Climate Grief Explained: Meaning & How It Works

Certified Grief Counselor

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Climate grief, or ecological grief, as it’s sometimes called, is directly related to your mental health and how it’s affected by changes in the climate or the natural environment around you. Whenever there are changes to the ecology and climate, you experience grief and mourning for the loss of nature and the way things were.

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Simply put, when the environment that you’re familiar with abruptly changes, you can suffer a devastating loss.

When several changes or disasters occur one after another, you suffer in multitudes creating what is known as collective grief. Communities that rely on the environment for their livelihood are more likely to suffer collective grief because their entire way of living can change with just one natural disaster occurring. T

he impact of that one environmental change can create a ripple effect on the rest of their lives compounding their losses.

What’s Climate, or Ecological, Grief?

Climate change that causes distress creates a perfect environment for grief, loss, and mourning. These changes can cause anxiety and fear of the unknown. When you’re dependent on the climate or ecological systems in place to thrive and sometimes survive where you live, and then things change unexpectedly, it can create a high level of distress.

There are areas in this world and in our own backyard that depend on the predictability of the climate to go about daily life. For example, in North America, there are portions of Canada that rely on the land, ice, and sea to provide its inhabitants with ways of transporting about from one area to the next. When the weather behaves in unexpected ways creating changes to the ecology that are occurring outside of the normal, it can be psychologically devastating.

This level of devastation can end up creating a ripe environment for experiencing grief and suffering. 

How is climate grief different than other types of grief?

Climate grief differs from other types of grief associated with losses related to death, divorce, or other types of losses in that it usually has a cumulative effect on all areas of your life. It can be difficult to compartmentalize your losses, so you may be left dealing with a greater grief load from having suffered loss after loss in a relatively short amount of time. 

The term “grief overload” can apply here in that you experience so much loss and devastation in such a small window of time that you begin to feel as if you just can’t take it anymore. You have reached a level of saturation that there is simply nowhere else to fit any more grief, sadness, and pain.

Another way in which this type of loss differs is that there's usually no escaping your grief because the climate or ecological changes tend to affect all parts of your life. This is especially true when a natural disaster strikes devastating an entire area or way of life. The way you cope with the distress brought on by climate change follows the standard five stages of grief model.

How Does Climate Grief Work?

Climate grief tends to surface the most when you’re unable to cope with the changes in your environment in a healthy way. You may be suffering from distress, sadness, and depression due to the changes occurring in your surrounding landscape. Sometimes these changes tend to isolate a specific area or group of people, in effect developing ecological grief that ultimately transforms into collective grief. 

This type of grief also affects you by having the potential of creating anxiety and hopelessness when you’re faced with a changing climate. The stages of climate grief are the same as those that affect other types of grief but interpreted in a way that makes sense to this particular type of loss. 

Having lost an entire way of life or other means of sustainability affects you differently than when you’ve suffered the loss of a loved one due to death. The ways in which you can expect to process your grief, in this case, are as follows (and in no particular order):

1. Denial

Denial occurs when you refuse to accept the truth for the way things really are. It may take a while for you to process your loss. Usually, this happens when you’re in a state of shock immediately following your loss.

This stage can extend through a matter of days or even weeks where you’re unable to process what has occurred and the extent of your loss or losses.

2. Anger

Anger is a natural response to loss and is quite normal to feel this way after suffering a loss that is difficult to accept. This stage usually follows the denial stage and is easy to pinpoint because you may start to feel angry at the world and everyone around you.

You begin to look at external sources to blame for your loss and you may lash out at others who may not have had any participation in the creation of your loss.

3. Bargaining

Bargaining takes place when you find yourself making deals with yourself, others, your higher power - anyone that will listen, really. You try to mitigate your losses by making promises to do or act in a certain way if only you could take back what you’ve lost. This stage doesn’t get you any closer to regaining what was lost, but it’s often a step that is needed to get you closer to healing.

4. Depression

This stage is typically the one where the most work is often needed to overcome your grief. When you’re feeling depressed, it’s often difficult for you to see things clearly and rationally thus delaying your healing process.

It helps to take a break away from any negativity surrounding your loss such as taking a break from the news, for example, and connecting with others in your community for support. It also helps to read books on grief to help you understand what you’re going through. 

5. Acceptance

Accepting your loss is the final step toward healing. Getting to this step doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve resolved all of your grief, but it does mean that you’re now ready to move forward from your grief.

You may still feel bouts of depression and anger from time to time, but this is all a healthy part of recovering from your loss. Acceptance brings understanding and renewed hope.  

Examples of Climate Grief

Whenever you experience climate change whether it's predicted or unexpected, it creates a level of stress, anxiety, and sometimes a fear of the unknown. These changes can occur when you move from one area to another, or as a result of a natural disaster. Either way, you suffer a distinct loss that directly impacts the way you interact within your surroundings. You may have been accustomed to the weather always being sunny and spent your days at the beach, and now you may live with gloomy skies every day.

Perhaps you moved from an area that had stunning mountain vistas and now you live in the plains of middle America with nothing to look at for miles on end. Whatever caused your environment to change, these changes are directly tied to how you view your current environment and landscape.

When things change, you mourn the loss of what's familiar to you. And when things change unexpectedly due to extreme weather conditions or natural disasters, you experience an increased level of anxiety for the loss of landscape you were once familiar with. Examples of these types of changes that cause climate grief are:

Crop-damaging heatwave

Every season, farmers and other agricultural businesses rely on the climate to behave in a certain way. Predictions are made as to when crops will be ready for planting and harvesting, the expected outputs are carefully measured, and budgets are calculated based on these findings.

When things don’t go as predicted as when a crop-damaging heatwave causes a farmer to lose his crops, therefore, his profits, anxiety turns to fear which in turn can turn into a chronic sadness or depression.

These types of losses attributed to climate change and disaster can be financially and emotionally devastating. A farmer who has lost his crops is likely to suffer from climate grief. 

Tsunami

When a major event like a tsunami devastates an entire region and way of living, it is likely to affect thousands upon thousands of people who call the area their home.

A tsunami has the power to destroy entire communities, wreak havoc on the ecological systems in place, and cause massive amounts of death and destruction in its wake. People who’ve suffered this type of loss can attest to the levels of grief experienced after such devastation.

Blizzards

Heavy and unpredicted snowfalls not only have the potential to destroy an ecological system of a particular area, but they also can cause people living in the are to become isolated from one another leading to greater cases of depression.

As with any type of quarantine, it becomes difficult to sustain isolation for long periods of time without going a little bit “stir crazy” and cut off from the rest of the world. 

Coping With Ecological Changes

Dealing with the loss of your environment can be challenging and isolating. Most grief rituals are aimed at easing the pain and suffering due to other types of losses. Though there may not be as many healing tools in place for coping with ecological change, talking with others can provide some respite. 

In particular, it’s helpful to participate in dialogues with others in your community to share your experiences and to help one another cope with your loss. With ecological changes, you are not alone in your suffering.

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