Ecogrief: my story

It’s hard to feel capable and empowered when you’re experiencing intense fear, anger, grief, or hopelessness because of climate change. Threats evoke the fight/flight reflex in us. I like to add one more “F” to that list: “freeze.” When threatened, a stress response floods our bodies with chemicals so we can rapidly assess the danger and then evade it by escaping or fighting. Or we get overwhelmed and freeze!

Climate change is not the kind of threat we can run from or engage in mortal combat. Nor can we stay frozen. We need to, above all else, THINK our way out of this danger.

To think, we have to be calm. To be calm, we need to learn how to cope with climate change-related feelings. They’re myriad, but we can call them, collectively, “ecogrief.” I’ve written two posts on managing them. The first, below, is my own story. The second is based on advice found on the net.

About three years ago, I went through a long period of paralysis due to climate change. I couldn’t listen to climate change-related news, or read anything about it, or face the concept of it at all! My mind did this weird flip-trick when I was exposed to climate change news, and presented to me the image of a mountain. An impenetrable mountain like in the Lord of the Rings. This was my brain’s idea of climate change: colossal, nasty, brutish, unapproachable, and dangerous. No doorway in, no craggy places to put in a climber’s hook, and no nice tour guide waiting to provide direction! Meanwhile my heart would race, my eyes spun, my mouth got dry, and I felt the urge to flee. Or vomit… the classic signs of panic.

My brain was telling me: you’re powerless in the face of this danger. BUT. One tiny part of me thought, “there HAS to be a way. I can’t be the only person feeling like this. There has to be a way to find someone else to freak out with!” I looked for environment groups online. I found two. The first one never got back to me! The second said, “we meet at the library next Tuesday at 7 PM.”

I went to that meeting and plunked myself down. I said, “Hi! I’m freaking out about climate change.” They said, “we get it.” I joined the group that evening. It wasn’t instant massive relief… the members were college instructors, and they were really busy. I wanted them to just tell me what to do! I learned that sometimes the “perfect” teachers don’t materialize. AND, to learn about something while developing resilience and competence, you have to drive yourself a bit, develop self-discipline. This is immensely difficult when you’re very afraid. BUT. (Another big but). Just knowing you’re not the only person scared is strengthening. Search until you find people to search with.

Then, after a year on a waiting list, I got a community garden plot. This was to be the beginning of a food and health renaissance. Growing my own food changed my life more than anything else. Find that post soon!

So I was learning from my “instructors,” and from my garden. I attended an ecogrief workshop. It was awesome. I did yoga for the first time. We were outside, and it started to rain lightly. A robin serenaded us. I took that as a sign of approval from the universe!

I joined Toastmasters. I figured one day, I might need public speaking skills- perhaps to educate people about climate change. I shared my passion for the environment and became my club’s only ecogrief sufferer! But they respected my view and feelings. Their acceptance helped me realize that I was carrying wounds from someone who had ridiculed my love for our planet. He’d humiliated me, calling me a “Gaia-worshipper.” I was learning that there can be hidden sides to climate change-related pain. That ecogrief is complex, and can include shame and grief from past events. I began telling myself over and over that it’s NATURAL to love our planet. To believe people are just PART of a miraculous web of life. To cherish our connection to our beautiful home.

I found myself brainstorming how I could educate the public and make taking care of our environment appealing and important to people. I started to see where the environment and politics intersect, and recognizing the importance of city governments to mitigation and adaptation. In just three years, I’d learned so much! I’d become part of a network of like-minded people. I’d started growing my own veggies and learning to preserve them. We were composting our food scraps, and going meatless a few times a week. We’d reduced our “wants” consumption considerably, and were trying to become “zero waste.” And I’d reclaimed my love for the earth.

And climate change had only gotten worse. BUT! (Last big but 🙂 )

The difference now was that I didn’t feel alone anymore. I KNEW I wasn’t alone. And I’d learned that transitioning to a green economy was not only possible, much of the work was done! Researchers have drawn up plans for our energy needs, and the technology exists. What stands in our way? The government! Only now I had some insights into WHY our governments are paralyzed. And I decided to do everything I could to break the deadlock.

I’d become a climate change activist! I bought a domain and wrestled with blog-related knowledge deficits and internet-avoidance syndrome! My domain went undeveloped for 8 months because I was so scared to invest a bunch of time and effort only to have the internet eat my work!

Long story short, what did I do to cope with my ecogrief? I reached out to other human beings. I connected, or semi-connected! But I kept showing up. I found compadres. And I armed myself with knowledge. Now I’m energized for the fight, knowing that we can adapt to climate change in a way that creates good jobs and a happier, healthier world.

A word for the introverts! I know some people are not joiners, and a lot of social time is draining. But it can get easier over time. I DO preserve my me-time; without it, I’m no good to anyone. Self-care, soul-care, time out of the fight… these are critical, and I WILL be posting about them.

So, although I do feel better, I know there’s sad times ahead. Our governments have screwed around for far too long. They have not even tried to counter the denial movement. So there are going to be problems, and the suffering will be borne disproportionately by the poor, elderly, young, and powerless. And that is NOT fair. But I can work in my small sphere of influence. I can work to increase my platform and use it for good. I can publicize what I know and do, and pray that those who need it will find it and use it. I can keep reaching out to people, now via digital tools that have a global reach.

And I can say to you: you are NOT alone. Find people who will listen to you and witness your pain and acknowledge it. Your feelings are natural and appropriate and necessary: they’re a message whose meaning is clear. I encourage you to be gentle with yourself, but listen to your emotions, heed their call. Climate change is a problem that requires input from all of us. No one person can beat it, but together we’re unstoppable. Together we can build communities that feed, house, and clothe everyone, and that are fair and just and healthy.

And you know what? We deserve that.