What is being asked of us now? Gaian death doulas for a world in transition

Memorial Day, by design, is focused on death. This year, it seems like the tide of death has become a roaring tsunami. You know what I mean; I don’t have to list it.

As I try to cope with my grief and anger over the state of our world today, it’s becoming clear to me that those of us who are aware are being called to become death doulas for our dying world: Gaian death doulas.

It’s an odd juxtaposition: death doula. Doulas are usually all about birth: they assist midwives, mothers and families to warmly usher babies into life.

Death doulas are more like hospice workers, trying to help smooth the passage for those who are dying, and their families. Amid a growing awareness of the lack of graciousness in the medicalization of death, the idea of death doulas is catching on.

As I look for ways that the personal, political and planetary align, I see that just as personal death doulas can help dying individuals with their transition, and ease the grief of those who love them, Gaian death doulas can bring a political and planetary perspective to help communities in transition, helping us balance our grief over what is being lost with a quickening awareness of the potential of the new era now emerging.

Western civilization understands life and death in too linear and finite a way. Death and life are part of a great spiral dance, as Starhawk put it long ago; a dance in which each living being has a role to play, from the tiniest insect or plankton to the human, the whale and the great baobab tree.

In beginning to understand my own role as that of a Gaian death doula, I am indebted not only to Starhawk but also to Joanna Macy, both of whom have long been leading the way.

The work begins with looking back to understand the great dying we humans have presided over and contributed to over the past 5,000 years, since Gilgamesh so symbolically killed the guardian of the forest and starting cutting trees to build his city.

We have to look unflinchingly at the steady increase in destruction caused by industrial capitalism, in order to understand our personal and political position in the system we were born into.

How have we been socialized into a callous acceptance of constant unnecessary death and destruction? How have we acquiesced and contributed to this? Have we ever tried to imagine a better, more life-affirming relationship to our planet?

These are the kinds of questions I raise in my memoir, and in my purposeful memoir workshops, where we consciously consider how the personal, political and planetary have aligned in our lives.

But it’s not all about sadness and guilt. Even as we bear witness to “the sixth great extinction” that is unfolding in our time, we can also celebrate our planet’s endless potential for regeneration and rebirth.

Yes, we may lose many of the iconic species we love, our dear elephants and sweet polar bears.

But let’s remember that other wonderful species have been lost before, on the road to our present moment, and not all of them due to human aggression: from the dinosaurs to the saber-toothed tiger or the mammoth, many species have had their heyday and spiraled back into the birth-death-rebirth dance of Gaian evolutionary history.

We can learn from Mother Earth’s endlessly creative and abundant example. She doesn’t waste time mourning; she immediately gets to work regenerating, using the building blocks available — we can see this plainly in the way green grass shoots right up to take the place of trees that are cut down.

Gaian death doulas can help us understand the transition process we’re in now, so that we can support Mother Earth in her important work of regeneration. Yes, we can and must grieve those lost, but we must also cultivate and support the new life rising.

For me this is as much about standing up for a nurturing Gaian education for our young humans as it as about insisting on humane treatment of farm animals and properly regenerative agricultural and logging practices.

This Memorial Day, I grieve the tremendous dying-off of our time. And through my tears, I smile and extend a hand to those grieving with me, and to the young ones who are just coming in to this story.

The next chapters are ours to imagine, ours to dream and to manifest. What role will you create for yourself? Let’s work together to craft a story we can live into with joy.