Extinction of species. Flooding, fires, refugees. There is much to grieve for. The climate emergency is causing many of us to feel a rising grief that is difficult to process and that can, at times, threaten to overwhelm us. But grief itself is a well-known, well studied human emotion and there is much we have learned from the death and dying process of individuals that can help us navigate this larger ecological grief.

Applying the well-known five stages of death and dying developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross gives us a map to help us navigate through these difficult times. Though often misinterpreted, the stages were intended to illustrate some of the emotions that individuals feel after a diagnosis of illness or death and are not intended as stages, but rather different modes that one may move between.

Denial

The first stage of grief in this model is denial. For climate grief, it is clear that most of humanity is already here. Every indicator available is telling us that the Earth’s natural systems are under severe stress and are beginning to break down. Yet, our leaders continue with the status quo and, as individuals, we live our lives mostly unchanged. This is denial. The way climate science has been communicated facilitates this denial. The focus on future dates like 2030 or 2050 has let us imagine that the crisis is in the future — that it is a looming threat on the horizon when, in fact, irreversible changes are happening now. This year, this month. Today. At the current rate of species extinction, we lose species every day. The last one or two of some particular life form that has taken millennia to evolve will die today, never to be again. It is happening now. We are losing bits and pieces of ourselves. Day after day. Year after year.

If it feels like too much to truly comprehend, that’s because it is. This is the role of denial. It has an adaptive quality that helps us pace our grief. It lets us absorb things at the pace that we can process them. This is why so much of humanity is stuck in this denial stage — because the scale of the grief makes it incredibly difficult to process. The magnitude of grief for a culture and global ecosystem in collapse is unfathomable. We can only metabolize small, tiny pieces, a few at a time. The orcas on the brink; the permafrost melting and threatening to release ever more methane into atmosphere; the fire season threatens to be worse than ever. We apportion the information we let ourselves read — about crop failures, about elders dying from extreme heat or children dying from famine. Of course, we do. And we shouldn’t berate ourselves for only letting it in periodically. It is a healthy response.

"We need to get good at grieving so we can get good at living," writes @karenmahon

But as we slowly accept the reality — as evidence becomes irrefutable and as we do the work to let ourselves see the truth of it — then we get stronger, and we can handle more.

Denial takes a huge amount of energy. To deny reality requires maintaining a mental and emotional effort to shield ourselves from the inputs all around us that are evidence of the truth. Denial is helpful in the short term but staying in denial indefinitely becomes unhealthy, maladaptive and ultimately a source of insanity.

The youth of our time, personified by Greta Thunberg, bring fresh eyes to this crisis and to them, the current lack of any significant response seems to be a kind of insanity. While some dose of denial can be adaptive, taking up residence there will surely doom us. It is incumbent on us to use this coping mechanism consciously and sparingly. If we refuse to face the problem, it will be impossible to deal with. We must attend to it and, in doing so, we will become stronger and clearer. And only from this place can we move forward.

Denial can often take the form of numbness. Our society is incredibly proficient at creating more and more alluring mechanisms to cultivate numbness. Netflix, video games, addiction to smart phones, the list is endless. We are desperate to numb ourselves.

To be awake is painful. It is also awesome. The challenge is that to truly be present to the beauty of life one most must be fully alive, taking in the darkness alongside the light – and this is so very difficult that we often choose numbness instead. We find ways to dull down our feeling selves, maybe for a few hours in the day, maybe for weeks or even years at a time. But, if our finger was numb and we held it over an open flame, it would still be burning whether we could feel it or not. Only by letting ourselves feel can we start considering how to mitigate, adapt, and eventually heal.

Once we let ourselves begin to move out of denial, all the feelings we were denying emerge and demand our attention. Feelings like anger, sadness, and loss.

Anger

How did we get here? Who did this to us? How could they have been so out of touch? There is much to be angry about.

While climate change is a complex phenomenon, we know that the biggest single contributor is burning fossil fuels. A 2017 study of global emitters called “Carbon Majors” determined that 100 active fossil fuel producing companies are linked to 71 per cent of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. These include global oil companies like Shell and ExxonMobil, and the new spate of climate-based lawsuits against these companies are an embodiment of the anger phase of our collective grief. Anger gives us a place to stand. Anger can be motivating. It can move us to action. Environmental and social activists have often been accused of being angry. Indeed, we are. Our anger is a measure of our love for that which we are losing and have already lost.

We often feel that we have nowhere to focus our anger — partly because we’re angry at the world that we have collectively constructed. Certainly, there are captains of industry and particular political leaders that knowingly put their personal gain ahead of the collective good, but in the greater sense it is the world we live in that makes us all culpable, to some degree. Our participation in the pleasures and delights of modern life, made possible for us by the incredible power stored in fossil fuels, brought us to this breaking point. We are angry at the whole system. We are angry at ourselves.

Just like denial, anger can be healthy in relatively small doses but it is toxic if sustained unrelentingly over time. It can spur us to take action but to heal we need to let that anger take us to a new place, where there are possibilities for new choices, new decisions, and new life.

Bargaining

Without an external focus for our anger, we can turn inward where it becomes shame or guilt. Guilt about flying or driving so much. Many of us indulge in climate guilt. But to what end?

Guilt often emerges in the bargaining phase of grief. As we let ourselves accept more and more of the crisis we are living, guilt often emerges. ‘I am taking my daugher to Indonesia for her 21st birthday to meet her extended family. We are so looking forward to the trip but I feel so guilty about the carbon emissions from the flight.’ I don’t know how often I have heard versions of this story. While it is natural enough to feel guilt, it is futile. It is a waste of energy.

Bargaining is a process whereby we seek to find comfort ourselves in the belief that if we do a little bit, give a little extra, then maybe everything will be alright. We tell ourselves that we will be more conscientious about our recycling, or that we will fly less. And while, of course, these are wonderful things to do, we are only in the bargaining stage of our grief as we tell ourselves that they will solve the problem.

The bargaining phase of climate grief can also be seen in our current political debates. Many leaders are touting the false but comforting narrative that we can continue to expand the oil industry while fighting climate change. If the problem was more discrete and containable that might make sense, but inherent in this perspective is a denial of the magnitude of this all-pervasive crisis. Nature bats last and we forget that at our peril.

Bargaining brings us some short-term imagined comfort and, in that way, can be useful. But it is time now for us all to move past bargaining towards acceptance of the very difficult reality that is the current climate crisis.

Depression

Depression is the great black hole, a place not to get stuck in but to move through.

This is the composting phase from which new energy can emerge. But it is dark and damp. There is little light. Not surprisingly, there are increasing rates of anxiety and depression in young people. Anxiety is now the leading mental disorder of young people aged 18 and over.

This stage is really about feeling all the feels we have been trying to avoid.

When you are contemplating loss at the scale of ecological collapse, and the resulting mass human suffering, you are going to have moments of real despair. That is healthy and appropriate. Give yourself a break and don’t judge yourself for feeling devastated.

In this place of darkness, we are so distant from the joys of life that we can no longer imagine feeling them again. It can feel like a weight on your chest, making it difficult to breathe deeply. It feels as though it will suck us under. Depression is natural and it too can be healthy — unless we get stuck in it. Sadness and depression are sane responses to the suffering that the warming climate is creating. Indeed, to witness such large-scale loss and not feel saddened by it would be an indicator of unhealthy disconnection. It is essential that we let ourselves feel the pure sadness. Feel it, feel it, feel it.

Feel it in whatever way works for you. Journal about it, watch a sad movie and let yourself sob, let yourself do less for a while as the waves of wash over you. Talk to a friend. Remember that by feeling it you are doing the work of healing. The only way forward is through.

When we don’t consciously let ourselves feel it, it lurks below the surface, tapping our energy and corroding our capacity to truly enjoy life. We need to find the strength not to run from the sadness but to let it move through us.

It can be helpful to remember that depression is just a feeling — this is not the new you. Try to occupy a position of witness where you can see yourself having this feeling and cultivate the spaciousness of mind to know that this feeling will pass.

Find ways to move yourself out of depression if you are a person that tends to get stuck here. Move the body. Spend time in nature. Talk to a friend who understands where you are at. Whatever works for you.

Remember that, just like every other stage, depression is toxic if one stays there. We were not given this gift of life to spend it mourning its fleeting nature. We need to move through depression to the other side.

Acceptance

Very few of us are at the acceptance stage of climate grief.

Acceptance means that we accept the reality that currently presents itself. It does not mean that we are ok with it, or good with it. On the contrary it means that we have deeply understood — at an intellectual level but more importantly at a heart and soul level — just how much we have lost. So much life, so much potential. And while it seems certain that we will continue to lose more, no one knows precisely how much more. Neither do we know the full degree or intensity of the range of potential consequences. Accepting this not-knowing is enormously difficult.

Yet, there is creativity and life in this stage because it calls us to re-invent ourselves and how we engage with the world.

Once we have moved into acceptance, new opportunities and new life present themselves. With acceptance comes a new thirst for life. When we are not afraid of our grief, or afraid of the darkness, we can truly come back to life and let ourselves really enjoy it again. In this moment, we are alive. We are breathing in Earth’s life-giving oxygen and we have energy. We are called forward to whatever is next, no matter how unknown it is. We may have a new curiosity. Life is no longer the same, it is forever changed and continually changing.

Having done the emotional labour of truly being present to the crisis, many people find that life has an extra charge to it. We are even more deeply appreciative for the life that we have now. We have a newfound respect and gratitude for nature in all of her power, resilience and beauty. We feel more connection to the people that are walking this difficult path alongside us.

Having reached and spent time in the acceptance phase, we need to remember that these stages are not linear — far from it, in fact. We move between the stages, perhaps for days at a time or moving from one to another with the next breath. We may move from depression to acceptance, and back again. These stages do not happen in sequence. Sometimes they can even feel layered upon each other.

I doubt that most of us will ever be truly finished with our grief work. Even having reached acceptance, new losses can propel us back to denial or depression. We are living through a time of massive loss. We need to cultivate the skills to process these losses so that we can move forward into whatever uncertain future awaits us, in a way that honours life by savouring it rather than missing the present moment lost in grief.

We need to get good at grieving so we can get good at living.

This is such an important article. Thanks, Karen. These are difficult times of loss with more change to come. I hope we can create more spaces for people to explore and process their emotions as the climate crisis deepens.

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