On the Other Side of Loss Lies Love

The birds come when the she oak nuts are ripe and full of seed. I hear them muttering to each other high in the branches as I walk up the narrow track behind our house. The evidence of their banquet lies at my feet. Broken off branch tips and mauled nuts lie scattered across the pathway. They stay for a few months, a couple of them nesting in an old tree a few doors up. I hear them call to each other in the mornings as they set off for a day of feasting, and on their return home at twilight.

Until a few months ago I thought they were red tail black cockatoos. But they’re not, they’re glossy black cockatoos, a species listed as vulnerable in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, and endangered in South Australia. Glossy black cockatoos primarily eat allocasuarina species, she-oaks. As a result of land clearing for agriculture and development, and increasing fragmentation of bushland, the birds are losing their primary food source and their homes.

When I understood who the birds in the she-oaks were, I couldn’t stop crying. I had blindly convinced myself that they were the ones who were OK, the un-fussy ones. I thought everything was fine. But they weren’t and neither was I.

Honouring our pain for the world is a way of valuing our awareness, first, that we have noticed, and second, that we care.

Joanna Macy

I cried for the glossy blacks. Where will they go next, and when they get there will their trees be still standing? Will they come again next year? Will they starve, as their food source shrinks month on month, year on year. How long do they have left? How long do we have left? And who will remember their song when it is no longer sung? The birds became a symbol for the unfathomable losses occurring all around me. The losses I had subconsciously kept at a distance because I wasn’t sure I wanted to feel them. My heart, then, broke.

This grief is not new. It’s tidal – rising and falling over days, weeks, months. Some days it feels like a thick fog, hiding familiar landmarks and dulling the sun. Other days it recedes, and the light is glorious and the trees sprout new growth and the awe returns. But it remains, always, a constant backdrop to the smallness of everyday life, and the hugeness of being alive.  

It’s certainly not particular to me. It’s an undercurrent beneath the surface of countless conversations, decisions and actions by countless humans across the world. In my own small circle, it’s become a regular part of what we talk about. And though we talk about it, it’s hard to know what to do with it, this grief. Conversations end with, ‘well that’s a bit depressing, let’s talk about something else.’ I’m often left feeling sort-of empty, wondering how to go forward in a truthful way, beyond the sadness but somehow still holding it.

The Big Picture

Despite what many business-as-usual types might suggest, feeling angry, grief-stricken and anxious about the situation we’re in is “a completely rational response to what’s going on”, says Dr Sally Gillespie, author of Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Re-imagining Our World and Ourselves (Routledge, 2019).

We’re not just experiencing a few weird weather patterns; we’re “living through the collapse of a cultural view and a civilisation”. The foundations of our western world views are crumbling. I thought I knew where I was in the world, where I was going, and what kind of country and culture I lived in. I can’t say I do anymore. I don’t know what the world will look like in a decade, two, ten. To look into this is incredibly challenging. Deep existential questions arise, forcing us to question how we live and what we value, undermining the stories we’ve used to frame our lives thus far.

Despite the unprecedented scale of the losses and change we’re facing, it’s likely my feelings of eco-grief will be dismissed as hysterical nonsense by those who say things like ‘hey little lady don’t you worry, the climate has always changed, and species have always died out and and what’s important is a strong economy’. And even if my feelings aren’t ignored, there’s very few places or rituals for them within our society. We have agreed rituals for human loss – we hold funerals, we have periods of mourning, we light candles and plant trees in remembrance. But what of ecological loss? “…deep sorrow is rarely expressed in public discussions about the climate crisis”, writes Sally Gillespie. “Too often grief goes unnamed and unhonoured, although it is inseparable from our lives in this age of ecological destructions.”

The Elephant in the Room

Though most people feel concern about how the climate crisis will affect them and their lives, it’s not an easy thing to talk about and acknowledge. There are many reasons for this. Because climate change has become so contested and politicised, people’s emotions around it are not only not universally recognised, they’ve been reduced to a statement on where a person stands on the issue. This can be very isolating, and conversations are often either avoided or shut down. “To feel, together, the sadness of the loss, you have to agree that there even is a loss to begin with. If you’re grieving, you don’t want to get into a debate over whether what you’re grieving exists or not!”, says Sally. 

Grief can make us both very sad and very motivated to act.

Dr Sally Gillespie

And then there’s our western obsession with being ‘happy’. The search for happiness, often sold as a new product, a holiday, a buy-able buzz, is, recently, one of our individualistic and consumerist culture’s primary goals. Darkness, melancholy and distress are to be avoided at all costs. “The notion that we should steer clear of anything too negative sets up avoidance as a default strategy, writes Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (New World Library, 2012). “Yet the more we shy away from something we find difficult, the less confident we become that we can deal with it.”

When the avoidance of emotional distress becomes the habit of a culture, it “creates a barrier to publicly acknowledging upsetting information. This in turn leads to a selective screening out of aspects of reality that seem too painful to bear, to distressing to contemplate.”

In short: we don’t want to feel the truth of the situation our world is currently in.

Even shorter: we need to.

Looking into the pain of the world, holding it, feeling it, means we care. And not only this, it’s a place to then act from. As Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone write:

“If our world is dying piece by piece without our publicly and collectively expressing our grief, we might easily assume that these losses aren’t important. Honouring our pain for the world is a way of valuing our awareness, first, that we have noticed, and second, that we care. Intellectual awareness by itself is not enough. We need to digest the bad news. That is what rouses us to respond.”

Dr Sally Gillespie’s research findings, as illustrated in her book, echo this:

“When we grieve for what is lost, it clears the way towards a strengthening of love and commitment for what remains. In time this may build a desire to make good from the loss by repairing what damages we can and/or compensating for them. Grief can make us both very sad and very motivated to act.”

I know I need to be with my pain and sadness, to talk about and honour it, but I’m not sure how. I’m scared of not being able to keep my head above water. I don’t want to be stuck in a swamp of eco-grief for the rest of my life – I want to feel as though I can do something good for the world, and I’m certainly not ready to sink into the mud. The work of Sally Gillespie, Joanna Macy and many others offers wise guidance in understanding, honouring and acting on ecological grief.

Connection

“Getting together and talking about what’s going on” is the first step towards cultivating resilience, Sally tells me. Whilst it’s important to feel for the world, it’s equally as important that these emotions are not carried alone. We’re dealing with big, heavy stuff. And like all big, heavy stuff, the load is much lighter when shared. This might mean creating rituals, sharing circles, and building strong local community bonds. Sally writes:

“Many traditional cultures have rituals of mourning that give full weight and time to the psychological work of grieving. Wailing, laments, poems, storytelling and periods of retreat all play a part in expressing and ritualising loss in the company of others. However, most people in contemporary cultures have lost these traditional mourning rituals and with them the ability to grieve well. Grief has become a taboo emotion which can leave those who are mourning feeling isolated, without sufficient acknowledgement, support or containers for the intense and raw emotions they are experiencing. To grieve well we need to be able to share our sorrows and feel some sense of belonging with others. When we experience this, we can in turn hold and comfort others in their grief… Sharing grief affirms communal life. It fuels conversations about what matters most, making fertile ground for initiatives based on common values.”

Thoughtful, respectful and truthful conversations are where “we find out we are not alone in what we are thinking and feeling in response to climate disruption”, writes Sally. “We are all in uncharted territory, looking for words to describe what we, as a species, have not experienced before.”

Perspective

It’s easy to get swept up in the bad news stories. When climate change is mentioned in the media it’s rarely a tale of inspiration, and most often an alarming scientific report, a tale of government inaction and denial, or the story of yet another species extinction. Whilst it’s important to know what’s going on, to understand the situation as best we can, it’s important, too to balance our intake by seeking out good news stories. There’s incredible things happening in the world right now and immensely powerful solutions that already exist, like trees (I know, so retro!)

Sally Gillespie suggests that it’s also a good idea to monitor exposure to climate related content. Most news articles and reports begin by listing a bunch of terrifying statistics, which if you don’t already know about, might be good, but if you do, can be very traumatic. “People who get involved in climate change can get very traumatised by reading statistic after statistic after statistic on the loss, the acceleration, the tipping points. It’s not that it’s not true, but it doesn’t do anything for us psychologically to keep reading it over and over again. Once we know, we know.”

Awe and Wonder

“Cherishing Earth’s beauty is perhaps the greatest healing we can bring to our world and ourselves”, writes Sally. “There is so much to marvel about as we learn more about the intricacies and elegance of our world’s ecosystems, and so much to love; both with an instinctive awe that has long been a part of the human psyche, and with a conscious appreciation informed by the latest research.”

Love is a salve for my grief for the world. It keeps my heart open. No matter how sad or anxious I am, I cannot help but be awed by layers of life around me. Love is also the foundation for my climate action, underpinning everything I do as an individual and as part of a wider collective of creative carers. It’s not often spoken about in dialogue around environmental activism but perhaps it should be. Sally Gillespie writes:

“Developing knowledge about, and relationship with, the natural world through education, connection and observation transforms us and the world. Joy, grief, curiosity, tenderness and awe are easily stirred when we bring full attention to Earth’s ways and her current plights. Making ourselves open and vulnerable to this most primal connection while informing ourselves about what we are observing in today’s world works the ground for new myths and imaginings. Ones that change visions, stir minds and hearts, transform values and motivate actions.”

Narrative

Our lives are framed not by a fixed reality but by the stories we tell ourselves. They’re the cultural narratives we’re born into, and the individual tales reinforced by ourselves and those around us. Something we don’t often realise is that we have the power to choose the stories we tell about our relationship to the world and ourselves.

Narrative has a huge influence on how we see the current state of our planet. Joana Macy and Chris Johnston suggest there’s three main stories that act as a frame for how we see things. In the first of these stories, Business as Usual, “the defining assumption is that there is little need to change the way we live. Economic growth is regarded as essential for prosperity, and the central plot is about getting ahead.” The second, The Great Unravelling, draws attention to the disasters that we’re moving towards, and those that have already happened, thanks to the first story, Business as Usual. “It is an account, backed by evidence, of the collapse of ecological and social systems, the disturbance of climate, the depletion of resources, and the mass extinction of species.” Both of these narratives sound very familiar to me.

The third story is called The Great Turning. It’s “embodied by those who know the first story is leading us to catastrophe and who refuse to let the second story have the last word. Involving the emergence of new and creative human responses, it is about the epochal transition from an industrial society committed to economic growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the healing and recovery of our world.”

As the authors suggest, there’s no point arguing about which story is correct – they’re all happening at the same time. The question is this: which story do you want to put your energy behind?

I sometimes get stuck in apocalyptic visions of the end of the earth, humanity, everything, which makes my sadness feel pointless and disabling. I can’t count the times I’ve heard and thought words to the effect of “It’s all going to shit, so why bother?” But, changing the story, and seeing my grief as an important underpinning for transformation is validating and empowering. Putting energy behind the story of The Great Turning, for example, allows space to explore new ways of being, thinking and acting.

I was supposed to finish writing this essay yesterday, but instead spent the day with our local volunteer Rural Fire Service, preparing to defend our tiny settlement against bushfire. We blocked our gutters, set up pumps and ran hoses up the hill behind our houses. Our bags were packed and ready to be thrown into the boat for a quick getaway, if needed. The Sydney region was warned of ‘Catastrophic Fire Danger’, the first time the highest level of fire danger has been signaled since new Australian fire danger ratings were introduced in 2009. Schools were closed, people living near bushland were told to leave. It was surreal and yet painfully real, and bought a future shaped by climate crisis sharply into focus. Something that always seemed conceptual rather than a lived reality, appeared suddenly, scarily, on my doorstep.

We were spared, but the fires are still raging. The forests are still being cleared for farmland. Species are still disappearing. The glossy black cockatoos may, one day, not return to the she-oaks behind my house. Closing down to the grief of the world will not stop these things happening. It serves only to stifle creativity and smother our capacity to care. Fully feeling it, on the other hand, might well help us cultivate our ability to nurture and grow the changes we need to make to sustain our home planet and all its inhabitants.

Sharing and honouring our grief for the world is a pathway towards building resilience and strength. I’ve realised this now. I’ve realised too, that as a culture we need to develop rituals and ways of talking about it. We live in an extraordinary time. And whilst we’re faced daily with stories and feelings of loss and sadness, fear and anxiety, collectively we can process and transform these emotions into action grounded in care, compassion and connection. We can become more mature individually, culturally, and politically. We can write, and live, our own good news story.

Further Reading and Resources

Sally Gillespie, Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Reimagining our World and Ourselves, Routledge, 2019. (Use discount code FLR40 for 20% off)

Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, New World Library, 2012.

Kathryn Heyhoe, The most important thing you can do to fight climate change: talk about it, TED talk, 2018

Psychology for a Safe Climate website

Australian Psychological Society on coping with climate distress

Climate Crisis Conversations Podcast