Grief and Climate Change


Picture Credit: Judy Chicago, Depression - Used with Permission from Artist

by Susan de-Gaia | February 2020

Awareness is increasing about just how much humans are grieving the losses that result from the climate crisis. In seeking to understand grief and climate change, I like to begin with a clear sense of the reality of death and some of the ways humans react to a death in the human family, and then expand upon these experiences of loss and grief by applying them to the current climate crisis. 

"Grief… happens upon you, it’s bigger than you. . .  And when it comes, it’s a bow-down. It’s a carve-out. And it comes when it wants to, and it carves you out — it comes in the middle of the night, comes in the middle of the day, comes in the middle of a meeting, comes in the middle of a meal. It arrives — it’s this tremendously forceful arrival and it cannot be resisted without you suffering more." Elizabeth Gilbert (Ted Interview)

Grief and Loss

Some of us are more familiar with loss than others. Older people in general have had more experience, but those who live through wars, disasters, who suffer repeated social trauma, or who live in high crime areas experience more loss. It’s important to recognize that loss happens in life as well as in death. The loss of one’s mother, spouse, or child is very hard. The loss of one’s sight, hearing, or sense of identity can be equally or even more painful.

Grief happens as a result of loss. Like physical pain, emotional pain is a subjective experience. It is true that all human beings are subject to grief at some point in their lives. But, while we can have an idea of what another’s grief is like, each person’s experience is unique.

Despite our inability to truly experience another’s pain, there are patterns and factors that may aid our understanding. These include the circumstances of loss, such as whether or not the death was expected, the degree of attachment to the one who has died, and the relationship between the survivor and the deceased — such as whether there are unresolved issues or unfinished business.

Grief can be profound or mild or any level in between. One way to further grasp this thing called grief is to explore it with words and images. Do a google search of Kathe Kollwitz and click on the images tab. Another image is Judy Chicago's "Depression." Consider what feelings these images evoke?

Grief knocks us off our feet. Or, as Elizabeth Gilbert says, it “carves you out.” When one first learns of the death of a loved one, a common reaction is physical collapse. The need to rest in bed after a loss isn’t always about wanting to be alone. It can be due physical weakness as a symptom of grief. There may be other physical symptoms as well, such as difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, or tightness in the chest or throat.  There is also a mental or cognitive component to grief. One may experience anxiety, tension, confusion, even disbelief. One may have dreams and psychic experiences of the deceased person’s presence. Other experiences may include outrage at injustice, anguish, pining, guilt, or anger.

All of these elements of grief in the human experience can be applied to what we are now experiencing in connection with the climate crisis.

Loss in Nature: Special Considerations

There are a few things to consider in linking grief in the experience of loss to grief over the climate crisis. 

Considering death and grief leads us to questions about the nature of human life and what happens after death. Examples are whether or not the soul can leave the body upon death and if death is final or if there is another existence after death. Science provides us with a way to stay grounded in what we know about life on earth.

Statements such as “we will meet again in a better place” are comforting to some (but not to others). But it is important in considering grief and climate change to focus on death as biological fact. We are currently dealing with loss of nonhuman species and ecosystems, and we face the potential destruction of all life on earth if humankind fails to act. In this context, staying grounded in the physical realities of life and death is important. It is on earth that our descendants will live and either thrive or suffer the unimaginable event of extinction.

One factor affecting the grief experience is when complications arise. For example, when a person feels like they didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, it can have an impact on the grieving process. Or when there is guilt related to the death. These factors can result in complicated grief. Because the climate crisis is caused by human activity and behavior, our reaction to this crisis is bound to be complicated.    


Grief is a process, and with only a few exceptions, it comes to a resolution. Coping with grief and going through it is a healing process.

We often think of loss as alienating. In some cultures, self-isolation is considered appropriate during grief. But grief can also bring people together. When news of a death gets out, the bereaved may find joy in discovering how much of an impact their deceased loved one had on others. A memorial or other shared event that is open to all who cared for the deceased can be a unifying experience and can increase one’s sense of belonging.

Healing after loss implies a distinction between the living and the dead. Death is a barrier that the living cannot cross. In order to heal, we must learn to reinvest our energy elsewhere. We can apply this to the climate crisis: facing the loss of numerous species, we must grieve and then move on, reinvesting our energy in protecting as many of the species that remain as possible.

In order to heal from climate related grief, we must act. Few of us can do this alone. This is why it is so important to come together in as many ways as possible. We need to come together and acknowledge our shared grief. We need to come together to give recognition and tribute to the beloved earth and species we are faced with losing. We need to come together and remember those species and ecosystems already lost. We need, most of all, to come together and support each other to move forward pro-actively. 

 About the Writer:

Susan de Gaia earned her Ph.D. in Religion and Social Ethics at the University of Southern California. She has designed and taught courses for California State University, including Science and Conscience, Religion and Society, Comparative Religions, Writing, and Literature. She is editor of the Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions: Faith and Culture Across History (ABC-CLIO 2018/19).

Susan currently serves as adjunct instructor at Central Michigan University, where she has taught Death and Dying online for the last six years. Students have often commented on this course as an exemplary and life-changing experience.

Susan also serves as an ambassador to the Charter for Compassion Environment Sector and facilitates courses in Compassionate Integrity Training.

Susan de Gaia will be introducing her course, Death and Dying: Grief and Climate Change, through the Charter for Compassion beginning March 16, 2020. The course will be held over 4 weeks at a cost of $30 US. You can learn more about the course and register here!

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