Grieving A Changing World 

European Environmental Agency

CHERYL LYON – “Mourning is an ethical protest against unjust losses.” No other species on this planet had been able to put itself on the path to self-destruction the way Homo sapiens has in a geologic blink of an eye. You and I and a couple of generations of our ancestors have much to mourn and much to amend.

In the beginning of the use of the term “climate crisis” there was little mention of emotions provoked by the losses of animal and plant life, the loss of human lives due floods, forest fires and storms − evidence of the profound disconnect of humans from the life-sustaining Earth. But more and more, we are now understanding their profound effect on our human psyche and emotions.

A UN report entitled The Global Biodiversity Outlook (2020) states that “we are currently responsible for the sixth major extinction event in the history of Earth, and the greatest since the dinosaurs disappeared.”

It has given us new terminology, like “eco-anxiety” about the future due to the climate crisis, and solastalgia, referring to emotional or existential distress caused by climate change. It has birthed a whole new genre of futuristic literature – climate fiction or “cli-fi.”

Grieving is a very appropriate state of mind for humans right now. But if it does not call us to action, it is fruitless self-pity. And we have no time for that kind of unfruitful wallowing. An important action, then, is to turn our mourning to use, confronting losses, re-engaging with life, and asking urgent questions about why there are losses and what needs to be done to end the grief, and return to – to what? “Back to the Garden” as the famous Joni Mitchell song says? To an Eden-like planet we once had? Perhaps…

But recall that the Garden also had a serpent – possibly a remnant in the story of the earliest human experience of nature as “red in tooth and claw?” To what extent have we lost that reality of the overwhelming power of Nature? In either case, we lost our intimacy with and deep understanding of the natural world.

Activating Grief

Grief is the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a person or loss of something held dear. It often includes bodily distress, obsessive dwelling on the past, and fear of the future. Grief is a necessary emotion because we cannot heal the wound of our loss or what we have done to another – in this case, the Earth – unless we can first grieve what happened or what we have done.

The characteristic mourning during grief, though so often debilitating and depressive, has powerful creative energy. It can also provide motivating energy. If activated by facing unflinchingly what is being lost, not letting mourning fall inward into passive self-pity or guilt, or displaced, angry protest, grief’s energy can inspire and fuel action: directing anger, outrage and demands for justice for what and who caused the loss. When done in concert with others experiencing the same emotions, we humans participate in tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world”.

What has been lost is so much Life on Earth. Will all Life be extinguished? The history of evolution suggests “no.” Earth is creative, resilient, adaptive, unpredictable, evolutionary and full of surprises. It’s just that our daily human horizon limits us. The climate crisis we are all now experiencing calls us to lift up our heads from superficial distractions, self-pity and navel-gazing to see the whole canvas of Life, painted with every blade of grass, every breath of every child, every bird’s song, every life or death.

Creative, Life-giving Expressions of Grief

Perhaps childhood books about dinosaurs or a huge Tyrannosaurus skeleton in a museum gave a first experience of the awesome sadness of extinction. As adults, current mourning of loss over the constant examples of death and dying in Nature call us to expand our human hearts to all that makes up the Earth, from polar bears to garden plants to entire forests and entire languages − even to loss of our long-held belief in humans as the apex of creation.

Our work is not to just rid ourselves of the sadness, the mourning, but to turn it to good, a path back into engagement with Life, grounding action in emotion – the heart; as well as in analysis – the head. Grief can tempt one to despair but it can, if allowed, become creative in spurring anger and outrage − the origins of resistance − against the losses that caused the grief.

Death evokes the hardest grief. In the climate crisis, there are new kinds of “deaths” at enormous scale ranging from loss of whole cities and landscapes, to familiar and iconic animals, to drowned or burned homes, to favourite fishing holes. Compassion may enter here, then, as our inner disposition for communal survival, and so render grief and mourning antidotes to hate. This too is grief in action.

Grief becomes a stance in the face of the devastating losses we and Earth are experiencing in the climate catastrophe. It weeps for our future, and, like any good prophet, it both names the times and calls for a response in the name of Life.

Knowing that others are grieving and connecting with them, is the first act. Not a “misery loves company” kind of act but a confluence of energy in companionship − first steps to re-engagement with life after a death or other profound loss. Lamentation can then become “lamination” − the layering together of elements for extra strength and support.

“there is no avoiding the necessity of the difficult cultural work of reflection and mourning. This work is not opposed to practical action, rather it is the foundation of any sustainable and informed response.”1

We cannot mourn without having been in some kind of relationship. So, if I feel grief at the ravages I see perpetrated on the world by my, our, own ways of living, that is evidence of our deep human attachment to the Earth. Evidence, perhaps, of why we say “her” when speaking of the natural world, say “Mother Earth.” This can lead to feeling some responsibility for our part in both her desperate state and to an impulse to do something to prevent her death.

The Greenzine uses narrative and story to communicate and share our ecological situation and our feelings about it; not to seek consolation, but to give grief a place from which to, as author Mark Van Dooren says, “interrogate how it is that we might ‘live with ghosts.” In his book2, this author uses the precarious life of birds on the edge of extinction to explore that that scientific facts alone cannot ensure that we can transform our human relationship with the world: both can become extinct, become “ghosts.”

With this realization, we may face up to a role in shaping a new world, one very different from what we have now − a creative challenge unlike any other.

And now…?

With a purpose and with conviction, let us mourn the losses we are experiencing in the climate crisis, with eyes wide open to the sources of our grief. When we see those sources, grab onto them. Let their razor sharp edges make us cry out in anger, in critique and in actions for change, for Life itself is at stake. Replace guilt feelings with compassion and whatever personal life changes and public action we are capable of in our circumstances.

If we are not in a position to overtly act publicly (due to disability, incarceration, poverty or other life circumstance) then the very carrying of sadness or other emotion through one’s day (and night, when it can be more grievous) is in itself a courageous act of connection with others in the same state and with the animals, trees, water, soils in our great chain of being on this planet.

Some clamp themselves to oil rigs. Some paint or deface pictures. Some write music or tell stories. Others run for political office. Others carry their grief as they walk with their child to school, telling them why the family composts. Another quietly resists the mocking of co-workers about what’s in their lunch pail.

The Anishinaabe “Seven Grandfather Teachings” hold the essential components of the path through grief to action:

Truth – debwewin. First we tell ourselves the truth about what we all have done to Mother Earth.

Honesty – gwekwaaziwin. We honestly face out feelings about our role in the state she is in.

Humility – dbadendizwin. We let go of our arrogant stance of humans above or in control of Nature.

Respect – mnaadendamowin. We step respectfully out of Earth’s way to allow her to speak and heal.

Love – zaagidiwin. We reconnect in our hearts and emotions to the Earth that gives us life and like a mother, supplies us with all we need.

Bravery – aakdehewin. We step out with courage with the strength of the foregoing to hold us.

Wisdom – nbwaakaawin. The knowledge and good judgment that we have from these words.

When one follows the guidance of the Seven Grandfather Teachings, one lives The Good Life – minobimaadiziwin.

Is there still time for us to prevent or avoid the Death-of-Our-World-as-We-Know-It?

Is that the right question? Rather, is there time for us humans to let go of our attachment to that World and begin to participate in shaping the different world?

We say, yes, there is enough time, if enough of us start to turn grief into action, to re-connect with Mother Earth, with each other in actions at whatever level we are capable, from being the silent carriers of the grief and mourning to altering our daily living choices, to how we vote, to chaining oneself to the doors of a Big Oil company.

Grieving A Changing World © 2023 by Cheryl Lyon in the Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

  1. “Auguries of Elegy:  The Art and Ethics of Ecological Grieving,” Jessica Marion Barr.  A thesis submitted to the Graduate Program in Cultural Studies.  Queen’s University Kingston, ON, Canada. 15/09/2015 ↩︎
  2. Van Dooren, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (New York: Columbia UP< 2014), 142-143 ↩︎

3 Comments

  1. Vividly clear insights from many perspectives on where we are right now as humams on this Earth and how as humans we can help each other become truly responsible with love and right relationship.

  2. Embedded in the Christian tradition is the sense that we don’t belong. We were kicked out of the Garden of Eden by a wrathful god. Thus we feel we are not a part of the natural world. And then, too, as Jews we have a history of being persecuted – not really belonging anywhere. Once we see through this myth – and many others too, of course – we are inspired – new breath! – to re-cognize our common humanity in the beauty and wonders of the Earth and live in right relationship with all.

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