How to cope with the grief that comes with the world’s ecological crisis

Changing World, Changing Minds: Eco-grief and preserving the natural world

 A firefighter douses flames from a backfire during the Maria fire in Santa Paula, California on November 1st. Photograph:  Josh Edelson/AFP

A firefighter douses flames from a backfire during the Maria fire in Santa Paula, California on November 1st. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP

 

“All around I just see the destruction of the nature, the loss of more species and more habitat, it completely breaks my heart.” – Ecologist working in Ireland

For people closely connected to the natural world witnessing the ecological crisis that surrounds us can be particularly painful.

A five-part series about our emotional response to the climate emergency called Changing World, Changing Minds
A five-part series about our emotional response to the climate emergency called Changing World, Changing Minds

Many of those working within the environmental charities describe their heartbreak and grief at the loss of the natural world. This is the natural world which is not only beautiful in its own right but it is the world on which we entirely depend on as humans. For communities on the frontline of the climate emergency this grief is much more acute and threatening.

Sub-Saharan African farmers affected by chronic drought see the soil dry up and blow away on their once fertile farms; Pacific islanders see their once paradise islands continually flood and being slowly swamped by rising sea levels; north Californian residents see more frequent than ever forest fires that can destroy their homes in an instant; as the ice melts, the Inuit people in Canada see their ability to travel and fish disappear and worry about no longer being able to feed their families.

All these communities not only experience devastation at current losses but also experience anticipatory grief and anxiety at a much worse future in which a complete loss of their livelihoods and homes is coming. While some communities are already severely affected by climate and ecological breakdown, the truth is we will all be increasingly affected in the future.

There is no place to escape on our interconnected planet.

Understanding grief

The psychologist Elizabeth Kubler Ross suggested that in response to loss, people go through a five stage journey of grief consisting of denial, anger, bargaining, depression/mourning and finally acceptance. While the model is much criticised for being too simplistic – many people do not go through set stages and it is normal to experience ongoing periodic grief as well as acceptance – the notion of grief as a personal journey is good one. However the journey is more akin to a rollercoaster ride with emotional ups and downs rather than having a straightforward destination.

Many people dealing with grief in relation to ecological and climate breakdown often describe their experience as a journey. They describe a period of denial, before having a “moment of awareness” when they realise that the world on which they depend is unsustainable. This is often followed by a rollercoaster of emotions such as anger, anxiety, wishful thinking and depression, before there is the emergence of acceptance and a commitment to constructive action. Supporting people to manage the rollercoaster of emotions is key to helping them cope and manage.

The Buddhist ecologist and therapist Joanna Macy has designed “active hope” workshops which are supportive groups to help people express and process the feelings of grief they feel at the destruction of the planet and the fear of an uncertain future. The goal is to help participants overcome helplessness and hopelessness and reach a more empowered constructive position.

Appreciation and grief

Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom. - Rumi

One of the “silver linings” to the dark clouds of grief is the appreciation of life it can bring. In his work with people diagnosed with a fatal illness, the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom discovered that many of his patients discovered new depths of meaning in their current lives as well as experiencing the expected negative emotions. The anticipation of their death in the near future could help them live with greater meaning than before.

Rather than being consumed with petty concerns and problems, their new awareness afforded them the opportunity to be grateful about what they already had and to make better choices about the time they had left. In a similar way a confrontation with “eco-grief” can give us an appreciation of the marvellous world in which live and instil in us a sense of awe. It can inspire us be grateful for all we have now and to take time to savour daily experiences as we do not know what awaits us in the future. Eco-grief can help us live more deliberately and to make better choices to preserve the world as much as we can for future generations. 

Develop a close connection with nature

“Never underestimate the healing power of a quiet moment in the garden.”
– Josephine Albert

A key cause in the current ecological crisis is our disconnection from the natural world. Our out of control consumption and destruction of the planet is only possible because we separate ourselves from nature. The fact that it is seen as an environmental rather than a human problem highlights this. While many poorer communities in the world’s south have been living with climate-related crises for years, many of us in the north distance ourselves from it as something happening out there in a distant environment and nothing to do with us. We miss how connected we are to nature and how utterly we are dependent on the natural world. In simple terms, if we destroy the planet we destroy ourselves. The most important response we can make to the climate and ecological crises we face is to re-establish our connection with and appreciation of nature. Then we can care for the planet so that it can care for us. A reconnection with nature is the best antidote to our eco-grief.

 Nature based solutions

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
–Chinese proverb

Nature based solutions provide some of the most important and effective responses to arresting climate breakdown (drawdown.org). These include macro solutions such as preserving the wetlands, forests, soils and marine eco-systems and transforming our food production to a sustainable system that works with rather than against nature; as well as community solutions such as building shared gardens, woodlands and orchards; and personal solutions such as taking steps to grow your own food or to reduce/ compost your own waste.  

The most incredible aspect of all nature based solutions is that they come with huge health benefits for individuals and communities. Several studies highlight the physical and mental health benefits of gardening and spending time in nature. A recent study from the University of Exeter found that people living in neighbourhoods with more birds, shrubs and trees are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and stress. Joining with others in shared nature projects has the added social benefits of reducing isolation, building community and giving people the opportunity to be of service. This can include; becoming a member of a local community garden; volunteering to help tree planting projects; joining local beach clean ups; training to become a surveyor of bird counts; contributing to biodiversity citizen science projects, etc. 

Taking action to get involved in nature is good for you, good for your community and good for the planet.

– This is the fourth article in the Changing World, Changing Minds series which explores our emotional response to the climate emergency and biodiversity collapse that surrounds us.
Part 1: Eco-anxiety
Part 2: Denial
Part 3: Channelling anger
Part 4: Coping with grief
Part 5: Talking to children

– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is chair of the Feasta environmental charity feasta.org

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