“Having a conscience now is a grief-soaked proposition.”
I used to think that grief is a very powerful emotion which visits us in times of loss, and then after varying amounts of time, depending on the degree of the loss, it would dissipate; and then we’d go back to ‘normal’. But a few years ago, I realised that there is a whole different way to relate to grief and that it is not something to necessarily get over.
I’m not talking about a personal loss – or rather in a bigger sense that is exactly what I’m talking about. It was in 2018 that the scale of the ecological and climate emergency and its escalating losses hit me. My first reactions were a mixture of shock, desperate concern, anxiety, angst, despair; and I wondered what was the matter with me. Then it dawned on me that underneath these feelings was unacknowledged grief which started to well up. I gradually let myself feel the grief and it was like the flood gates being opened.
I came to realise that this was my authentic response to the rolling catastrophe of our being well on the way to destroying the conditions on planet earth for much of life to exist. The grief stemmed from the love I have for this miraculous living world and all its precious inhabitants. The terrible sickening loss: of forests, of ecosystems, of abundant oceans, of spreading forest fires, droughts, air pollution, river pollution, extinctions of so many animals and plants. And people in the global South bearing the brunt of this destruction.
I came to realise that my experience was actually a very reasonable reaction to an ever spreading disaster and that there is no ‘getting over’ this grief. But how to live with this? We have rituals for mourning the loss of a relative or friend, but when species disappear or go extinct, and whole habitats vanish, we have no such rituals to process the loss.
I found paradoxically that by not trying to escape the grief that it actually enlivened me and humanised me in unexpected ways.
This is what I wrote at the time:
“My own approach has been to stay with the grief, and not try to get over it. It’s humbling and has its roots in love of creation, and it’s not oppositional. Far from having a paralysing and depressive effect, my experience is that eco grief softens the heart and frees me up. This is such a unique existential moment to awaken to, that it unmoors me from old certainties. How should I live in light of what I now know? Not that this predicament is anything we would ever wish for, yet in a certain way it is freeing as it throws into question my and our entire narratives. The emotional pain arises out of a dropping of the veil of seeing ourselves as separate from the world. I know that eco pain and grief is hard to bear yet I feel it is a key corrective to the conventional narrative of seeing ourselves as being outside nature, looking on as dispassionate observers. It opens the heart, with the emotional recognition of our complete interdependence with all life forms.”
Since then I’ve endeavoured to live with grief and find it to be quite a teacher. I don’t mean that I go around all the time consumed by grief, yet it has become part of my psychic makeup these days, often somewhere in the background. And to be clear, grief is actually not at all a disabling state; really it’s a capacity which we can learn to inhabit and develop.
As therapist and soul activist Francis Weller says,
“Grief is not a feeling, it is a capacity. It is not something that disables you; we are not on the receiving end of grief; we are on the practising end of grief.”
And grief is energising, contrary to popular notions. In Weller’s words again,
“Contrary to our fears, grief is suffused with life-force…. It is not a state of deadness or emotional flatness. Grief is alive, wild, untamed and cannot be domesticated. It resists the demands to remain passive and still. It is truly an emotion that rises from the soul.”
Grief is wild and feral and refuses to conform with the status quo. It can’t abide a life of numbness and smallness and breaks out in protest. It can undoubtedly be sometimes very painful to not cut off from the often dreadful news of environmental destruction and its dire effects on people and nature. And I completely appreciate how many people instinctively feel to either avoid it or alternatively be cynical about it all. That’s very understandable as the scale of grief once you open the doors can be quite overwhelming and unbearable. On one hand, you can certainly live a more contented life in this way, if you can manage to keep all this largely at bay. Yet I’ve noticed over the years in many interactions with colleagues and acquaintances that there’s a price for this cutting off. It inevitably leads to a degree of lack of aliveness, jadedness, lack of wonder, lack of awe, and a general dampened relationship with life, with everything.
For I’ve come to understand that love and grief are deeply interrelated. I realised that the flipside of my grief was the love I feel for the wondrous life-world we call our home.
Stephen Jenkinson, Canadian writer, teacher and grief literacy advocate, is one of the leading explorers and practitioners of grief. As he says,
“Loving and grieving are joined at the hip, for all the beauty, soul, and travail that brings. Grief is a way of loving what has slipped from view. Love is a way of grieving that which has not yet done so. Grief is a way of loving, love is a way of grieving. They need each other to be themselves.”
Another way that Jenkinson approaches this subject – and the one which particularly inspired me to write this piece – is his willingness to be heartbroken; and to name it, own it and to let it be fully present in his being. He says that heartbreak is not to be mistaken for depression or despair and that there is a skill to be learned in allowing our hearts to break.
And to make a place for heartbreak in our lives. I can now appreciate what he means from my experience over the last several years though up to that point I wouldn’t have named it as heartbreak.
Key for me and my sanity in this journey through grief has been action: whether by non-violent environmental activism, writing about our predicament, or doing anything which brings more alignment with this deep soul urge. We can only do what we can do and as to what the result will be, no one can predict. This for me is living in the uncertainty (yet aliveness) of neither being hopeful nor hopeless – which are two sides of the same coin.
“The realisation and the humbling power of knowing that life is not a human thing could go a long way toward making us human.”
Stephen Jenkinson, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul
You can read more of Chris Parish’s writings here