It isn’t unusual for an adult to return to what they related to as a child, and in 33-year-old Anita Vuong’s case, she was drawn to death care work. “From an early age, I dealt with a lot of death, and the deaths I experienced in my life were pretty tragic in nature,” she says. Though the Los Angeles native officially began her death doula journey in 2018 — a death doula is a person who assists in the dying process, offering logistical, psychological, spiritual, and community-based support — it would seem that she’d been preparing for this career change her entire life.
“My parents didn’t shield me from death rituals,” Vuong explains. “I think it has a lot to do with the nature of our culture, being Vietnamese-Chinese … I would go to a lot of funerals as a kid and we would have ceremonies that would last three days. We would have shamans do these dances, chants, and rituals … It’s something that I’ve always been around.”
After working in the fashion industry for about a decade, Vuong made the decision to quit in June 2020 so she could focus on end-of-life care. “I was getting really curious about birthing doulas, just because I’m at an age where I’m likely to have children in the near future,” she explains. “Then somehow, I found an article about death doulas, so I started to research and completely fell in love … I reached out to my community and as a millennial, I relied on Instagram and the death doula hashtag.” Along the way, Vuong began following Tree Carr, a U.K.-based death doula who was serendipitously visiting Los Angeles when they connected. The two of them were able to meet for a coffee date, during which Carr provided Vuong with resources for her death care journey.
Vuong soon decided to begin volunteering for Silverado Hospice in Los Angeles, where she would routinely be a companion to patients. However, her involvement took a turn during a volunteer support group meeting when someone mentioned that at one point, there had been a floral program for patients. Though the program didn’t last because it was difficult finding and scheduling volunteers, it sparked something inside Vuong.
“To give you background on what was going on in my head during that meeting — in 2009 and 2014, I had surgery for ovarian issues. My friend, Karen, was working in production events at the time, and she would bring enormous floral arrangements to my house. She said they were throwing them away at work,” Vuong relays. “That’s when I really learned about how the events industry uses flowers for a couple of hours and at the end of the night, they go in the trash.” With this memory in mind, Vuong got the go-ahead from her hospice volunteer coordinator to run with the idea of a floral repurposing program.
It started off simple enough, with Vuong requesting leftover event florals on social media, but quickly grew into an initiative she called Guided by Flowers. “I would book as many events as I could and I would get paid very little because I wanted it to be attainable,” Vuong says, explaining how she would pick up the flowers, arrange them into small bouquets, and then gift those arrangements to hospice patients. “There are other floral repurposing companies out there that seem very corporate and [expensive] … I would more or less do it by donation, having people give whatever they wanted to give.” She continued to do this for the past two years, all while working in fashion and learning from other death doulas in Los Angeles.
However, Vuong’s trajectory relatably took a turn once the coronavirus pandemic hit. “As far as floral work, COVID-19 completely wiped my donations empty,” she explains. To adapt and continue her work as a self-taught, death community-driven florist, Vuong then made the decision to launch a Guided by Flowers shop service. The business model? “Buy one, gift one to hospice.” So instead of repurposing florals from events, Vuong sources flowers from the L.A. Flower District, creates a bouquet for her customer, and then designs a mini version that can be sent to a nearby hospice.
In addition to her shop program, Vuong recently orchestrated a “death over flowers” workshop with her friend Marifel, who is also involved in the death care community. “I think that flowers are a great example of the cycle of life, and they accompany us throughout so many different stages of our own lives … I think there’s a lot of healing in touching nature and arranging florals … so we wanted to marry the two things,” Vuong says. “What that looks like is anyone can sign up — even though space was limited, especially during the pandemic — and it was essentially getting together to make floor arrangements and talk about death. It’s not meant to be a grief support group, but people can and do cry. We’re creating a sacred space for anyone to engage and have a very human conversation.”
While Vuong wants to continue finding ways to be involved in the end-of-life care community, she’s not sure where she wants to take her death doula work. Currently, she’s interested in working as a pet death doula — she has two dogs of her own, Ham and Margot — and recently began working with a tech-forward veterinarian clinic called Modern Animal. “Because of everything that I’ve learned about how to serve humans as they die, I wanted to bring that to my pets,” Vuong states. “I hear about the way that people have to put down their pets — they get euthanized in a sterile environment and you don’t get to go home with them. I think it’s a very traumatic experience when it doesn’t have to be.” Instead, Vuong would like to guide and educate people on using alternative options, such as holding memorial services for their pets.
Overall, when speaking of the future, Vuong admits that (like many of us) she’s not sure where it will take her. She hopes to continue floral repurposing and volunteering for hospice when it’s safe again, but for now, she will continue investing in Guided by Flowers and learning more about being a pet death doula. Even with all these twists and turns, when speaking of her journey thus far, Vuong admits, “Looking back, I feel as though my life was meant to become this way.”
Anna Gragert. When Anna isn’t trying to create a groundbreaking third-person bio for herself, she’s working as a writer, editor, and content strategist. She was previously a deputy editor at So Yummy and the lifestyle editor at HelloGiggles, and has worked with publications such as Teen Vogue, Nylon, Dazed, LAist, Glamour, The Order of the Good Death, Bust, Catapult, and more. You can follow her @annagragert on social media.