By Mary Williams, 350VT Writing for Climate Justice group member

When I saw that climate grief was among the project ideas for 350Vermont’s Writing for Climate Justice group, my first thought was, “I don’t have climate grief.” I do know about grief—I lost my mother a year ago, and since then I have been in grief at some level. But I didn’t think it had anything to do with the climate crisis. How can someone be in grief for the Earth, when she’s still here? Maybe sadness, anxiety, anger—but grief?

My grief over losing my mother was the most acute sadness I’ve ever experienced. But over the past 24 years, there has also been a constant weight—less acute, but solid—ever since the environmental issues class I took as a college student. Back then, I was hearing for the first time about global warming, air pollution, ocean acidification, overpopulation. “Climate crisis” hadn’t yet entered the popular vocabulary. That fall of 1996, Bill McKibben came to speak to my class, about global warming and population, and about the importance of maturity—of development and respect—and finding limits. He talked about how environmental problems were going to simultaneously come to a head in the next 10 or 20 years. That semester was my awakening, and I remember feeling both sad and inspired. The sadness stayed with me, and the inspiration ebbed and flowed.

I have come to see that yes, I’m in climate grief—grief over the ongoing and future destruction and loss of the beauty, abundance, and health of the Earth, mother of us all. And I think what I and probably others feel is comparable to the loss of a loved one. The stages of grief, if there really are any distinct stages, can come at different times and are of course different for each person experiencing loss. Depending on the source, they can include shock, avoidance, denial, anger, guilt, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I experienced some of these after my mother died. In our society’s widespread climate grief, many of us have experienced shock—the initial shock, maybe as young people learning about the collective human destruction of the Earth, then the periodic shock when we learn of yet another climate-induced catastrophe: a devastating hurricane, disappearing glaciers, the Australia bushfires… Some of us avoid thinking about the crisis we are in, and some are in denial for different reasons.

But it’s the last stage I listed, acceptance, though bringing peace to those mourning lost loved ones, that might be the one we need to be the most careful with, in the context of climate crisis. Because just as depression can lead to inaction, acceptance can lead to complacency, which is part of what got us into this mess in the first place. We now have to turn acceptance and complacency into action. For our own mental health, and to have a chance of saving our one home and life on Earth.

For anyone who is ready to either start working on their own grief and anxiety around the climate crisis or to help others, there are resources and tools available. One is the Good Grief Network (GGN), which focuses on personal resilience and community-building in the face of the climate crisis and the emotions that can lead to despair and inaction. The GGN offers a 10-step manual (for a flexible fee) for anyone ready to start their own climate grief support group. For those wanting to join a group, the GGN offers a 10-week online program, and community support groups have started to pop up around the world, including in Vermont. The GGN website includes a wealth of resources to explore these issues more deeply. One of these is a free handbook for emotional resilience developed by the Climate Therapy Alliance, which can also be used with small groups.

Locally, a 10-week support group based on the GGN curriculum is finishing up this month in Brandon, organized by Lindsey Berk. Mindy Blank, who facilitated a segment of the series and has led other grief-processing events, recognizes the value of digging into our emotions around the climate crisis: “Some people are really nervous about engaging with despair and hopelessness, and I believe it’s part of an earnest process that is deeper and more authentic than refusing to go there.” These kinds of gatherings enable us to work through difficult feelings with others in this time of uncertainty. Mindy notes, “Creating spaces in our personal lives and in community settings to channel emotions feels important for allowing the feelings to cycle.”

Here are some upcoming local opportunities to delve into the work of emotion processing and self-care in the midst of the climate crisis:

March 7, Middlebury, VT – Heartstrong Activist: A Workshop for Changemakers

March 19, Burlington, VT – Self-Care and the Climate Crisis: Healing the Internal and External Environment

April 1, 15, 22, Charlotte, VT (Charlotte Library) – Community Resilience Series, facilitated by Mindy Blank:

  • April 1: Climate Change in Our Community  Have you ever felt confused about climate change? Angry? Sad? Numb? In disbelief? Join us for an earnest community conversation on climate change that welcomes all individual feelings. We’re creating a space to engage on an emotional level – this isn’t a space for debates or problem-solving, but rather a place to come together to speak openly and listen to each other.
  • April 15: Community Resilience Assessment  What are our community’s greatest strengths and vulnerabilities? What does the wide-angle view of community resilience look like in Charlotte? Gather with other community members to learn more about perceptions and factors of local-level resilience.
  • April 22: Resilient Future  How can we transform fear into joy by being part of building community resilience? Taking projections of the future of our local region into consideration, what are priorities moving forward, and how can we think outside of the box to see our visions come alive? A final document with ideas from the last session in this series will be presented to the town for a vote to be included in the Town Plan or other means of official commitment.

April 25, Burlington, VT – Inflammation, Anxiety and Climate Change

For those thinking about facilitating a climate grief support group, Jane Dwinell offers this advice: “I think the group leader/facilitator needs to have their own grief handled, and be ready for anything. There will be tears, there will be silence, there will be anger, and guilt and all kinds of emotions.” Jane recently started a small group for a congregation in Burlington. She says it’s also important to keep the focus on processing the emotions we are experiencing: “People may want to talk about ‘solutions’ rather than emotions and the leader needs to steer the conversation if necessary.” Mindy echoes that, with a reminder to “Create other spaces for problem-solving!” She also emphasizes the importance of creating “safe spaces/containers with a welcoming environment that give equal amounts of time for each participant to share.”

We need groups like these in every community, so that we can support each other in this deep work, and build resilience and strength for action. When we process grief, anxiety, and the other intense emotions that so many of us are feeling right now, we can also see more clearly the beauty around us that we are working to save. And we owe it to ourselves and our personal well-being to explore and start to let go of the heavy emotions. If we don’t do that hard work, Mindy reminds us, “If we hold that energy in our body without being able to release it sometimes, it can come through in ways that don’t serve us, those around us, or the wider picture.” Maybe the most important reminder of all, right now, is that we are not alone. Not only are so many of us working for climate justice, but just as many of us are experiencing deep emotions. We will be most effective in our work when we reach out to others and find that we are in this together.