Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Help for Climate Grief
distributed 1/17/20 - ©2020

Perhaps it is the fires in Australia that broke open the silence, and that ripped open our emotions. There's the enormous area of those fires -- more land already burned than in all of last summer's horrible blazes in the Amazon-- joined with the scorching heat. We've seen the gripping photos of flames, and smoke, and people fleeing to the ocean. And, oh!, the heart-breaking pictures of the animals -- the koalas and kangaroos who have been burned, not only physically, but emotionally, too, it seems.

Maybe it is the news from Australia. Or there's lots of other recent incentives, but for whatever reason, two major newspapers had independently written stories about "climate grief" a week ago. On Friday, the New York Times ran an opinion piece, "How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change." The next day, the Los Angeles Times had a science article, "Feeling distressed about climate change? Here's how to manage it."

The notion of climate grief, or environmental distress, is not new, but two prominent papers decided that this month was a good time to have significant stories about how to handle this kind of distress. It is a very real problem that has been studied for a long time, and now it is starting to get into the mainstream media.

I'm guessing that most of the readers of Eco-Justice Notes already have an intimate sense of what "climate grief" means. In conversations and correspondence with many of you over the years, I've heard how that grief is an all-too-real emotion. I, personally, know it as an ongoing part of my own emotional and spiritual journey.

Drawing on those two newspaper articles, and a wide variety of other sources, I want to sketch out some basic principles about living with, and through, such deep and pervasive grief. I'll provide links to a number of helpful resources.

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The "Climate and Mind" website has a lengthy (and rather dry) article, "What is Climate Grief?" In addition to helpful summaries of scholarship, there's also an extensive bibliography of recent, and some classic, books and articles. Andrew Bryant's posting is a good starting place for digging into the topic. I found two of his points especially interesting and helpful.

He has a discussion of climate grief as "disenfranchised grief." All societies have rituals for traumatic situations like the death of a close family member, but don't have them for other kinds of losses. (From what I've seen, that seems to be true of Christian churches.) He wrote,

Ecological grief and climate grief fall into the category of disenfranchised grief because in most cases, social and cultural supports for processing climate grief do not exist. As of yet, no socially sanctioned and supported way exists for people to experience and make meaning of their climate grief in a communal way. In many cases, this leaves people feeling isolated and alone.

Worse than that, admitting to climate grief can bring active ridicule in some settings. Jennifer Atkinson teaches a course on Environmental Grief and Anxiety at the University of Washington, Bothell. 18 months ago, I saw a story she wrote in High Country News, describing how her students were put down as emotional "snowflakes" when the news media started to write about her course. ("Do the students roll out nap mats and curl up in the fetal position with their blankies and pacifiers while listening to her lectures?") Dealing with climate grief is immeasurably harder when there are no settings for us to process those emotions, or when people laugh at our feelings.

Bryant gives the obligatory description of the "five stages of grief" developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross -- and links to a fun video clip of Homer Simpson going through all five stages in less than a minute. Bryant also summarizes four "tasks" of grief therapy developed by William Worden, which were new to me. These tasks provide a more functional perspective on grief work, and they describe the negative effects if the tasks are not accomplished. Both Kubler-Ross and Worden offer valuable insights.

Bryant's article may be most helpful to pastors and educators who want to deepen their understandings of how to provide meaningful services for those wrestling with climate grief, but it also has good information for those who are looking for personal help.

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Across most of the resources that I've looked at recently, some ideas and strategies crop up over and over again. Briefly ...

There are two forms of acceptance which are essential. First, we need to accept the reality of our own grief, even when we're in settings when it is "disenfranchised." Denying the feelings and putting on a happy face won't help; tears and talking with compassionate friends will help.

Secondly, we need to accept, or acknowledge, the reality of the destruction happening to our world. Climate change is real, it is already warping natural systems, and a lot of future damage is already "baked in" because of the carbon now in the atmosphere, and the heat stored in the oceans. There are many things that can reduce the scale of future damage, but it is not going to go away. As Bill McKibben stresses in "Eaarth", we're living on a different planet than the one where many of us grew up. We can't adequately grieve if we cling to the false notion that it is all going to get better if we build lots of wind turbines.

Accepting the reality of this crisis leads to the need to be in community. Don't try to face such deep grief on your own. Find some kindred spirits who share some of the same awareness and commitment. Be with people who can confirm your emotional and scientific and strategic reality. Reassure each other that you are not crazy for seeing what you see, or feeling what you feel. Faith communities may be a setting to do this healing work of community. (The group Christian Climate Action has a short "communal prayer for climate grief" which could be used in some congregations.)

Acceptance of this crisis leads to the need to act. That's a central theme of "Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy," by Joana Macy and Christ Johnstone. "Active Hope is something we do rather than have. It involves being clear what we hope for and then playing our role in the process of bringing that about." The New York Times article has good practical insights about how to act -- focus on systems and not on personal behaviors, work with effective activist groups, and define your role so that it is work that you enjoy and do well.

Many experts remind us to claim joy and gratitude. Even when the world is literally falling apart, it is essential to find delight and laughter and joy and appreciation. There are things in life that are good and meaningful and wonderful. That's what makes it worthwhile to keep fighting for it. Be intentional about times and places to live in joy.

To many of the people who struggle with climate grief, I add the advice, don't read too much, or try to do too much. After the terrorist trauma of 9-11, lots of counselors and psychologists told people to stop watching the constant video loops of the planes crashing and the towers coming down. Driving that horror deep into our memory is rally destructive. So, too, if you've accepted the reality of the climate crisis, and internalized it to the point of deep grief, soaking up lots more information won't help. Don't read every new report, or watch every documentary.

So, too, don't get caught up in trying to do everything that might make a difference. You can't do it all, and you'll be stressed and exhausted if you try. The NYT article quotes Mary Annaise Heglar: "The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it's dangerous." Try to be generally responsible, of course, but don't add guilt on top of grief if you drove to the store today. We need to change worldviews, and social and economic systems, more than we need to change personal behaviors.

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Many of us have been feeling climate grief for a long time, and others are now finding those difficult emotions for the first time. If we don't face up to it, live through it toward action and hope, then grief will be paralyzing.

Learn from the experts about how to take care of yourself. Work within your faith community to build opportunities for ritual, pastoral care, and mutual support. Act in ways that are effective, and don't try to do it all.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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