What is Climate Grief?

One of the penalties of an ecological education
is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.
-Aldo Leopold

Along with anxiety, the word grief is increasingly used to describe a common and pervasive psychological response to the ecological crisis, and to climate disruption in particular.

Most people associate grief with the bereavement experienced after the death of a loved one, so it may not be obvious, initially, how the word grief can apply to something as broad, ongoing, and seemingly nebulous as climate disruption. But many of those impacted directly by climate change, and others who are working on climate issues as scientists or activists, use grief-related language to describe their feelings.

The purpose of this paper is to describe climate grief; to explore how it manifests and how it differs from other forms of grief; and to suggest some ways of working with it productively.

Climate Grief is Ecological Grief

Have you ever felt:

  • Sad, angry, despairing, or confused in the face of news about the destruction of the Amazon Rain Forest; bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef; or the mass extinction of species worldwide?

  • A sense of loss, melancholy, or helpless in response to changes to your local environment - the loss of green spaces, the disappearance of familiar plants and animals, or the increase in forest fires or smoke?

  • Hopeless or scared about the future of the planet and ecological system; and the future that your children, your family, or all future generations might inherit?

If any of this sounds familiar, you have a taste of what ecological grief feels like. They all represent a loss (or anticipated loss) of something we value in our local or global environment. When we experience a loss strongly enough, the natural human response is to grieve, and we call it ecological grief if what was lost, or what may be lost, is a part of our ecological world.

Ecological grief has been described as

The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change. (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018)

This grief is not only associated with the direct loss of nature (such as the clearcutting of a rain forest or extinction of a species). It can also arise in response to changes in our way of life. Cunsolo & Ellis identify three pathways through which ecological grief can manifest:

  1. Grief associated with physical ecological losses and attendant ways of life and culture;

  2. Grief associated with disruptions to environmental knowledge systems and resulting feelings of loss of identity;

  3. Grief associated with anticipated future losses of place, land, species, and culture (2018, p. 276-7)

So ecological grief can be about an environmental change on the physical level, but it can also be about loss of knowledge, culture, and identity as they relate to a particular place - or to the state of the planet as a whole.

When we feel ecological grief in response to the impacts and anticipated impacts of climate disruption - including feelings of despair, anger, fear, guilt, sadness, yearning, disorganization, and other emotions - we call this climate grief.

Ways of thinking about (climate) grief

I. Grief is not a problem to be “fixed”

The most important thing to remember about any type of grief is that it is a natural human response to loss. It is not a pathology, or a problem to be fixed, or a sign of weakness. Grief is an essential aspect of our humanity, and is deeply embedded in our history as a species. Burial rituals are one of the earliest-documented, and most universal expressions of human culture (In fact, there is evidence that other animals besides humans experience some form of grief [Pierce, 2018], so it is likely that it predates human culture).

In order to grieve, we must care about something, and be connected to something beyond ourselves. Feeling climate grief means caring about the ecosystem and about species (including humans) who will be hurt or lost as a result of climate change. As Leslie Davenport writes in her book, Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change (2017):

Grief is a form of love: we grieve the loss of what made us feel most deeply connected. With climate grief, it may be loss of the dream of a future for your grandchildren free of the challenges that are currently emerging… It can include the devastating loss of lives and property. Whatever the scope, level or intensity of the loss, the process of grieving evokes the same emotional phases. (Davenport, p. 63)

The feelings related to grief can be very difficult to bear. But if we remember to think of grief as a natural expression of caring, even love, we can begin to see grief as a form of compassion and strength. We can even begin to see our grief as a tool for action.

II. There is no “right way” to grieve

It is easy to generalize about how people “should” grieve, using assumptions based on individual experience or cultural norms. But the enormous diversity in grief rituals across cultures, and the range of individual reactions to loss within a single culture, should make us wary of talking about grief in terms of rigid, universal stages or tasks.

On a practical level, having a fixed idea about how we should feel about particular loss can make it difficult to notice how we actually feel. Climate grief is no exception, and to the extent that, in this essay, we present frameworks for understanding climate grief (and strategies for dealing with it), we do so only to suggest directions to look in, when feeling stuck. No model can override your personal experience. Nor can any model deny other, equally valid ways of conceiving of and working through loss.

III. We all have a capacity to be resilient in the face of grief

Just as grief is not a problem to be fixed, it is also good to remember that grief is not inherently debilitating, overwhelming, or chronic. Research has shown that in most cases people show a natural resilience in the face of grief at the loss of a loved one, and delayed or chronic grief responses are not the norm. Most people appear to have a natural capacity, following the initial crisis of a loss, to move through grief while maintaining a healthy level of functioning, emotion, and growth - in other words, to be resilient (Bonano, 2009).

This research should encourage us as we consider how we face the grief associated with climate change. However, most grief research is based on sudden and isolated losses, and it is not clear how we humans process ongoing ecological loss and disruption, which can be ongoing, and without resolution.

IV. Climate grief is “disenfranchised grief”

Some types of grief are more supported, socially, than others. For instance, all societies have rituals surrounding the death of a close family member; the appropriateness of grief, in this context, is recognized and validated through cultural practices and community validation. Of course, this does not make the loss of a loved one easy, but social support and cultural practices provide a space, and tools, for a person to deal with their grief in the company of others.

In contrast, some losses are not communally acknowledged, and do not have a cultural context for expression. This category of grief is known as disenfranchised grief (Doka, 1989), and we would expect these losses to be experienced differently. 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. To quote Leslie Davenport again:

The widespread denial of climate change losses prevents our emotional pain from being socially acknowledged and validated. Those touched by this grief may be viewed as overly sensitive, as exaggerating the issue, or even as emotionally unbalanced. These responses can encourage individuals to isolate, remain silent, and become disenfranchised from their own grief process, rather than move through it with support. (Davenport, p. 58)

Surprisingly, climate grief is even “disenfranchised” within communities of climate activists and climate scientists, even though members of these groups may experience grief the most due to the level of exposure to the issue. Because grief-emotions are not often discussed scientific and activist settings, many feel isolated in their experiences of grief, even while surrounded by others who feel similarly.

Because of this disenfranchisement, it is important to name climate grief, to validate it, and to rediscover or create new ways of working through it. And just as human grief, for millennia, has been a relational, group process (through funerals, wakes, shiva, religious practices, public mourning, and support groups), climate grief may be best addressed, for many, in a group setting.

Ways of looking at Climate Grief

Various models have been developed to make sense of the grief process. Before we consider a few of those models, and how they do or don’t apply to climate grief, it’s important to reiterate that there is no “right way” to experience climate grief.

Below, we use a few models of grief to look at common reactions to climate grief. Each perspective is neither complete, nor exclusive of others, but they offer some insight into the complex puzzle of how humans experience loss on an environmental, and planetary scale.

I. The Five Stages Model of Kubler-Ross

Kubler-Ross’ “Five Stages” is the most well known model of grief. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed this model based on work with terminally-ill patients in the late 1960s. More recently, Stephen W. Running (2007) presented a framework for understanding of climate grief, using this same system of five stages. The five stages described by Kubler-Ross are: 1. Denial, 2. Anger, 3. Bargaining, 4. Depression, and 5. Acceptance.

This model has been succinctly covered by The Simpsons.

Homer’s absurdly rapid passage through the stages points to some of the problems in this model: Grief is rarely so linear or predictable. Indeed, the Kubler-Ross model has received significant critique over the years, particularly around the validity of its step-by-step process, and whether the stages can be measurably observed.

Given this proviso, let’s consider the “five stages” in the context of climate change, not as a step-wise process from beginning to end, but as a set of five possible reactions to environmental loss.

1. Climate Denial - This category of reaction generally refers to people who refuse to accept the scientific evidence of climate breakdown out of fear of the implications. It can also explain the experience of people who believe the science, but ignore the potential consequences and need for action.

While it is easy to see these types of denial as ways of avoiding the reality of loss, there are some forms of denial that are probably necessary, or even useful. Climate scientist/activist Susanne Moser uses the term Functional Denial to describe the need to continue functioning in the world we live in, while at the same time holding in minds or hearts the reality of the loss we are facing.

[B]y and large, I get out of bed, I drink my tea, I do my life as if nothing else was going on. And at the same time, every single day, I face what we have created. If you ask me to stop for a minute and say, How do you feel about that? it can paralyze me. I have so much grief about it. I have such anger about it. It’s all one big morass of emotions that I have about what we, humans, had the audacity to create out of blindness, and then out of greed and whatever. So it’s that simultaneity of being fully aware and conscious and not denying the gravity of what we’re creating, and also having to get up in the morning and provide for my family and fulfill my obligations in my work. For me, functional denial is actually a form of hope. (Moser, as quoted in Mazur, 2019)

Some form of denial may be necessary for us all to go on living in the face of the enormous problems we face. But it is not functional to consistently deny the reality of a loss that has real-world implications, such as climate disruption, simply because they make us feel scared or sad. Such denial ignores the need for action, and can lead to greater loss by preventing us from adequately responding to or preparing for climate change.

2. Climate Anger - Anger, and related feelings like frustration and rage, are sometimes referred to as “secondary emotions” because they tend to cover up other, more vulnerable emotions, such as sadness, hopelessness, and confusion. In the context of climate, anger manifests, among those who oppose climate action, as rage towards climate activists. For those already convinced of the need for urgency, anger may be directed at the status quo, the powers that be, “the people that got us into this mess,” a climate troll on Twitter, the general public, or even at ourselves.

There is nothing inherently wrong with anger. Anger is a natural, healthy emotion. It is an appropriate response to many genuinely infuriating situations in the world - the climate crisis being one of them! At its most basic, anger is an expansive feeling - a catalyst for action. Problems generally arise when we become stuck in our anger, when we act it out on others in a misdirected way, and when we don’t slow down to understand and move through the underlying sadness and pain associated with climate grief.

3. Climate Bargaining - When we relate to climate change through bargaining, we seek to downplay the potential impacts of climate change, or even focus on potential positive outcomes, such as “better weather”. We may buy an electric car or a few carbon credits, and call it good. We may rest our hopes in “pie-in-the-sky” technological fixes (like solar radiation management or carbon sequestration) to avoid facing the realization that there is no simple fix, and that climate change will require us to drastically change our consumption patterns and way of life. The key component of this reaction is the attempt to feel better, to avoid facing the loss, by wishful thinking and token efforts.

One component of this reaction-stage is privilege. We can really only “bargain” about climate breakdown when we have the privilege and luxury to avoid or delay its consequences. Such privilege arises from multiple, intersecting factors, such as geography, nationality, race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability status, and age. When we notice ourselves in this bargaining-phase, it is worth asking whether we are bargaining for our own peace of mind at the expense of more vulnerable, marginalized, and “invisible” groups who will face climate losses more drastically, and with fewer resources.

4. Climate Depression - This stage kicks in when we accept the reality of climate disruption, and its frightening consequences, but we feel helplessness or hopelessness about any chance of dealing with it. This hopelessness can be on the level of the individual: “The problem is too big - what can I do about it?” Or on the species-level: “Humans are selfish and will never change. We’re doomed.” On the level of feelings, climate depression can manifests as a lack of energy, motivation, or involvement in activities. A person suffering from climate depression may feel too hopeless about the future to reach out to others, join groups, or become involved in any kind of climate activism. This reaction can be common among climate scientists and activists. Even if they remain involved, they may neglect self-care, over-commit to the cause, and potentially burn out. In its extreme, people with climate depression have suicidal thoughts or actions, reacting to a future they can only see as bleak and hopeless (if you are feeling suicidal, please reach out for help).

5. Climate Acceptance - In the original Kubler-Ross model, this stage involved the calm acceptance of the inevitability of death from terminal illness. However, grief from terminal illness is not analogous to climate grief - they differ both in finality, and inevitability. Human extinction is not inevitable, and human life will continue in some form after you and I are gone. Here is how Rosemary Randall described this limitation of the Kubler-Ross model:

It is a model from the end of life. It describes an experience without transition and without hope. The individual who is dying faces extinction, the loss of loved ones, and the ending of their creative life. There is little or no time ahead and little that can be looked forward to... In contrast, when facing climate change we still have much to hope for and much to play for. The changes and adjustments we make also need to last across substantial periods of time. Sustaining our creativity and resourcefulness is essential. We have the chance to remake our lives. (Randall, 2018).

When applying acceptance to climate grief, we can best understand this “stage” broadly, as a form of healthy, active acceptance of the facts and feelings of climate loss; of the impermanence of all life; and of the reality that while the future is unknown, it will inevitably include loss and suffering of those we care about. A “radical” acceptance of climate grief is similar to the functional denial discussed by Moser in Step 1 - it entails facing the truth about the situation, accepting our complex feelings, and at the same time remaining functional and engaged in the world. In this way, we have the chance to make things better and diminish the suffering of others, without succumbing to depression and withdrawal.

We have explored some useful ways of applying the famous Five Stages grief model to climate grief, and we’ve considered some of its limitations. Now let’s look at an alternate way of thinking about grief, and how it can be applied to climate change.

II. The Worden model: Four Tasks of Grief

William Worden, in his book Grief counselling and grief therapy (1983), laid out the process of grief as a series of four “tasks” that can be either embraced or rejected. He lays out no timeline, and allows for the revisiting of tasks over time. This perspective aligns with our original case that grief is not a linear progression of stages, and that there is no “perfect” process of grief . From Worden’s point of view, we flow between tasks, sometimes rejecting them, sometimes embracing them. This table, adapted by Rosemary Randall, lays out the tasks, and the possible “negative responses”:

Worden model of grief, adapted in Randall (2009)

Worden model of grief, adapted in Randall (2009)

 

Let’s explore how these tasks can be applied to climate grief.

  • Task 1: Accepting (or denying) the reality of the climate loss - This task involves accepting the reality of climate change, and the loss it will bring about. Echoing Kubler-Ross’s denial-stage, the refusal to take up this task involves a denial of the reality of climate change, or denial of its implications. Task 1 could also encompass the bargaining discussed above, which can be seen as a form of denial.
    Task 2: Working through (or rejecting) the emotions of climate grief -
    This task includes feeling our anger and rage about the situation we are in, but also feeling the deeper and more vulnerable emotions, like sadness, guilt, melancholia, and hopelessness. An alternative to accepting Task 2 is to deny these feelings by walling them off; numbing them with substances; projecting them outwards on others; disparaging them as “overly emotional”; focusing manically and unsustainably on climate activism; or engaging in bargaining to make ourselves feel better.

  • Task 3: Adjusting to (or withdrawing from) the new reality of climate disruption - This task is a transitional one, during which we reorient to the reality of climate change loss, and the potential for a challenging future. It is altogether appropriate to feel uncertain, confused, shy, or experimental (trying new things) as we integrate the facts and feelings of our grief into our lives. Task 3 may involve changing our lifestyle or behavior; seeking out of new people or groups that are supportive of our climate concerns and validating of our grief; and finding new strategies for self-care. The alternative to embracing this task is to stagnate, to deny possible pathways ahead, and to resign ourselves to depression and hopelessness.

  • Task 4: Reinvesting energy in (or turning away from) an uncertain climate future - This task involves finding a way forward in full acceptance and acknowledgement of the facts, feelings, and potential losses we face. To refuse this task is, in a certain way, to refuse to love the world because of the pain involved in facing its loss. Task 4 is consistent with “radical acceptance” we discussed above, and can feel similar to the “Functional denial” described by Moser, in which we continue living life while maintaining balanced awareness and engagement with the grief we experience.

It is helpful to imagine these tasks and stages as an ongoing spiral. As we move through life, have new experiences, try new things, and learn new information, we should expect to revisit and struggle through each task, from a new perspective. We may think that we have “completed” Task 4, entering into a period of stable, engaged life, only to be thrown, unexpectedly, back into Tasks 1, 2 or 3 by life events, new climate news, or simply because we are human beings who are sensitive, and experience a range of emotions.

Strategies for Building Resiliency around Climate Grief

Climate grief studies is a new field, and there is much we don’t know about how loss from climate disruption will impact us as individuals, as groups, and as a species. We know that humans are resilient to many forms of grief, but we don’t know how this applies to ecological loss, especially because climate grief is disenfranchised - it lacks cultural supports and rituals to support resiliency. One consistent theme is that climate grief can be facilitated by facing our feelings and expressing them; and engaging in meaningful action in the context of a community.

Leslie Davenport suggests five tools that support resiliency in the face of climate grief (p. 63-5):

  1. Trust in grief process, and our “own capacity to abide with the experience of significant loss.” (p. 63) This echoes our earlier point that grief is not a problem, and that we are naturally capable of dealing with it in a healthy way. If we trust the feelings of climate grief, allowing them and not trying to fight them, an inner resilience often arises.

  2. Kind curiosity about our feelings. By being open to our inner experience (however painful) and not fighting it or fixing it, we can find “a sense of inner spaciousness” that will help “build your core emotional strength, and you become less prone to being overwhelmed by feelings.” (p. 64)

  3. Somatic awareness - This means tracking how grief is experienced in our bodies. More and more research shows that thoughts and feelings are experienced in the body, through tension in our shoulders, tightness in our throat, dread in our belly, or anxious agitation in our hands and feet. Being aware of our particular somatic responses, and learning ways to self-sooth ourselves physiologically, can help us cope with feelings without being overwhelmed.

  4. Knowing the story - This means understanding the ideas and assumptions we have about ourselves and the world, as they relate to climate and the future. For example, ideas like: “We’re doomed;” “I can’t make a difference”; “No one understands me”; “I’m powerless.” As Davenport says, these “unexamined stories are almost always distorted… we amplify, minimize, add layers of self-judgement, and efficiently filter our relevant and often positive aspects of the situation.” Be curious and skeptical about sweeping judgement that tend to repeat themselves in our heads, keeping us stuck in denial, anger, bargaining or depression. Recognizing the stories we are trapped in is the first step towards getting free from them.

  5. Creative expression - While we humans do have some bad habits as a species (to say the least), we also have some remarkable qualities. One of our greatest is our inherent creativity - music, art, writing, dance, but also math, science, engineering, to name just a few modes of creative expression. In fact, for many, climate grief is most heightened by the contemplation of how the richness of human creativity might be damaged or lost entirely - a grief based in love for the most precious expressions of our species. Davenport suggests we leverage this natural human creativity to shift our focus from the question “What have we done?!” (a backwards-looking, uncreative perspective) to the creative question, “What can we do?”

Conclusions

We live at a moment of great import for our planet, and each of us has an opportunity to engage our particular skills and capacities in a way that serves something bigger than ourselves - bigger even than our species. In other words, we have the choice to serve a special purpose - the support of life on Earth, and the alignment of humans with the rest of the natural world. To achieve this, we will need love, connection, and collaboration. And we will need to give ourselves a chance to grieve. It is not clear if we will succeed; there is no knowing what the future holds. But being human has always involved persisting through danger and uncertainty. By embracing our love for nature and for humanity, even in the face of great loss and pain, our grief can inspire us and empower us.

Resources

This review is only meant as an introduction to climate grief. It is by no means comprehensive of all the work done on the topic. If you would like to explore more research and ideas about climate and ecological grief, please explore the links in the reference section at the bottom of this page.

Also, because grief is, at least in part, a communal process, we recommend that you connect with local groups who are supporting healthy discussion of climate grief, as well as action. If no group exists, you could also start a climate support group of your own (see Climate Cafes).

Additionally, we refer you to two organizations - Work that Reconnects and Good Grief Network - that have developed contemporary practices to help process climate and ecological grief. These groups run various local groups and facilitate trainings.

Work that Reconnects

Work that Reconnects is a set of practices and perspectives developed by Joanna Macy, based on systems theory, Deep Ecology, and various spiritual traditions. In their own words:

The central purpose of the Work That Reconnects is to bring us back into relationship with each other and with the self-healing powers in the web of life, motivating and empowering us to reclaim our lives, our communities, and our planet from corporate and colonial rule.

Good Grief Network

The Good Grief Network has developed a 10-step process for processing grief. In their own words:

[W]e facilitate the metabolization of heavy feelings which puts us at risk for burnout, falling into despair, ecoanxiety, or depression. We build psychosocial resilience to help each person uncover their greatest strengths and determine how best to contribute to the world we want to co-create. We provide tools and an encouraging community that helps overcome denial, and prevent hopelessness, helplessness, activism fatigue, and burn out. These tools are necessary for anyone looking to sustain themselves for the long haul.

Visit their website for additional details and resources, or contact them to find out more!

References and Additional Reading on Climate Grief

 
 

Citation:

  • Bryant, A. (2019, August 25). What is Climate Grief? Climate & Mind. Retrieved from: http://www.climateandmind.org/what-is-climate-grief

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What is Climate Grief? by Andrew Bryant is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.