The Zeitgeist of Grief

Grief Rituals Credit: Molly Costello (link below)

Tolstoy believed that every generation has a zeitgeist – an emotion that acts as the unspoken guiding force of a time in history.


^Lane Patriquin reads their piece as part of Geez Out Loud. The audio is an exact reading of the written article.

For those of us coming of age in the climate-changed world of late-capitalism, it could be said that the predominant guiding force of our generation is grief.

With the news media surrounding us every day, we are steeped in images of grief. Whales washing up on shores with stomachs full of plastic. Pollinators dying off. Climate change records surpassed decades before predicted, and neo-fascist governments suppressing environmental conservation efforts around the world.

For those whose lives are more directly impacted by climate change and those engaged in the struggle for climate justice, grief becomes the psychic background noise of our work. “Eco-grief” is a recently coined term for the emotional and psychological responses associated with environmental degradation.

Grief is not something that is often discussed in activist circles. Acknowledging feelings of hopelessness can be interpreted as a form of defeatism in a time when we are in critical need of direct action. But grief is something that deeply affects our physical and mental health, whether we acknowledge it or not.

After spending years in cycles of hyperactivity followed by emotional burnout, watching the mental health of those around me deteriorate, and losing a close friend and fellow activist to suicide, I came to realize that continuing on as if the world wasn’t (sometimes literally) burning is not a sustainable long-term strategy. In fact, trying to continue “business as usual” requires a level of cognitive dissonance that can make the burden of grief even harder to manage.

Furthermore, when we choose to curb our emotional lives towards only what brings us pleasure, we risk flattening our spectrum of experience and limiting our opportunities for growth. Negative emotions can have important lessons to teach us when we are able to honour them. A period of depression can be a time of relinquishment, of letting go of that which no longer serves us. Science has even suggested that depression has some adaptive benefits, conserving energy in situations where we are not capable of effective action.
Even hopelessness can serve a purpose, for there are some things it is healthier not to hope for. In her book On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross explains that when family members continue to hope for the recovery of a patient who is terminally ill, this form of hope can actually be damaging, because it prevents them from accepting the situation as it is. Likewise, it is no longer reasonable for us to hope for a sudden end to environmental degradation. We must move through the hopelessness of admitting what parts of this we can no longer change in order to find new hope in what we can.

By using a grief framework for understanding climate despair, we acknowledge that the Earth and all the creatures upon it are beings that we are connected to, and that the destruction of our natural environment elicits similar responses to the loss of other key relationships. And because we are also a part of the Earth and cannot survive without the intricate web of relations that sustains us, part of eco-grief also involves having to confront our own mortality and that of our loved ones.

While our species may not go extinct, the empire we are currently living under will. Coming near to death is often a time of reflection, where we look back on the decisions we’ve made, our achievements, and regrets. To help alleviate anxiety at the end of life, we are encouraged to make arrangements for our deaths, both practically and spiritually – by reconciling conflicts, repairing relationships, saying things we’ve left unsaid, and finishing things we’ve left undone. A good death is often seen as one where someone has completed the narrative of their life and resolved outstanding tensions. Now is a pivotal time for us to think about how we can make radical change in our culture, with hope that the imminence of collapse may act as a further impetus to reconcile long-standing conflicts.

In his paper “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy,” Jem Bendell challenges us to evaluate our lives and our movements from a perspective which fully appreciates the severity of the crisis we are in. In order to live in a climate-changed world, “Deep Adaptation” suggests turning to the three R’s: Resilience, Relinquishment, and Restoration. What about our societies do we wish to retain, what do we need to relinquish, and to what past ways of living do we need to return?

The forces that brought us here – colonialism, resource extraction, and capital accumulation – have been deteriorating the health of the Earth for thousands of years, and they have also obscured our ability to live meaningful lives in good relations with one another. If, as communities or whole societies, we were able to move through the process of self-reflection brought about by despair, we might be empowered to take new action to do away with these forms of oppression, so that we could have the hope of living on this Earth in justice, and find deeper meaning in the forms of life that remain.

Holding eco-grief circles, participating in ceremony, renewing our relationships to our ancestors, engaging in direct action to manifest climate justice and Indigenous sovereignty, and caring for the land as a communal activity are all ways in which we can start to build grief processing and resiliency into our communities. It is important in these alienating times that we remind ourselves that we are not autonomous beings, but that we are cellular participants in the larger organisms of family, community, humanity, and creation.
If we are going to move through despair to find hope for the future, it will only be through forging and renewing deep, vulnerable, joyful relationships with other people and with creation, and taking on this work together.

Lane Patriquin is an artist and a climate justice and trans liberation activist living in rural Ontario. They facilitate transgender community groups and anti-oppression workshops for churches and rural communities.

Image credit: “Grief Rituals,” 2018, cut paper illustration, 11×14, Molly Costello, mollycostello.com.

Issue 54

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 54, Fall 2019, Climate Justice.

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