The Shape of Climate Grief

I posted my first story about the climate crisis four and a half years ago, a gentle, personal, scary—but not too scary story. Ninety-three posts have followed. I thought that I was writing the stories for you; to tap you on the shoulder, buoy your spirits, and move you to do something—anything to protect this one precious gift of life.

My stories grew out of conversations I had with everyday people.

Elizabeth, my seat mate on a train, was a gardener whose tomatoes never ripened (https://daviarivka.com/climates-not-really-my-thing/). Jim was a coal miner turned climate activist (https://daviarivka.com/climate-change-coal-country/) and my daughter Sarah, was hungry for some wild nature (https://daviarivka.com/cry-me-a-river/).

Week after week, month after month, I wrote. The more I wrote, the more the stories buoyed me, inspired me to action, like the story about Elke, a young woman who had just spoken with her member of Congress for the first time. (https://daviarivka.com/the-world-became-accessible-to-me/). Or the high school students in Washington DC, ready to take the reins. (https://daviarivka.com/i-almost-blew-it/).

Even so, the right and the left continued to argue. 

Extreme weather events multiplied and very little action was taken. Despair shrouded me and I started to curl in on myself and lose the ray of light that carried me forward knowing how perilously close we were to a certain tipping point.

And in the midst of that despair, my sister was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. When she died three months later something inside me cracked.

I was all grief.

I couldn’t take another climate step, make one more phone call to my rep, or write one more letter to the newspaper. I cried. And cried, about my sister, for the people who had lost their homes in fires, floods, hurricanes, for the dying trees and birds and animals. For immigrants and climate refugees. I cried for the baby in my apartment building who wouldn’t stop crying. I cried because we’d trashed the earth, trashed each other, because we’d failed each other.

I cried alone for all that has been lost, for all that we stand to lose.

I want—no I need to sit in community and cry. I am filled with grief. Climate grief. I need to mourn, to share this grief collectively and listen to others as they cry.

This is my climate work now. To sink deep into my body, mine the grief, let it break me wide open, soften me, tenderize my heart. I want to hear the trees crying through my arms, to feel the rivers slog through my body, to sense the sorrow of the earth in the marrow of my bones.

And I want, no I need to keep writing—for me.

9 comments on “The Shape of Climate Grief

  1. Braver than me, DD. I feel like if I sink down into my climate grief and allow myself to feel it fully, I just might not be able to get back up. XOXO

    • Lynate–I appreciate what you are saying about falling down the grief hole and getting stuck there. The grief is there, the earth is crying through our bodies. I think our best bet is to come together, sit in circle and wail. And trust that allowing our hearts to break open in that way will not drown us but instead lift us up, buoy us.

  2. I, too, cry intermittently, at the slightest provocation. I am sitting at my computer, reading a horrible article or watching a terrifying video, with tears streaming down my face. I try not to sob as it disturbs my husband. And I have lost no one. My grief is entirely for strangers, creatures, plants. And, of course, for the future of my children and grandchildren. In a way, I am now grieving in community with you, Davia. Thank you for that.

  3. You are a beautiful writer and a canary in the coal mine on this issue. Thank you for the courage you have to share your most intimate moments so that we can tap into our own. You write for me, too.

  4. Davia, my heart goes out to you. Much loss and grief and spinning out around us. Keep writing, scramble for faith, hold fast. You are in my thoughts.

  5. What a tale you weave. Cuts right to heart; my heart and to the matter at hand. I too grieve for humanity. A man just tonight lying in the middle of the sidewalk, covered in a warming blanket, seemed dead. His wheelchair close by and garbage strewn everywhere. I was so disturbed by this I felt helpless. No matter what I do to reduce my own carbon footprint, the carbon in the atmosphere keeps rising and I feel helpless.

    Thank you Davia, for your insight and ability to articulate it in your blogs. I so enjoy reading your stories.

  6. First off – I’m sorry for your loss, Davia. And I also think recognizing, accepting, embracing and letting grief flow through you is healthy and also a duty of sorts, to those in this world who got the short end of the stick – from your sister to people born – by chance – in less climate-resilient nations, in future (more climate change-impacted) generations, to less climate-culpable livelihoods and species, etc.

    Something like this hit me last August as well: I moved to Colorado for mountaineering activity access and in mid-August, I hiked out to Tyndall Glacier (coincidentally named for an early climate scientist and Irish mountaineer, John Tyndall) in Rocky Mountain National Park where I’ve skied many times before. I was having a “great day enroute to a personal record” of 5 laps when upon finishing one of them I came across some significant cracking. I investigated and assessed it was a form of calving, ie retreating that I’ve not previously noticed. The dichotomy of me having a grand ‘ol day while the glacier that made it possible was slowly dying was overwhelming.

    I don’t regret my pastime that day (we have to live our lives and enjoy what we can while being as responsible as we can, especially by voting), but at the same time it was important to embrace the despair vs simply looking away. This helps ensure I continue to focus on personal CO2 emission minimization (ie work toward 80% below average per capita to be in line with Paris) and leading a climate-focused life, which I consider moral imperatives.

    • Thank you for openly sharing your grief. I often feel sad when contemplating the future we’re leaving to young people and future generations. It really sucks.

      I recently listened to a TED talk with a powerful message. In “A love letter to realism in a time of Grief,” Mark Pollock and Simone George talk describe their experience of riding the river of grief. Mark was an extreme adventurer, a passion that he still pursued after he went blind at age 22. Then, 10 years later, when he fell out of a window, suffered a fractured spine and was left a paraplegic, he parleyed the strength of his unyielding spirit into walking again.

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