In The Ends, Language Matters

A yellow diamond sign says END against a blue and cloudy sky. It is planted in what appears to be dry dirt or sand and there is a chain-link fence behind it.

“We discovered that exits can also be creative moments, and can generate new opportunities in terms of staff development. They can also catalyse critical thinking about development, and help people to focus on which activities will be most sustainable in the long-run rather than continuing with the status quo.”

– Lucy Morris, EveryChild’s Responsible Exit Principles (Praxis Note 70) © INTRAC 2015

It All Started With Death

One of the things that was a stumbling block for me in launching The Wind Down was what language to use to describe what I was doing. For the first few years when I was just talking to my friends about the idea, I used the language of “organizational death doula”.

In the circles I am in, people have a pretty good sense of what a birth doula is, and the idea of a death doula is also coming into greater awareness. So I figured that adding the word “organizational” would not be such a far leap. However, I soon found that people thought I was planning to offer death doula services that an organization could make available to their staff, almost, say, as an employee benefit. Things were definitely getting lost in translation!

Furthermore, I think the language and idea of death more and more began to invoke something too sad, dark, and negative. The more time that I spent learning about not only death but endings and closure, the more I realized that there was an opportunity here to lift the “heavy cloak” surrounding the winding down of projects and organizations and destigmatize the reality that most things do come to a close.

So I decided to move away from death.

At A Loss For Words

Many of my friends in closure in the UK have been using the language of loss and grief to speak to these ends. From Stewarding Loss to Grief Tending, there has been a bit of a focus on sorrow and the idea that something is being taken away. While loss — loss of job, loss of purpose, loss of attachments to community and coworkers — is undoubtedly likely to be a part of the experience of closure, I didn’t want to put too much focus on negative emotion.

If I want people to want to come to me (and eventually, hopefully pay me!), I want to provide a sense that it isn’t all just tears and gloom. So, despite my deepest appreciation for the work that those other groups are doing, I decided to steer away from that language in talking and thinking about the practice I am trying to build here.

Tending To What Is

Love is a willingness to attend to what is already occurring with a newfound attentiveness.”

– Nicolette Polek (from Heavy Traffic magazine III)

The loose group that my above-mentioned British friends have pulled together is meeting regularly under the moniker of Practice of Composting and Hospicing, and a lot of our discussions — such as the one by the folks working on peat lands! — circle around cycles in nature. We talk about planting seeds, nurturing, growth, recession, death, repurposing, and rebirth as possible parts of a healthy natural or organizational cycle. Additionally, I felt the idea of hospicing evoked a sense of care and a succumbing to the natural end of something.

So in thinking about more appropriate language for this project, I gravitated towards the ideas of intentionality, care, focus, attention, and an overall willingness surrender to what is happening, while also thinking about what you and your participants might leave behind. I like the idea of shifting from death, doom and gloom, and sadness to the possibilities that emerge when we bring in care, creativity, consciousness, and maybe even celebration to these ends.

This remains a work-in-progress, but I feel really good about where I have landed in terms of the overall “elevator pitch” for The Wind Down. It aligns very much with where my friends from Stewarding Loss have now landed with their Decelerator project — we are all focused on slowing down unto a stop with intention rather than a jarring slam of the brakes. It is an exciting time to be working in closure…. and, with that, I draw this post to a close.


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