Americans are grieving our climate losses. We need to reach acceptance—and action.
National Grief Awareness Day, observed on August 30, is a good time to check in with ourselves. Every day, our attention is divided between at least five coinciding crises: the Russia/Ukraine war, the economy and inflation, Covid, mass shootings, and climate change. Our natural response to the constant barrage of emergencies is to oscillate between emotions—horror and anger, sorrow and anxiety, fear and despair, grief and avoidance.
In particular, climate change, an inescapable threat multiplier, is amplifying stress, anxiety, and depression—and not only in people with existing clinical diagnoses. A recent American Psychiatric Association poll found that 48% of adults feel that climate change is impacting Americans’ mental health.
Researchers and clinicians have documented a spectrum of distress caused by climate change. One response, “ecological grief,” describes a set of emotions caused by climate-related losses to landscapes, ecosystems, and species. We don’t know how to process this kind of slow-rolling, pervasive, past-present-and-future loss.
But grief is not foreign to us; we’re familiar with how to act when losing a loved one. Though they’re often not linear, there are five known stages in the process of accepting loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
If we want to stop climate change, we need to find a way to process our grief and emerge at a place of acceptance and action.
Unfortunately, the cycle of anger, bargaining, and depression is an easy place to get stuck. With a problem so big, so seemingly out of one person’s grasp, what can we really do anyway? In a recent survey by the Climate Mental Health Network, over half of respondents expressed feeling anger as well as fear (60%), and depression (30%) when they think about climate change.
We may have logically accepted climate change is happening, but our actions show we haven’t really grasped the depth of the crisis and are still, emotionally, in denial. We remain fossil fuel dependent, waste one-third of food produced, and have left 45% of the U.S. population without public transportation. Experts at deploying unconscious coping mechanisms and distractions to avoid uncomfortable or complex emotions, we’re denying and delaying our grief.
As I process all the research showing that we’re approaching a point of no return and even as I go about my daily errands, I recognize my own avoidance—and it’s a familiar feeling. When I lost my mom to cancer over 10 years ago, I was so consumed by grief that I was incapable of normal daily functions. My past experience with grief led me to instinctively shove away any feelings that could return me to that place. But, I recently remembered, letting myself feel is how I survived.
Emotions prompt us to act. Research shows the therapeutic tool of “opposite action” is highly effective when emotions like those associated with grief start to interrupt normal activities. When provoked by anger to attack or defend, acknowledge the feeling but then do the opposite – show kindness to yourself and others. When prompted by fear to run away or hide from the issue, use that energy to stay involved and find solutions. When feelings of sadness or depression induce despair or hopelessness, get active and join a community in action.
In my interview with Dr. Leah Prussia, a clinical social worker and college professor who understands loss and healing in connection with nature, she explained that “depression, anxiety, and grief all cause us to mentally and emotionally contract. “What we need,” she said, “is openness, expansion, and connection.” She believes that if we lean into our emotions, we can hold grief and hope at the same time.
Until we accept where we are, we are not capable of change. To get started, find a space in nature that is special to you and set aside time to open emotionally. Making a list of known losses can offer something tangible to connect to our feelings. It has been established that spending time in nature has physical health benefits and is now understood that being in nature can also increase hope and boost our emotions. If we sit with our grief and acknowledge, appreciate, and act wisely on our feelings, then acceptance will arrive. And so will solutions. We will adapt, respond skillfully and mindfully, and find a healing call to action.
As we face a rapidly warming planet, we cannot afford any further delay. We need to move to acceptance and action, and we must do so quickly. Bold actions like passing the Inflation Reduction Act are a source of hope, but it won’t be enough to get us where we need to be. So, on this National Grief Awareness Day, rather than denying grief in order to protect yourself, lean into your grief – accept and experience your emotions while connecting with a community involved in action. Remember that emotions are contagious. Spread those wise emotions further and faster than the wildfires that have become a part of our lives.