Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Broken Hearts of Grief
distributed 2/26/16 - ©2016

Last week, in "Climate Fear and Anxiety", I made an explicit request for comment and feedback on that complicated topic. A dozen folk replied. Excerpts from those responses are posted on the Eco-Justice Ministries website.

"My heart was breaking for all that I love that is gone forever, and for the future that is more uncertain than ever before." So wrote Rabbi Katy Z. Allen in an article on "Loss and Transformation: Earth Grieving"

Katherine Preston wrote in Sojourners, "Why is it so hard for people to respond effectively to the reality of climate change? ... Could our breaking hearts be part of the reason we are immobilized?"

There is a word for hearts that are broken by loss, and that word is "grief".

Grief is something that we recognize and seek to manage on an interpersonal basis. Every pastor, and most any caring person, has spent time with people deep in grief at a time of death. We know the reality of grief, and the importance of taking that grief seriously so that it is not paralyzing. But we don't do well when grief arises from larger and longer-term catastrophes.

If we're going to address the painful crises that surround us, and those that lie ahead, we need more than policy discussions and new technologies. To face up to climate change, species extinction, environmental injustice and the transformation of the world that we know and love -- to face up to those realities, we need to deal with grief on a larger scale.

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When I think of this globalized grief, I turn immediately to Janna Macy, a wise and compassionate soul who has long wrestled with such issues. Her work on this theme began with the threat of nuclear annihilation in the 1980s, and has moved into the complexities of today's planetary emergency. She, with Chris Johnstone, has written an insightful and helpful book, "Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're In without Going Crazy". They say:

Each day we lose valuable parts of our biosphere as species become extinct and ecosystems destroyed -- yet where is their funeral service? If our world is dying piece by piece without our publicly and collectively expressing our grief, we might easily assume that these losses aren't important. Honoring our pain for the world is a way of valuing our awareness, first, that we have noticed, and second, that we care.

They note that addressing grief is a step toward healing and action: "facing our distress doesn't make it disappear. Instead, when we do face it, we are able to place or distress within a larger landscape that gives it a different meaning. Rather than being afraid of our pain for the world, we learn to feel strengthened by it."

Francis Weller, in "Entering the Healing Ground: Grief, Ritual and the Soul of the World" names the other side of the equation, when we don't deal with that powerful emotion.

When grief remains unexpressed, however, it hardens, becomes solid like a stone. We in turn become rigid and stop moving in rhythm with the soul. ... When our grief stagnates, we become petrified and fixed in place, unable to move and dance with the flow of life. Grief is part of the dance.

The weight of unacknowledged grief is an exhausting burden. It is only when we face up to the grief within us that we can begin to process it, move through it, understand it, and live appropriately for this new situation.

"Grief isn't something you get over. It's something you go through", said Alan Pedersen. And that movement through grief has many phases and steps. The well-known "five stages of grief" identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance -- show the complexity of the process.

Those five stages are not a simple progression. "Based on what she observed while working with patients given terminal diagnoses, Ms. Ross identified five common experiences, not five required experiences."

Macy and Johnstone lift up two initial tasks of grieving: accepting the loss, and feeling the pain of grief. They place acceptance at the start of the list when dealing with planetary turmoil.

I confess that I have struggled with the language of "acceptance" in the face of climate chaos, devastated coral reefs, denuded rain forests, and so many other expressions of Earth's great distress. How can I accept these travesties? But as a source on the grief process notes:

Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being 'all right' or 'OK' with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don't ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live.

My Buddhist friends, who are trying to teach me about mindfulness, make the same point. Acceptance is an acknowledgement of what is really happening. Happiness can only come when we honor our pain. As one friend said, "Accept the world as it is, and fight like hell to change it."

Walter Brueggemann, in "The Prophetic Imagination", also sees grief as an essential component of change. "Real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right. ... And as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism."

"Could our breaking hearts be part of the reason we are immobilized?" If we do not move through that pain, if we do not allow that pain to strengthen and focus us, we will be unable to be whole or effective in addressing Earth's trauma.

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Taking on the grief of a traumatized planet as isolated individuals is a daunting and dangerous task. It is overwhelming to think of delving that deeply into pain by ourselves. Francis Weller noted:

Perhaps the most salient obstacle to grieving is the lack of collective practices for the releasing of grief. Unlike most traditional cultures, where grief is a regular guest in the community, we have somehow been able to cloister grief and sanitize it, denying its expression as the gut-wrenching and heart-breaking event that it truly is.

Weller describes several rituals that he uses in his grief work. I don't think I'd be comfortable using many of them, and they would not fit into the worship life of most churches! I have been touched and healed by some of the group processes developed by Joanna Macy, which can be especially meaningful in retreat or small group settings.

But in my work with Christian congregations, I see both great need and great opportunities for creative and healing grief work. Katharine Preston affirmed:

Congregations can speak, write, draw, dance, sing, and cry in grief over what is happening and will continue to happen. We can share our fears and anticipated losses and validate each other's grief. We can draw upon the laments of the psalms in our services, actively mourn the changes already here and those to come. We can actively express our anger at God. And we know about rituals surrounding loss; could they not be effectively used here as well?

Again this week, I ask for help and feedback from the far-flung community of Eco-Justice Notes readers. In your congregations or communities, have you experienced any of these grief-affirming rituals? Are there prayers, practices, songs or experiences that have helped to heal your broken heart? Are there times when an acceptance of painful realities has allowed you to express your anguish, and also move toward action for change? I'd love to hear your stories and recommendations.

Grief is reality that cannot be avoided in today's world. May we, together, find new and powerful ways to move in and through our grief, so that our broken hearts do not destroy us.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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