During the Covid-19 pandemic, humans have had to confront one of the most profound circumstances of human grief. The grave sickness, then lonely death of many of our citizens in locked-down nursing homes, public places, alone at home or in isolation in intensive care units in hospitals have meant that the relatives and friends of the dying have not been able to be close to their loved ones in their last moments in life. Such bereavement is at the heart of the meaning of grief.
Further, the post-death period, especially for the relatives of deceased loved ones, has been an isolating and alienating experience. In many countries, during the worst of the pandemic, victims of Covid-19 have been taken to mass burial locations with no relatives in attendance. No mourning ceremony, no recognition of passage. No witnessing. Grief layered on grief … hyper-grief.
For many no proper grieving rituals or experience of the stages of grief have been possible. Even ‘acceptance’ is difficult in a context where planning, security and equipment inadequacies have made a Covid-19 death one that has been clouded with issues of culpability and negligence. Grief with no acceptance, even for the death of the frail-aged, is so intense it merges with the emotions of anger. From the NY Times:
“My dear friend is fighting for her life in the I.C.U. I want to scream from the mountaintop: “Don’t let your guard down!” She took care of my father for a decade, protected him from Covid-19 during the early days, and held his hand while he took his last breath at home. She has spent her entire life caring for others — she lies alone without the caring touch and reassurance of family and friends. We are grateful to the team who’s caring for her. I am so angry, I could scream. Instead, I stop and tell anyone who will listen.” (Jordana Simpson, New York City in the NYT March 2021).
The situation on India in May 2021 is now so bad that Arundhati Roy has diagnosed a response to Covid-19 that emerges, in part, from a culture of acceptance and self-blame. She laments, “How beautifully we have trained ourselves to meditate, to turn inward, to exorcise our fury as well as justify our inability to be egalitarian. How meekly we embrace our humiliation.” Her incendiary anger at the responsibility of government in the creation of this emergency takes the analysis beyond personal grief to one which is an “outright crime against humanity”.
It is perhaps a devaluation of the human concept of grief to apply it to the realm of the climate as “climate grief”. Unlike human-to-human relationships, the climate is not a person, it does not suffer and die. It has no close relatives that miss the physical contact and everyday communication that humans have before death takes away that intimate contact. As the climate changes, there may be new forms of distress and sadness, but there can be no bereavement.
The need for novel concepts for our emotions is driven by the emergence of new contexts where our older emotional choreography no longer applies. People who personally experience profound negative change in their home environments struggle to give expression to what they are feeling. As Pete Muller reports on the solastalgic experience of a woman in Louisiana USA:
For those who endure the trauma of losing a landscape, the emotions can be wrenching to express. “The pain of losing a land is totally different than any other pain, because it is difficult to share,” Chantel Comardelle tells me when I visit her community on the coast of Louisiana, where the sea is rising at an alarming rate and flooding the land. Comardelle was born on Isle de Jean Charles, a dwindling island that has lost 98 percent of its land since 1955. During her parents’ generation, the island’s mostly Native American inhabitants hunted and farmed. Now many families have left. The community has fractured. “It’s not like losing a loved one or something that other people easily understand,” she says.
I suggest that those who see the appropriate emotional response to climate change as a form of grieving are evading the critical issue of mitigation of our carbon problem. By fixating on grief and its supposed impact on people in the context of contemporary climate change, there is an individualizing and internalizing tendency that can be seen as part of an attempted therapeutic response.
In order to prevent chronic climate ‘change’ becoming deadly climate chaos, I suggest that grief gets in the way of what I see as more effective emotional responses, positive responses that focus on the structural causes of the dilemma, not the impacts on the self. Emotions that rebel against the possibility of death and extinction must now be openly expressed.
As with Covid-19, anger about the negligence and immorality of those responsible for the causes of climate change might bring about more effective mitigation. Should such mitigation fail, then hyper-grief at the suffering and death of billions of people in the future, should runaway climate change take place, would be an appropriate human emotional response. If we are in climate grief now, what emotional response is open to us in a mass tragic future? Do we have a word for something that goes beyond even hyper-grief?
A constructive emotional response, is to see climate change as a priority issue that climate science tells us can, in principle, be mitigated. It is an ongoing problem with collective global dimensions requiring collective responses. There is a timetable for the de-carbonization of our economies and lifestyles that, if followed, enable us to avoid catastrophic climate chaos. Political delay or denial in mitigation and implementation of such plans can and should be met with Earth-anger (terrafurie) as it guarantees a worsening of the conditions that could cause misery and death in humans world-wide.
Covid-19 has, unfortunately, provided humanity with a powerful, public and private experience of grief, as, by early May 2021, over three million people world-wide have died tragic deaths due to the pandemic. Climate warming is also a public experience but it lacks, at this moment in time, the key dimensions for the expression of profound grief … mass death of humans or mass loss of biodiversity.
Our task, as living humans with an eye on the future for our descendants is to make sure we create the conditions where mass death of humans and other life forms due to climate chaos does not take place. That task, right now, is an urgent one requiring soliphilia or political commitment, not grief.
[Aerial view of Covid-19 victims in coffins in mass graves in Brazil (Image: AFP via Getty Images)]