Climate change has become a crisis—one accompanied by deeply-felt tangible and intangible losses. The American Psychological Association found that more than two-thirds of American adults in 2020 reported experiencing feelings of “eco-anxiety.” For others, climate change has brought with it a period of mourning, often called ecological grief.
As researchers play catch up with the toll of ecological collapse on our emotional health, a new wave of practitioners is stepping in to help translate that distinct and unsettling feeling that can accompany our climate reckoning. Enter: The eco-doulas.
Los Angeles-based Eco-Doula Lindsay Branham—who comes from a background in the arts, conservation, Christian mysticism, and science—has stepped into that breach. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Cambridge studying the intricacies of climate change-related grief and how humans navigate their relationship with the environment.
To those seeking help, she offers documentaries made in her own film production studio, a genre-blending memoir, and a series of retreats and practice circles that fall under the umbrella of what Branham calls an “orbit of interconnection.”
LAMag spoke with Branham about the work of eco-doulas, as well as ecological trauma, the rehabilitative quality of play, and the importance of engaging with environmental grief as a way of overcoming it and finding one’s way to climate action.
LAMag: I know you’ve mentioned serving as both an eco-doula and practitioner of “ecological wisdom direction.” For the uninitiated, can you speak about what this actually means?
Lindsay Branham: I was trained with the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies, and they have a training for Buddhist eco-chaplains—that means spiritual caregiving from a Buddhist lens for people that are in the midst of what we all are in the midst of, really, which is a climate catastrophe.
It’s both supporting people to metabolize the grief of what we’re losing as a planet as well as to support people spiritually who are directly affected by climate change: People who’ve lost their homes to wildfires or have been displaced because of more intense weather events, or people who have lost their homes or possessions because of flooding.
I really was interested in taking that a step further as what is called an eco-doula. A doula is someone who is there at important life transitions, helping a mother at birth, ensuring the safety of both the child and the mother.
I see the times that we’re in as a similar kind of liminal transitory moment of death and life in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event. Instead of dying, could this also be a life coming through? Could this also be an invitation for something new to arise?
The idea of an eco-doula is a layer of an invitation for life to come, and a commitment to being with the planet and whatever arises. We need all of the action. But some of that action can obscure the grief and the loss of what is dying. We are already losing. There are already deaths. And so being an eco-doula is helping people actually feel and face what we have lost.
The role of an eco-doula is a relatively new one. What drew you to it?
I spent about 15 years creating humanitarian documentaries on human rights issues, so I spent a lot of time in the Congo and Central African Republic covering the effects of war and conflict, everything from children and armed conflict to trauma and sexual violence to religious conflict—a lot of what drives people to do violent things to each other—and then how we build on our inherent resilience.
The last project I did before COVID was in the Congo about the poaching of the largest and last elephant population, and this tension between how local communities approach the idea of conservation and the more Western idea of conservation. That project just kind of blew open my perspective of what it is to look through the lens of other-than-human life.
Then COVID happened, and I actually got sick and it really led me to seek out support from the planet—long walks with the earth, with the trees. I started receiving all of this beautiful comfort and connectivity. It opened this other dimension of life that I hadn’t experienced before, and I really wanted to deepen my practice in this relationality with the Earth.
At the same time, wildfires were obviously raging in California. So it all just kind of happened at the same time.
You facilitate retreats and practice circles that, as you say, “explore an expanded spiritual paradigm” and facilitate more connectivity with the natural world. About how many people do you get at these retreats?
It varies. The retreats can bring about 50 people, some of the circles 20-25, and we’ve done virtual work as well.
I also get people who reach out for one-on-one work who are just kind of at a loss, feeling so overwhelmed by the news of what’s happening to the planet, and they just don’t know where to turn. They have kind of exhausted their other modalities, and it’s leading people into really deep depression.
And there’s now a term for this anxiety that is associated with climate collapse: Eco-anxiety. That has a psychological measurement scale now.
It’s symptomatic of people who are really concerned about the planet. We can’t fix that, but we can be with this suffering differently.
What do those efforts look like?
All the retreats and workshops and other offerings all circle around how to deepen people’s relationship with the earth. I have people go out and introduce themselves to a tree and spend an hour just listening to the tree, or sharing their grief with that same spot and listening back for the land’s grief. And then coming back to the circle and sharing what they’ve heard.
A lot of the work I do is helping people really tune into their body’s sensory landscape so that, when they’re out there with a tree, they have the resources to feel the tingle, to feel the buzzing, to sense the warmth. It’s opening up to an ancient kind of being with Earth that indigenous communities have practiced forever but that we’ve sort of turned our back on. It’s listening, dropping an agenda, knowing our bodies, and being curious. It’s playing.
I did a workshop on this in January—I’ll do it again over the summer—that was really amazing because I had people that have never talked to a tree in their life feeling this whole new world opened up to them.
I want to demystify what grief work is. It’s not just sitting in the depths of your sorrow forever. It’s feeling it and then being able to move through and alchemize and transform into something else.
Do you believe this might lend itself to action as well?
Yes! Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about this idea of how we defend what we love. So what we need is to love the planet more and, from there, I think actions can arise. I see eco-doulas supporting the process from grief to love that would flow that naturally back into action.
Joanna Macy really pioneered this space of grief work for climate collapse as a mechanism towards engagement. She developed a modality called, “the work that reconnects,” and there are circles that do this all over the world. It opens up room and creativity and ideas to come through all of a sudden. It really gets people in touch with the idea of “what work is mine to do?”
Otherwise, there’s so much paralysis. It’s like, What am I gonna do? Just recycle more?
Do you find that your background in trauma-informed care and psychology impacts your work in helping people navigate this grief?
All humans carry so many wounds and so does the Earth. With trauma, healing needs a safe relationship. I think that we can develop relationships with a place, a tree, a mountain. We were wounded in a relationship and we can heal in a relationship.
So there’s an incredible resource here for healing, co-healing, mutual healing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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