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Are you worried about climate change and are you anxious? Here’s what you need to know about ‘ecological grief’

Are you worried about climate change and are you anxious? Here’s what you need to know about ‘ecological grief’

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John Pomeroy has been observing glaciers in the Rockies for decades — first as a young man, and now as a leading expert in the field. He has been exhausted, weary, and tearful as he has seen the changes unfold before his eyes.

“I’ve been going to these glaciers since the late 1970s and the landscapes I remember from when I was younger are gone,” he says.

This sense of loss is becoming more apparent as the natural world changes rapidly with a rapidly rising planet.

This week, thousands of British Columbians experienced the devastating effects of floods and landslides firsthand.

These changes, and the loss of property or life that often comes with them, are distressing and exhausting, and psychologists are noticing how that’s affecting mental health.

“[Climate change] is impacting mental health in terms of anxiety, stress, depression, trauma, even PTSD,” says Halifax psychologist Simon Sherry, who has observed an increase in the number of clients talking to him about ecological grief.

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“You can mourn the loss of our environment and its destruction, and that loss is often painful and analogous to the grief from the loss of a loved one or grief from the loss of a pet,” he says.

“I have to admit I do have nightmares about this sometimes,” Pomeroy says of the Peyto glacier in the Rockies — his life’s work — literally disappearing before his eyes.

“We’re seeing … a loss of one’s personal heritage, the loss of one’s home, as well as the loss of the ecosystem, the loss of future water, and the threat to the planet.”

There are several types of ecological grievances 

Feelings of profound sadness associated with an immediate sense of loss — losing a home in a forest fire or a flood, for instance — are just one of the components of ecological grief.

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Olive Dempsey, a coach and facilitator who teaches about this topic, says that this type of grief can take on other forms.

It’s possible to “think about ecological grief in the context of folks whose ways of life are under threat,” Dempsey says.

At the recent COP26 climate summit in Scotland, leaders of low-lying Island nations gave a warning of imminent danger. As sea levels rise, countries such as Tuvalu and Maldives are literally in danger of disappearing.

Dempsey also describes a type of “anticipatory loss,” which is about grieving “what we thought our life might be, or grieving the loss of having a safe and reliable future for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren.”

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People who are struggling to make the decision to have children are one of her most frequent responses. There are also “lots of feelings of helplessness, feelings of anger and rage,” including, she says, the sense that elected officials are “not caring for us in the way that they need to be.”

Turning grief into action 

Sherry believes that both fear and grief can be transformed into concrete action. He warns that negative emotions should not be allowed to control you.

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“If you are passive and sedentary and ruminative, sitting on the couch and doing nothing is where your grief and anxiety and depression festers and grows,” he says. “The enormity of this problem is paralytic.”

Sherry states that simple, everyday actions that convey an eco-friendly message can help people get rid of their fear, grief, or anxiety.

“This might be something as straightforward, but as important as … trying public transport, using clean energy or advocating for [or] making use of green spaces,” he says.

Fear, which is often thought of as a paralyzing emotion and can be used to mobilize people, Sherry states. This happens when people have a sense they can take action on that fear. “I would advise people to take specific, concrete, doable and local action, rather than being paralyzed and overwhelmed by uncertainty, denial or catastrophizing.”

Drawing on ‘community’ 

According to psychologists and facilitators one of the best ways to break out of these cycles of cynicism is to find people with whom you feel connected.

Dempsey, the facilitator and engagement strategist, points out that a lot of the discussion around climate change is rooted in individual guilt and shame. He suggests that flying less, eating less meat and driving less are all examples of how individuals can take action. The sense of connectedness, belonging and community — namely, shared goals and mutual interests — is easily overlooked.

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Albertans Jodi Lamiman, a community educator and Amy Spark, an environment scientist, have started to build community. Refugia Retreats. It’s an online space where like-minded individuals looking for “a refuge in the midst of upheaval” can come together to talk about their shared concerns and feelings, Spark says.

She’s found that evoking feelings of shared interests — for example, emphasizing a community’s shared love of the land, or for a body of water — is a powerful way of generating conversations around the climate crisis, and helping people deal with their grief.

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“When it comes to … climate anxiety,” Spark says, “what you really need is a community to legitimize that, for you to say, ‘hey I experienced that as well.’”

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Sophia Yang, a Vancouver-based youth climate activist found her community through fashion. No stranger to eco-anxiety herself, Yang decided that, instead of sitting around “feeling all this grief, doing nothing, the least I could do is talk to those around me or try to do something about it.”

And so she did.

Yang founded a small company called “Yang” last year. Threading ChangeAdvocate for more sustainable practices in fast fashion. “One way that I dealt with my eco-anxiety is really to educate others about the impacts of fast fashion,” she said.

The power and potential of art

John Pomeroy, hydrologist knows that simply telling facts and figures about the climate crisis doesn’t generate engagement.

“We have to communicate with people’s hearts as well as their heads,” he says.

Imbricating science with art is one way he’s discovered how to do that. Gennadiy, a Russian artist based in the U.K., is his partner and he paints dramatic portraits about a landscape that has been affected by climate change.

Dozens of other Canadian artists — novelists, painters and musicians — are turning to the power of their medium to connect audiences to the natural world, and the changes that are happening to it.

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“The burned forests, the drought-ridden Prairies, the dry rivers, the flooded landscapes — all this is there to see,” Pomeroy says.

The paintings can be harrowing; Pomeroy says they capture the “collective nightmares of our civilization.” But, he adds, they inspire a sense of feeling at one with nature in ways that “a graph of temperatures going up over time” simply don’t.

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The climate crisis can be depressing. However, it can also be mobilizing and generative. So much of dealing with the grief and anxiety associated with this existential threat depends on making meaning of one’s grief, acknowledging it, and not pushing it away, Dempsey says.

That’s because grief ultimately represents a profound connection to life, she says.

“We only grieve the things we love, we only grieve the things we feel deeply connected to.”






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