Covid Grief – Climate Grief?

Human Grief

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, 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)

Climate Grief

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. However, that is a form of grief that I wish to avoid and it would be mixed with feelings of hyper-guilt or culpability. 

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 late March 2021, nearly 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. If we are in climate grief now, what emotional response is open to us in a mass tragic future?

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)]

3 thoughts on “Covid Grief – Climate Grief?

  1. Dear Glenn Albrecht,
    Thanks for your work, both blog and books, which are bringing (at least to me but also to the people I explained it) a real hope, a real vision of how could Human society look like in the symbiocene.
    I am however confused with this article about grief, because in your words, I hear that working on a better future collectively and taking care on a personnal scale of a grieving process for what is lost (the ecosystems are dying if the climate is not) are not compatible… That makes me wonder. I think they just go together and I even think they feed each other. I cannot go on being an activist, working with other people against climate change without listening to my pain for the loss and mourning what´s dead.
    Thanks for your answer!

    Like

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response. Although a short note, my point about the devaluing of human grief when put into a climate context was based on a number of arguments. I felt these arguments reach a critical point when we see that Covid-19 has killed over 1.4 million people in horrible circumstances where human grief (mourning) at the death of loved ones has become a genuine public tragedy. Climate chaos has the potential to do such damage to humanity and all other non-human beings … but it has yet to do so. I feel that many people who are not yet touched by dangerous climate change will not respond well to the idea that the climate has died. We have evidence of mass death in humans from Covid, no evidence that the climate is dead. If you feel that such points were inadequate or just plain wrong, then please provide your counter-arguments. On the issue of listening to your own pain with respect to climate warming and what is already “dead” I agree fully. It is just for me, my ‘pain’ is converted into Earth anger (terrafurie), and (for me) it is a more appropriate response as it leads directly to the political action needed to address the cause of the problem. I listen and respond to my outrage and my anger, not my “grief”. I cannot go on being an activist without paying close attention to what remains (what still exists) and putting all my energy into saving, repairing and creating new opportunities for life to flourish. We both (hopefully) want to live in the Symbiocene, but due to differing personality, will get there in different ways. In order to stop emotional paralysis, I promote extantion celebration as well as fully engage in the politics of extinction rebellion.

      Like

  2. Thank you very much for your answer. I understand your point now and can only agree on that. I also think that we need everybody´s sensitivity and way of acting for creating this future we are dreaming of. Thank you again!

    Like

Comments are closed.