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Nobody Gets Out Alive

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Around this time, we play-act at closing a year, secure in knowing we’re not really passing anything more than an arbitrary buoy in the river.  There are endings that have more emotional weight for me, though.  Sometimes it feels like there are a preponderance of them, ranging from access to rights to the atrophying of institutions I’ve loved and invested in – oh, and have you heard the news on the climate?

I don’t advocate giving up fighting for anything worth keeping, but at the same time I see a need for deeper skills in wise and generous endings - predicting that larger scale social forces will precipitate more than the typical number in coming years.  When I learned about Death Doulas (people who specialize in guiding people’s transition from life to death) I resonated, as I’d long been curious about the organizational equivalent.  I haven’t heard of Organizational Death Doula as an official title, but I can guess at a few things that might be included. 

Certainly, there are practical considerations that need support.  When AchieveMission shuttered (as captured in their case study) , they realized the legal dissolution process took months.  If they hadn’t been lucky in timing they would have needed to conduct an additional audit – wasting financial and human resources.  Closing an organization is a labor-intensive and demands a lot from board and staff at a time when those groups are likely already overtaxed.  Understanding, planning, and identifying assistance can free up energy for gracefulness.  

Equally importantly, one function would be normalizing.  Of course, not all organizational death comes at the right time, just as people are cut down in their prime by disease.  However, just as human death doulas explain the way that bodies change as death approaches, organizational death doulas would help people recognize and metabolize typical responses to organizational shuttering such as a too-little-too-late outcry from stakeholders.   

Another needed function is to tie in traditions or rituals to mark the time.  I learned about a South African network that recognized it was time to sunset.  They organized and executed a two week period of celebration, inviting writing and other reflection on what had happened over its lifecycle.  Even in the embers of the fading network, new insights and relationships were kindled.

I’d love to add “organizational death doula” to my suite of skills, but it’s probably not a growth industry.  It’s hard enough to face death as an individual, and groups create space to move responsibility around – over and over, we see organizations crash and burn because avoidance is so tempting.  Let’s not wait for the moment we realize death’s inevitability.   Let’s practice micro-endings, so we can learn skills that will serve us when it’s more emotionally charged.  Let’s integrate a regular moment in a strategic planning cycle to consider what comes next, or ponder desired legacy.  Let’s tell stories about endings, and what happened next – acknowledging the fullness of cycles.  

Happy New Year!

postscript, three days after publishing this post I hear about this organization. Serendipity.

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