Krista Kurth, Ph.D.
It’s Okay to Feel Both Grief and Relief around the Future of the Planet
Tips for leaning in to these emotions to help you take climate action
I didn’t realize how much I was holding my breath until the U.S. election was over. When I heard that the country elected a new president, one who took the climate crisis seriously, I exhaled so deeply it caught me by surprise. What happened next also caught me by surprise.
After the initial flood of relief rushed through me, a profound sadness rose up from deep in my belly that I hadn’t known was there. As I sat with my feelings, I realized I’d been masking and holding in my grief about the many lost opportunities to reduce greenhouse gases under the current U.S. administration. I knew the president-elect, even with all his climate action plans, wouldn’t be able roll back the carbon dioxide added to and accumulated in the atmosphere over the past four years. They’d be there for decades.
Many other losses also passed through my mind, increasing my sorrow: the loss of species, the death of coral reefs, forests cut down or burning, the physical damage from stronger and more frequent hurricanes, destruction of human homes and life, the end of an easy life on the planet for my children and grandchildren, not to mention the losses from the pandemic and racial and social injustice.
As Dr Derrick Sebree Jr, a specialist in ecopsychology at the Michigan School of Psychology, says the magnitude of losing what will never be again, like centuries-old forests destroyed by wildfires, can be overwhelming. Another psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes, calls this kind of climate grief ‘the Great Grief’ and says it goes beyond personal grief.
It is a collective sorrow that surrounds us yet we rarely publicly discuss it. He believes that to respond adequately to the climate crisis, we first need to learn to live with the understanding that life on this planet may face challenges we are only just beginning to contemplate. He recommends that instead of avoiding our grief and despair, we lean into and accept our feelings. He says it’s important to pay attention to our sorrow as it reflects a truth about the state of ecology in our world.
Margaret Klein Salamon, author of Facing the Climate Emergency, agrees. She says we must both acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis and allow ourselves time to grieve the many losses we are experiencing and for the futures we had planned, hoped for, and thought we were building. When confronted with ongoing loss, grief is not optional. It is what helps us move towards responding and adapting to new realities. And, according to Tom Frieden in his article on grief, the sooner we can come to terms with reality and our feelings, the quicker we can prepare for lasting changes.
However, acknowledging and making room for grief doesn’t mean I have to deny my sense of relief at the new possibilities for 2021. I can hold both. I can give myself space to feel my sorrow and also let my joy balance out how I hold my climate grief. Holding both these emotions, I can then envision the world I want and then take action. Like C.S. Lewis said, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
In fact, it is crucial that we acknowledge, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, that “Life is both dreadful and wonderful…How can I smile when I am filled with so much sorrow? It is natural-you need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow.”
Yes. I am more than my sorrow and I know, as Jalaluddin Rumi said, “Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”
With this in mind, here are some tips from various experts for leaning into and coming to terms with our grief and the suffering in the world. They are followed by some tips for balancing out sorrow with hope and purpose. Try them to find which ones resonate most strongly with you.
How to Lean into Great Grief
1. Name it. There is something powerful about naming our grief. It helps us acknowledge what we are going through and gives us a better chance of managing and redirecting our emotional energy.
2. Feel it. To cope with the loss of our world as we’ve known it, we need to lean into our sadness. We need to give ourselves time to come to a place of acceptance of the current state of the world and understand what it means for our life right now. Grief expert David Kessler tells us that acceptance is where our power lies. Emotions need motion. So, feel your sadness, even if it’s just for five minutes at a time. I assure you it will move through you. Let yourself feel your climate grief and then keep going.
3. Come into the present to calm yourself. Use all your senses to take in what is around you. What do you see, smell, hear, touch? Take a deep breath. Realize that in the present moment, much of what you’ve anticipated has not yet happened. In this moment, you’re okay. This exercise helps to dampen some of pain that comes with grief.
4. Find solace in nature. Dr. Sebree advices that spending time outdoors is essential for self-care and for understanding the importance of protecting our world. He says, “Caring for the environment and one another are how we begin to work through this moment.”
5. Be compassionate with yourself and others. In difficult times, particularly in the midst of grief, we need to cut ourselves and each other some slack. Give yourself lots of space to be right where you are. Then hold yourself and the world in the light.
6. Follow your grief to its source. Salamon says that if we look at the origin of our sorrow over the impacts of climate change, we will see we are sad because we love the planet and are connected to all life. Dr. Renee Lertzman, who speaks about climate anxiety, agrees. She says, “Our grief is an expression of our connection with life and a signal that we are part of the bigger whole.” When we turn attention to the source of our grief we hold a mirror up for ourselves to the truth of what we are working on, like Jalaluddin Rumi describes in his poem Birdwings:
Your grief for what you’ve lost holds a mirror up to where you’re bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look and instead, here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expand the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birdwings.
7. Find your strength through grief. When we allow ourselves both to honor our grief and its source, we can often find a strength we didn’t know existed. By becoming vulnerable, we become stronger, individually and collectively. We inform our action with the eye of the heart.
How to Balance Grief with Relief
1. Balance your thoughts. Some of our sorrow is fueled by thoughts about what we think will happen in the future. In the end we may be right, but we don’t know for sure what will eventually happen. Find ways to counterbalance your fearful thoughts with positive and hopeful thoughts. Look at all the climate solutions work already being done, how cities and states took action when Federal action was sidelined.
2. Find Meaning in your grief. David Kessler, grief expert and author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief suggests that after we have accepted the situation we are grieving, we need to find meaning in our darkest hours. We need to find light to help us move forward. And it is often not as remote as we think. Margaret Klein Salamon reminds us “while the climate emergency threatens to destroy our shared and personal futures,” it also makes what we do now so much more important. When we mourn for the planet, we can gain the ability to engage more fully now in a global response to the climate crisis.
3. Channel your grief into climate action. Nylah Burton in her article on climate grief writes that while it’s important to mourn the damage to our planet, we can’t allow it to overwhelm us and stop our climate action. We can experience our grief, and then move forward. We can use our emotional energy to motivate us to focus on solutions and making a contribution. This is a great time to double-down on whatever climate actions you are already taking. As Timothy Lawrence writes, “grief itself is not an obstacle… The choices as to how to live; how to carry what we have lost; how to weave a new mosaic for ourselves?” Focus on what you can control and let go of the rest. What new insight do you have now about your climate action? How has your grief informed what you want to do?
4. Allow your grief to open into connection and hope. Per Espen Stoknes reminds us that “contact with the pain of the world, however, does not only bring grief but can also open the heart to reach out to all things still living.” When we deal with our grief, we can discover what is still here. We can connect with others who have also been affected by climate grief and learn what they are doing. We can see how life continues shining its beauty around us. From this connected place, deep hope naturally arises. Diane Rizzetto says, “Deep hope springs from the energy of life itself. Deep hope is what comes forth when we open our hearts and minds to what we can offer and what we receive.” You may want to connect with the Good Grief Network. They bring people together to help metabolize collective grief.
5. Reconnect with a wild love for the world. Joanna Macy, in her books A Wild Love for the World and Coming Back to Life, offers a framework for social change and deeply reconnecting with our planet. It involves opening to gratitude, honoring our pain for the world as our larger body, seeing with new eyes, and then going forth into action. She says that by being fully present to what is happening in the world we can transform our despair into clarity of vision, and from there into positive, collaborative action.
I hope these tips will enable you to increase your capacity both for leaning into your grief and for taking heart-felt climate action. I hope they will, as Joanna Macy says, help you dance with despair. I will leave you with some of her wisdom, as shared in an interview with Krista Tippett.
“…see how we are called to not run from the discomfort and not run from the grief or the feelings of outrage or even fear — and that, if we can be fearless, to be with our pain, it turns… when we look at it, when we take it in our hands, when we can just be with it and keep breathing, then it turns. It turns to reveal its other face, and the other face of our pain for the world is our love for the world, our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.”
I wish you all the best,