lung disease, pulls out a pen and notebook and, as Arthur recalls, “cuts bracingly to the point,” asking questions like, “What does dying feel like?” and “What happens after we die?”  

Of course, these are questions that humans have grappled with forever and for which we have no definitive answers. Arthur gently explains that, in her role, she can answer questions about the physical process of dying and guide Leslie through her end-of-life care and post-mortem arrangements. But she cannot offer any insight into what—if anything—exists beyond. There’s no way for her to know what awaits the dead, “since I’m still here with the living.” 

Her book, Briefly Perfectly Human, is a story about death—about Arthur’s first direct encounter with it via the death of her brother-in-law, Peter, and of her calling to make death a more dignified experience for both the dying and the loved ones they leave behind. But it is equally a book about making the most of our brief time on this planet.  

Before becoming a death doula, Arthur worked for close to a decade as a Legal Aid attorney, hoping to use her law degree to make a difference in the world. Yet it became clear early on that the work was far too rigid and process-based for her liking, the effects of her efforts far too small to overhaul a broken system or meaningfully bring justice to her clients’ lives. Thinking it all could still be worth it somehow, even as she floundered to answer why she wanted to be a lawyer at all, she kept pushing forward with her legal career, careening straight into burnout and a major depressive episode.  

“I searched so hard for my purpose that I practically thought it’d be gift-wrapped for me in a pretty box,” Arthur writes, reminiscing on this chapter of her life. “I was convinced it was out there for me to find, like a scavenger hunt [...] The search for purpose itself—the worship of some glamorized future where everything suddenly makes sense—can be blinding. In my case, I was so busy looking for my purpose that I couldn’t see it.”  

After reaching a breaking point, Arthur takes a trip to Cuba, where she meets Jessica, who is traveling around the world to see all that she can see before her impending death from uterine cancer. Traveling across the island by bus, the two women engage in a frank conversation about the prospect of Jessica’s death—how she envisions her last moments, and what she wants to get out of her life before it ends. They both realize that they have never spoken this openly about death with anyone, and rather than feeling morbid, the conversation gives them both renewed hope. “I realize,” Arthur writes, “that the Alua I want to be on my deathbed is a woman who has filled her life cup all the way up and has built a life she feels comfortable leaving.” 

What constitutes a good life is an answer unique to each of us. Arthur serves as a death doula for clients from many walks of life—an astronomer with stacks of science magazines filling his home, a dancer playing Fela Kuti at full volume from her deathbed, a trailblazing ad executive with a newfound fascination learning about fungal networks, and so on. Their lives aren’t just a series of grandiose accomplishments—the individuals Arthur highlights have also found joy in the little things in life, creating their purpose and fulfillment from all they love. Arthur recognizes that while she has found great fulfillment in her work as a death doula, she is far more grateful for “the mere opportunity to be briefly, perfectly human,” to experience things like the taste of sugar or the sight of a disco ball shining in the sun. 

What if one of your purposes in life is to delight in the delicious syrup made with lavender and blackberries from your garden? Or to learn how to make macrame art finally? [...] What if what brings you purpose is reveling in the mysteries of life and the simplicities and perfection of nature? Would these be sufficient?

In thinking about her own death, Arthur ends the book with a beautiful, detailed description of how she hopes her death will go, from where she will be, to who will surround her, to what she imagines the end might feel like on physical and spiritual levels. “I hope death feels like riding a bright glitter wave,” she writes, “but I don’t know. And since I don’t know if I’ll have it in my death, I will make it with my life. I look for the glitter in everything.” 

Through the stories Arthur shares, she gets to the heart of a profound reality: many of us spend our lives chasing the next big thing, thinking that our time here is unlimited. Yet, in the process, we forget to simply live. Welcoming the inevitability of our death, Arthur asserts, gives us the ability to let go of our fears of the unknown and revel in the certainty of the present, fleeting moment. 


About Jasmine Gonzalez

Jasmine Gonzalez has been a part of the Porchlight marketing and editorial team since 2022. The youngest daughter of a high school history teacher and a local business leader, one of her earliest memories involves toddling over to the living room bookshelf and reading aloud all of the titles on the book spines. She’s been voraciously reading and writing in English and Spanish ever since. Outside of work, you can find her cooking intricate recipes, playing video games on vintage consoles, and fulfilling her role as the very cool aunt that gives books and Rolling Stones vinyls as gifts. Yes, she would like to befriend your dog.

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