Kat Courtney’s mom smoked when she was pregnant, and as a result she spent her childhood in and out of medical treatment for an underdeveloped respiratory system. One of her first memories is thinking that falling asleep in her oxygen tent and never waking up wouldn’t be the end of her world.
Later in life, she struggled with depression, substance abuse issues, and an eating disorder that no doctor seemed able to help her with. After having a revelation during a set of ayahuasca ceremonies right after her 30th birthday, she decided to quit her marketing job and become what she calls a "death coach." That means Courtney helps people achieve the level of acceptance toward mortality that she remembers achieving as a small child.
"It's almost impossible to talk about death to the people that love us, as they have a deep agenda to keep us tethered to this tangible space," Courtney's website reads. Mostly what she does is talk to people about the prospect of their upcoming death, usually on the phone, which many people find easier than in-person visits, though some clients request her at their death beds. She told VICE she's helped more than 500 clients in the past 14 years. She typically charges $150 per session, and has worked with at least two dozen people as a volunteer in hospice. While plenty of people who just have a bit extra existential dread hit her up for help even though they’re not about to die, she’s also counseled a lot of what she calls "terminal" people and has seen a lot of them die—a fact that doesn’t seem to bother her in the slightest.
VICE asked Courtney about her nontraditional career, but also her unusual attitude about the one thing that most people are rightly terrified of.
VICE: Do people get more afraid of death as they get older, or is it more personality-driven?
Kat Courtney: It’s more personality-driven. I have everything from 18-year-olds to 80-year-olds, honestly. Being afraid of death is pretty universal. Typically these people have had some events in their lives, whether it’s a diagnosis of an illness or something really tragic or a psychedelic experience—anything that spikes their curiosity. I do deal with people who are terminal, but I see myself as the one person in their lives who can say, "It’s OK. Congratulations." It’s a weird thing to say to someone who’s terminal, but they get so sick of hearing, "I’m so sorry. This is horrible." For those people, I’m able to say, "Yeah, we’re all terminal. You just have a better idea of the fact of when it’s coming."
Do you get the sense that kids are pushing this on their parents?
I’m wary of working with people who are coming when they themselves have not called. If someone’s coming because of a loved one, or a spouse, or a kid, it’s not going to go well. It can actually be really traumatic to be shown something you don’t really want to see. I do a better job of sniffing that out now, and I would say that’s maybe 2 percent of the people who come to me at all, though.
Is there usually a triggering event for this awakening?
I think it’s kind of like Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point book, in terms of enough of us waking up to the fact that maybe the Western world isn’t the end-all-be-all when it comes to physical health. Suffering is the element that’s helping us to wake up to the fact that we can feel better, we can be healthier. We as a society gave all this authority to doctors and priests, and they abused it.
How does your advice differ when talking to someone who’s terminal and someone who’s 18 and healthy?
If someone’s terminal, it’s all about making peace with death and the part of ourselves that’s eternal. There are different kinds of meditations and exercises that I give them to help awaken to that. With a [healthy] 18-year-old, the process is kind of flipped. It’s about helping them fall in love with the process of living.
I think most people, more than death, fear the pain that’s often associated with the process of dying. How do you conquer that?
Well, that’s what I’m more afraid of. Not death itself, but dying. Dying is what sounds scary, but once it’s done, it’s done. It’s about being spacious enough to trust the process of suffering. The coaching is about how suffering is for us and not there to torture us. It’s a process by which we are put in a pressure cooker to become more aware. And by no means is it fun, and I have a deep compassion for anyone in that place. But if you’re aware that’s the process by which we wake up, then at least you have the grace of not fighting it. Conflict with this is what creates more suffering. Fighting is the worst part. You need to surrender and trust the process and that if your body is sick, it’s speaking to you.
Many people are afraid of having to live with a terminal prognosis, and know for a period of time that they’re not going to accomplish certain milestones that we think of as comprising a meaningful life. How do you get around that?
That’s very common. But it’s about having a paradigm shift in which you see the attachment to life being about productivity and accomplishing things is just programming that’s part of our culture. The idea that you have to be productive to be worthy. The truth of it is that by being here and existing and doing the work of growing, we are actually doing the work we came to do. It’s not about having letters after your name or tangible things to point to, such as children that we’ve raised. None of that matters as much as growing, which is around feeling and acknowledging suffering. There’s nothing like an illness to do that for us. Additionally, walking around and constantly thinking you’re going to get sick or something bad is going to happen is far worse than being sick. The anxiety that comes with that and the energy that you spend worrying about that is exhausting. And when you hold that as your vibration, the universe will mirror it back one way or the other.
So if you don’t take accomplishments with you, what should people be focusing on so that they don’t feel this is all pointless?
The knowledge you gain on an intellectual level, you can’t take with you. If you remember high school or college, you don’t remember the lectures you had but you remember the experiences. The soul is what we take with us when we transition. Anything that’s experiential, that we feel and don’t think, that’s what we came to do. That’s why, when people are transitioning, they start to reminisce about falling in love or being in a car accident. These are all on the surface, not what they did in their job. Even the most accomplished person is not going to recount that, because it’s not part of their soul’s journey. The intellectual stuff is just clutter.
I assume you have thoughts on how the religions of the world inadequately prepare people for death.
The religions of the world all took on the task of trying to be "right" and the aspect of control. They add in a middle-man, too. Growing up Catholic I always wanted to know why I needed to see a priest. All the religions insert this human person between you and divine experience. The religions know all this wisdom but have bastardized it. Heaven and hell are not destinations rather than states of consciousness. If you’ve worked hard to connect to your own divinity, you can exit with a smile on your face. To know that the life you lived was rich and the place you’re going is safe is heaven.
Is there anything you can do for someone who isn’t particularly spiritual?
Usually those people don’t find me, because they’re not looking for this kind of help. Not to say I don’t get people who are skeptical. But if people are really closed down and think this is it, then there’s nothing I can do. Even if they drink ayahuasca, it’s unlikely they’re going to have an awakening, either. You have to have curiosity or a little bit of hope or faith in order for there to be something for me to work with.
You can do all the coaching you want, but in those final moments, is anyone really going to remember what they learned instead of freaking out?
To be perfectly honest, in those final moments, I’m always the one in the role of being a student. As they say, when the body gets weaker, the spirit gets stronger. When someone’s actually transitioning, I don’t say much at all. Always, I’m the one in awe. They don’t need me at a certain point. The human part of me is always grateful for that.
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