Supporting People in Their Climate Grief

by ecoAmerica’s Special Projects Director Judy Mills

 

I recently lost my mother and father in a span of three weeks, after which I went on an extended journey through the five stages of grief.

 

When someone suggested I write about climate-change denial this week, I thought I was clever in deciding to address denial as but one stage of what surely is a collective grieving process. After all, we are not just losing glaciers and coastlines. We are losing seasonal certainty. Worse yet, we may have to change, and people grieve during periods of significant change – even good change.

 

Grief over climatic changes makes solid sense. And so does the fact that people are moving around among denial, anger, bargaining and depression, often fighting acceptance tooth and nail. Many have dug in for long-term stays in denial.

 

As it turns out, a bunch of people have mulled and remulled the five stages of climate grief long before me, including a Nobel laureate, a widely published California social worker and a blogger less than half my age.

 

In the interest of exploring new ground, let’s talk about how best to communicate with people in the throws of grieving a significant loss or change. I know what felt good to me after the double blows of losing both my parents in the same month. I also know what rankled and rewounded me, what sent me back to denial, anger bargaining and depression, and also what eased me toward acceptance.

 

I wonder how we might employ what’s known about communicating with the bereaved to reach the hearts and minds of a broad American populous that may be silently – and not so silently, as in the case of Rush Limbaugh – grieving the loss of climate as they have known, loved and depended on it. Firstly, we would benefit from taking into account their diminished state. Yes, even those entrenched in denial. Secondly, we may have better luck getting through if we approach them in some of the ways recommended by grief experts.

 

Helpguide.org offers a summary of what is, in my experience, some of the best advice. Here is a summary excerpt:

 

The bereaved struggle with many intense and frightening emotions, including depression, anger, and guilt.

 

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief does not always unfold in orderly, predictable stages. Everyone grieves differently, so avoid telling the bereaved what they “should” be feeling or doing.

 

Grief may involve extreme emotions and behaviors. Don’t judge them or take their grief reactions personally.

 

There is no set timetable for grieving. For many people, recovery after bereavement takes 18 to 24 months, but for others, the grieving process may be longer or shorter. Don’t pressure the bereaved to move on or make them feel like they’ve been grieving too long. This can actually slow their healing.

 

Almost everyone worries about what to say to people who are grieving. But knowing how to listen is much more important. Invite the grieving person to openly express his or her feelings.

 

Accept and acknowledge all feelings. Don’t try to reason with them over how they should or shouldn’t feel. The bereaved should feel free to express their feelings, without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.

 

Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss. Tell the bereaved that what they’re feeling is okay.

 

Continue your support over the long haul. Stay in touch with the grieving person, periodically checking in.

 

The pain of bereavement may never fully heal. Be sensitive to the fact that life may never feel the same.

 

We can’t write off anyone if we are going to meet our shared climate future prepared. If we are really a nation in climate grief, we can’t give up on our fellows who are stuck in denial or anger or bargaining. They will need time to grasp the loss of climate certainty, to really look at it, to finally see it, to accept it and to consider how they will continue to live life under profoundly and permanently changed circumstances.

 

I am not certain how to do this. Especially with climate deniers, as I grapple with my own anger and depression over their utter lack of acceptance. But I think it’s worth trying.

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