S2-EP22: Blanche Colson on Being an Ordinary Person and Getting Comfortable With Death

Jul 21, 2020


Debbie Weil talks to Blanche Colson, a 67-year-old African American woman who reached out to ask about coming on the show because, she said, her perspective is an important one. “I’m not rich or famous,” she told Debbie. “I’m just an ordinary person.” Of course, there was more to Blanche’s story than that.



Blanche Colson got in touch with Debbie after listening to a previous episode with entrepreneur Peter Corbett on the topic of mortality, death and becoming a hospice volunteer. Blanche knew Peter through the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care and wanted to tell her own story about her evolving relationship with death. 

Blanche retired after a career in school administration in Eugene, OR. She’s an empty nester, having raised two children as a single parent, and was wondering what’s next when a near fatal car accident jolted her into realizing it was time to make a change. She wanted to get more comfortable with the mystery of death and our reluctance to talk about it so she moved from Eugene to New York to study at the Zen Center, where she met Peter. This is where Debbie challenges her on being ordinary, as not everyone would get on a plane and move to New York to study death and dying.

Through the Zen Center’s program, she learnt the basics of contemplative care: sitting at the bedside of the sick and dying, truly listening and resisting the impulse to save or rescue them. As part of the training, she volunteered at a geriatric center where the residents were wheelchair or bed bound and utterly dependent on the staff for their needs. 

You’ll hear her mention Chodo. Robert Chodo Campbell is a well-known Sensei or Buddhist teacher and the co-founder of NY’s Zen Center. He was Blanche’s mentor. 

Blanche mentions an intentional community.  It means a planned residential community designed around social cohesion and teamwork. Not a hippie commune exactly but definitely a place for the alternative-minded. She lived in an intentional community near Eugene for 20 years. And she chose Ganas, an intentional community on Staten Island, as her home in New York. Again not something that an ordinary person might do.

Finally, Blanche’s time at the Zen Center was only the first step in her journey to change the perception of death as dark, fearful and something we can’t talk about. Since this conversation she has officially started her training to become a death celebrant or death doula. 

Blanche pitched herself as an ordinary person, someone whose perspective is too often lacking on podcasts. But she’s really not ordinary at all. She’s brave and adventurous, just the kind of guest who should be on a Gap Year podcast.


What they talked about

  • Why death as a topic is taboo
  • What it means to be an ordinary person
  • How her experience as an African American woman has affected her spirituality
  • The unfairness of life for an African American woman
  • How old people are tucked away
  • Learning to really listen instead of wanting to fix other people’s suffering
  • Learning how not to judge
  • The advantage of spontaneity in making life changing decisions
  • Her advice for ordinary people seeking to make a change: take the next step and forget about the big picture


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Encore.org, our newest media partner, is an ideas and innovation hub tapping the talent of those 50+ as a force for good. Founder and CEO Marc Freedman is an award-winning social entrepreneur and author, most recently, of How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations. Looking for a great gap-year transition program? Check out Encore Fellowships, which match skilled, seasoned professionals with social-sector organizations in high-impact, paid assignments.


Modern Elder Academy is a program dedicated to navigating mid-life transitions. MEA, based in Baja California, Mexico, provides the place and the tools to start reframing your lifetime of experience. Grow whole, not old. Founder Chip Conley is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning hospitality entrepreneur and a rock star of the mid-life transition movement. His newest book is Wisdom @ Work: the Making of a Modern Elder.


Next For Me is an important new resource for the 50+ crowd focused on rewriting life. Taking a gap year or timeout may be the best way to figure out "what's next" when you're in this stage of life. Founder Jeff Tidwell explains, Next For Me "connects and inspires our generation to evolve our post-50 lives through new work, a new purpose, or a new social contribution."