Filip Zrnzević via Unsplash

Sept. 19, 2023

Eco-grief: How to cope with the emotional impacts of climate change

Mental health another side effect of environmental degradation

Wildfires, flooding, extreme heat. It seems like every day there’s a looming — or in-progress —climate catastrophe somewhere in the world or close to home.

As a result, many people are increasingly finding themselves more aware of a form of grief or anxiety related to worries about climate change and the state of the world’s environment. 

Known as climate anxiety and ecological grief, or “eco-grief,” these strong feelings can have a negative impact on mental health, especially when current events such as a global pandemic, a natural or climate-change disaster occur.

A two-part UFlourish event organized by the Office of Sustainability aimed to raise awareness of how sustainability and mental health can intersect, exploring tools and resources to cope with and address feelings of ecological grief. The event was led by community facilitator and founder of Refugia Retreats, Jodi Lammiman, and co-facilitated by Alana-Dawn Eirikson, MSW’18, of UCalgary’s Office of Sustainability.

Eco-grief defined

Facing the realities of forest fires, extreme weather events, pollution and other forms of environmental degradation can be a daunting task.

“It’s easy to feel totally overwhelmed. Maybe a bit helpless, powerless, angry, on fire, numb, disconnected. Perhaps all the above,” said internationally noted climate psychologist, Dr. Renée Lertzman, PhD, in her 2019 TED Talk, How to Turn Climate Anxiety into Action, which was shown at a previous UFlourish event on eco-grief. However, Lertzman stressed, it is normal to not feel 100 per cent because “these messy and complicated feelings make total sense.”

When facilitator Jodi Lammiman starts her eco-grief and climate anxiety workshops, she begins with defining the terms. Having language, she says, can help us connect to our own experience and find other like-minded people. 

Lammiman thinks eco-grief and climate anxiety have similarities to other forms of grief. They’re “emotional responses to being in connection with the natural environment,” she says. “Grief just shows us what we love and reminds us of our connections.” 

Like other forms of grief, people experiencing these feelings may feel physical and physiological responses to the loss or experience shifts in their world view. Recognizing and dealing with these emotions is important, Lammiman says.

“Bypassing grief makes us feel further isolated and further from community, further from the natural world,” she says. Community is really important, she adds, because this grief can layer and “snowball” — especially if we’re in environments that don’t validate our feelings. 

The Alberta context 

Lammiman uses writer Kenneth Doka’s coined phrase, disenfranchised grief, to understand climate anxiety and eco-grief. In addition to living in what is sometimes known as a death-denying society, living anywhere with heavy resource extraction, Lammiman says, can add to the feeling of disenfranchised grief (defined as anything that isn’t socially sanctioned or validated). 

“Living in Alberta, it often isn’t socially sanctioned to grieve the things we’re losing,” she says. Thus, it becomes even more important for those experiencing this type of grief to have community spaces. “We feel less alone when our feelings are validated and where we can reconnect to that sense of love we have for the world.” 

Lammiman says that many people she encounters, including herself, don’t always feel safe or feel the permission to talk about these emotions. 

“When we live in a place this polarized, it feels like we have to carry these feelings of grief with us … because conversations can get so black and white,” she says. There’s a perception, Lammiman says, that if we “benefit” from resource extraction, we can’t feel these losses.

But it’s not one or the other; hopefully, she says, “By opening up spaces for these conversations, we give ourselves permission to grieve.”

To better cope with these feelings, Lammiman recommends the following tools and resources: 

Ways to cope with eco-grief

  1. Connection to community

Validation that you are not alone in experiencing these complex emotions can be beneficial. Lammiman suggests connecting to friends, family, spiritual supports and peer communities. There are also many eco-grief circles that organize over Facebook. You can email if you need help finding one.

For UCalgary students looking to find like-minded peers, consider joining a student club like the University of Calgary Eco Club and Sustainable Development Goals Alliance. UCalgary community members can also consider volunteering with the Office of Sustainability.

There are also several local and online support groups. 

  • Work That Reconnects YYC is a free local meet-up group that discusses ecology, peace and justice. It’s based around activist and writer Joanna Macy’s work. Lammiman, a trained facilitator on Macy’s work, also references Macy’s co-authored books, Active Hope and Coming Back to Life for further reading.
  • The Calgary-based Good Grief program focuses on connecting with nature to cope with other forms of grief. 
  • The Good Grief Network is a non-profit organization that provides social and emotional support in the face of climate change and offers a series of digital meetings, online courses and other resources.
  1. Incorporate ritual and practice

Starting a regular practice, whether done alone or in community, can support feelings of sorrow or grief, says Lammiman. “Lament rituals” for example, are extremely old and very human methods for healing. They include writing, photography, singing and visual arts. It’s a way of capturing your emotions as they flow through you. 

  1. Focus on what you can control

Action can inspire a sense of hope and help us feel less helpless. Find something you feel comfortable acting upon. This could be sending a monthly donation to a climate action group, writing a letter to your MLA or MP, or signing a petition.

Finding ways to support your local community through volunteering for a community garden not only can provide an additional support network, but also helps build identity, both of which are known protective factors in mental well-being. All of these actions count and may relieve feelings of helplessness.

  1. Find solace in natural spaces

Mental health restoration through natural environments has been an area of study for environmental psychologists. Studies have shown that tending to an outdoor garden (your own or a community garden) or taking a walk in a natural environment can have positive impacts on well-being.

  1. It’s OK to seek clinical support, if needed

If eco-grief or climate anxiety cause significant distress and interferes with parts of life, Lammiman suggests seeking out professional support in addition to the previous practices. 

She also knows of Calgary-based practising registered social workers and psychologists supporting eco-grief and climate anxiety. Lammiman is happy to connect those interested to services or suggests anyone using a central service or directory to search or ask for climate-aware counselling.

This article is a refresh of an original piece that ran after an Office of Sustainability eco-grief event during UFlourish in October 2020. 

UFlourish is supported by the Campus Mental Health Strategy and hosted by Student Wellness Services and Staff Wellness. Expand your wellness tool kit and connect with peers every fall. Stay tuned to the UFlourish website or sign-up to be notified of program and event updates. Learn more about the two-part eco-grief and climate anxiety series here.

Refugia is a collective that creates spaces for people to explore the psychological impacts of climate change. It offers retreats, workshops and a community of practice. Founder Jodi Lammiman also provides eco-spiritual support for climate grief and anxiety as a spiritual director.

UCalgary’s Institutional Sustainability Strategy provides a road map for continuous improvement in our pursuit of excellence and leadership in sustainability. UCalgary aims to be a Canadian post-secondary education leader in sustainability in its academic and engagement programs, administrative and operational practices, and through supporting community and industry in their aims for leadership in sustainability. Learn more about UCalgary’s leadership in sustainability.

For information on resources available on campus, check out UCalgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy’s Get Support web page. The strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of the university family. UCalgary’s vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential.  

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