grief

Grief

Grief is the name we give to the complex emotions people experience following a loss – the shock, disbelief and incomprehension; the anger, rage and blame; the dull, monotonous ache of hopelessness and the endless grey days that deliver no meaning. Eventually, out of the sadness, out of the fury, out of the melancholy and despair, drops of hopefulness may begin to coalesce and we may watch ourselves begin the slow climb back to a changed but possibly liveable life. 

Whose grief matters?

The idea that climate change brings loss is now commonplace. But many of the losses take place far from the prosperous centres of civilisation. It is easy for the more fortunate to close their eyes to the experiences of those who suffer extreme weather events, lose their home, community or livelihood, or witness the disappearance of familiar habitats and species. 

Those who ignore the traumas of displacement and the severing of human bonds which climate change brings, render these losses invisible and invalidate the sufferers’ grief. If loss and grief are not discussed, not only is violence done to the experiences of those who suffer, but the policies proposed to deal with climate change are likely to be inadequate (Randall, 2009).

Anticipatory grief

Those who do notice may find themselves little more than helpless witnesses to the suffering of others, or fearful anticipators of the losses which they know their children and their children’s children will suffer. 

Anticipatory grief may not match the distress of an actual bereavement, but it is still hard to deal with, as anyone who has watched and waited through the terminal illness of a loved one will testify. Are you realistically accepting the inevitability of death, or giving way to despair? Are you realistically accepting the inevitability of a 4°C temperature rise, or fatefully abandoning the struggle for 2°C? 

Experiences of loss and grief are likely to become more common as the effects of climate change are felt more widely and its inevitability is more widely accepted. The primary psychological need of those affected is for a safe context in which to process the trauma and grieve for what is lost or will be lost, to talk, to be listened to and supported. 

Models of grief

If we are trying to help each other through the distress of grief about climate change, it can also help to have a model for these experiences. The ground-breaking work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (Kübler-Ross, 1969) is often cited, but her model focuses on the experiences of the dying and not on the experiences of those who must somehow survive the death and continue to live.

William Worden (Worden, 1983) is more helpful. He conceives of grief as a series of tasks that can either be embraced or rejected. Although he lists them in a particular order, he emphasises that they are unlikely to follow a smooth or even flow, as the grieving person loops forwards and back, sometimes embracing the tasks, sometimes rejecting them, failing, trying again, revisiting, reprising and reworking until somehow, meaning, purpose and creativity are restored. The table summarises Worden’s model.

 

Embracing the tasks of grief

Rejecting the tasks of grief

1

Accepting the reality of the loss, first intellectually and then emotionally.

Denial of:
   the facts of the loss;
   the meaning of the loss;
   the irreversibility of the loss.

2

Working through the painful emotions of grief (despair, fear, guilt, anger, shame, sadness, yearning, disorganisation).

Shutting off all emotion, idealising what is lost, bargaining, numbing the pain through alcohol, drugs or manic activity.

3

Adjusting to the new environment, acquiring new skills, developing a new sense of self.

Not adapting, becoming helpless, bitter, angry, depressed, withdrawing.

4

Finding a place for what has been lost, reinvesting emotional energy.

Refusing to love, turning away from life.

(Adapted from Worden, 1983)

Embracing these tasks of grief – about what we anticipate, about what has happened to us and about what has happened to others including the non-human with which we are connected – is an essential part of becoming fruitfully active about climate change. It is a key component in Joanna Macey's work (see later post).

Solostagia is a specific form of grief (see later post)

References

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan.

Randall, R. (2009). Loss and climate change: the cost of parallel narratives. Ecopsychology, 1(3): 118-129.

Worden, J. W (1983). Grief counselling and grief therapy. London: Tavistock.

Image: Manila Bay Clean Up – Philippines 2006 – Gavin Newman, Greenpeace.

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