How to Understand and Cope with Climate Grief

Amanda Rebel, MA, LMFT, CYT on Dec 14, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Grief is normal. It is a normal response to a loss. The act of grieving is a natural way to process losing something or someone. It is important to do, important to feel, and important to understand. You can move through these feelings and come out on the other side — changed by the experience, yes — but destroyed by it, no.

Grieving the crisis-level change in our climate — be it globally, nationally, locally, culturally, individually — is normal. It is a normal response to an abnormal situation — the abnormal situation being the rapid change in weather and the consequences that follow. Experiencing grief around the loss of species, communities, people, cultures, and ways of doing things is nothing new, for oppressed groups have lived, and continue to live, this experience.

Perhaps it is those of us in privileged positions who are finally waking up to the disaster and the pain so many have already felt via the experience of climate grief. I see how my privilege extends to having the luxury of time and space to examine what hurts some of us and how to process it. For me, climate grief isn’t just about how to cope with change, loss, and the big feelings. It’s also about how to use this moment in time to honor and respect the pain and suffering of all people on this planet, past and present — and ultimately, how to make a "new normal" out of the climate crisis that benefits all humans. Because not everybody had it good prior to our weather patterns going rogue. And if our climate becomes dismantled, how about also dismantling lots of harmful systems as well? But I’ll save these ramblings for a different blog post...

Climate-related grief can show up in lots of ways for people. For some, it is sadness, which is the common emotion many associate with grief and loss. And yes, you may be feeling sadness about a lived experience, like the afternoon rain and thunderstorms that don’t happen as often anymore or the smoke-filled summer days that your child experiences so much more often than you did as a kid. It is sad. It’s a loss of familiarity, a loss of balance, and a loss of control.

Climate-related grief can also take many other forms in ways that do not include sadness.

Here are some emotions and behaviors people can experience as our climate continues to drastically change:

Depression and Anxiety: This includes feeling overwhelmed, helpless, hopeless, chronically worried, tired, guilty, and/or unable to stop thinking about information, pictures, videos, or lived experiences related to the climate crisis. These symptoms may also lead to pre-trauma or feeling traumatized.

Denial: Avoiding thinking or talking about it, ignoring the problem, discrediting science or reality, head-in-the-sand type response. This is often one of the early phases of climate grief and can go on for a long time (How long ago did An Inconvenient Truth come out?).

Anger: Impulsive actions, righteous indignation, justifying actions, blaming or demonizing others, feeling irritated all the time. With unacknowledged grief, emotions can come out sideways and not be directly aimed at the actual issue. For example, road rage. Is it really the driver in front of you that is bringing up all this anger? Probably not.

Defending: Putting a positive spin on everything, defending privilege, unrealistic thinking, token efforts, “toxic positivity.”

Self-Esteem and Lifestyle: Sleep disturbances, feeling victimized, self-criticism, feeling isolated from others.

Numbing/Addictions: When something feels unbearable or hopeless, self-medicating often comes to the rescue. Numbing activities such as substance use, binge-watching, over- or under-eating, scrolling, shopping, etc, can be ways to cope or self-regulate due to deep grief, fear, or trauma. Although helpful in the short-term, it isn’t a sustainable solution long-term.

So what should we do? Here are some ideas.

  • When you read the above information, what clicked with you? What do you relate to, or what have you experienced? Part of this grief process is understanding the concept of fluidity. Grief is non-linear. You might feel you are in a specific phase of grief; however, it is normal to bounce around the emotions and behaviors listed above. For example, one moment you might be angry at big business, another moment you might feel guilty you haven’t done enough to fight climate change, and another moment you might feel sad about the flooding affecting people somewhere.
  • Trust this process. Grief is natural, normal, and important. While elements of the climate crisis may feel impossible to bear, feelings do "move" and shift. That said, it is often very helpful to process your feelings with a person or group who gets it.
  • Can you remember a time in the past when you experienced a loss and came out on the other side? Remembering your strength and ability to navigate grief can help boost your confidence to turn towards pain rather than away from it.
  • Acknowledging and becoming more aware of the connection between climate grief and daily stressors is unique to the individual. For example, if you are working in the environmental field, you may be constantly swimming in bad news and dealing with a specific set of grief (and burnout) issues. For others, you may get hits of climate grief as you read an article and have different kinds of grief challenges. For some, you may be directly experiencing a weather-related disaster, and this brings yet another possible kind of grief issue. And for many, there is no time or mental space to address these climate grief nuances because living day-to-day is the most pressing need.
  • Know your limits. For many people I work with, climate-related issues exacerbate other mental health challenges or daily stress they already are dealing with. Figuring out ways to navigate the existential as well as the here-and-now often involves consciously setting limits around how much thinking or ruminating on the topic of climate is helpful.
  • Ask for help. As talked about earlier, feeling connected to another person or group who understands and empathizes with your feelings is important. As cliché as it sounds, there is no shame in asking for help, and you are not alone. It is courageous to seek out help, and it ultimately speaks to the love you have for something greater than yourself — Mother Earth.

For more information on how I can be of support, feel free to contact me here: [email protected]

Amanda Rebel is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Wheat Ridge, CO.
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