ECO-ANXIOUS STORY

Grief and all her friends
Featuring: Rachel Malena-Chan
April 5, 2024

When grief comes visiting

Over the past few months, I’ve been visited often by grief and all her friends. January was always going to be a hard month – grieving and celebrating what would have been my Mom’s 70th birthday. Then moving into February, making space to sit again with grief and embrace the waves of emotion surrounding the 2nd anniversary of her sudden and unexpected death.

I’ve been seeing a grief counsellor lately who has helped me prepare for these “big visits” from grief. It’s been a hard couple of years, and this year, for the anniversary, I wanted to be intentional about making space for whatever might come up. I took a couple days off work, planned some activities, rounded up some snacks and a puzzle (the one I did with my Mom when she stayed with me after knee surgery a few years back). I let my close friends and loved ones know what I’d be up to. Preparing like this helped me to sink into grief’s presence and attend to her needs.

The truth is, there were many grief-worthy days this season. A tangled web of personal and political struggles. I was talking to my sister Beth recently, on a day of particularly horrendous news from Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. She shared with me:

“Weeping here on the couch. I don’t know how people can continue to ignore this. I know my own grief this month is getting caught up in this too. Feels like just a cycle between anxiety and grief.”

I sent back:

“In some ways it feels more like eco-anxiety, where it’s almost like a veil is being lifted and I’m grieving the idea of a world built on these shared values, when it never really existed. In other ways it feel like grieving Mom, where there’s this inherent wrongness and seemingly preventable suffering that you just can’t accept.”

 

Then in March, I found out about the sudden loss of a dear old friend, someone who I was really close with in high school. As a key figure in my world during those formative teenage years, Chris had a tangible influence on personal trajectory. He even helped to spark my lifelong love for storytelling when we co-directed an ambitious original one-act play in grade 12. His memorial service was full of old friends swapping memories of Chris’ antics and adventures. It made me feel lucky. And sad. And fragile. 

The nuances of how it feels to live, to lose those we love, to watch genocide and ecocide unfold – these are phenomena that are worth naming. As painful as they may be to experience, I want to hold space for the unique features of these meaningful experiences.

 

Types of grief

Eco-anxiety researcher (and EAS contributor) Panu Pihkala published a new paper a couple of month’s ago detailing a range of grief experiences under the “eco” umbrella. Each concept of grief was given the spotlight in a series of posts on Panu’s social channels.

A number of them resonated with me as I’ve moved through the last season. Here are a few snippits from Panu’s posts:

 

Transitional grief

We need to mourn what is left behind, and give space to what comes. Renewal is possible, although difficult.”

Shattered dreams

“It is difficult to face the fracturing of so many dreams. After all, most of the current economies and societies have been built on dreams which have been now fractured; dreams of material wealth, dreams of progress, and so on.”

Chronic sorrow

“Are there ways to move forward from chronic sorrow in relation to the ecological crisis? My own answer would include two parts. First, “grief will be our companion” for at least a very long time, as geographer Leslie Head puts it. Second, there are ways to learn to live with sadness-related emotions in a way where the ubiquitous triggers do not put oneself off balance (at least not so often). That amounts to a kind of “existential resilience” or simply an ability to let the feelings flow and experience meaning while trying to do one’s own part in caring for the world.”

Reflecting on Panu’s words makes me think that by giving room for the full complexity of our eco-emotions (and our emotions in general), we give ourselves a better chance to build this existential resilience. Ignoring or oversimplifying these experiences won’t help us create communities of care around them.

Stop storytelling (sometimes)

I don’t know what you’re feeling today. Perhaps you are seeing the world through new eyes this season, with a clearer sense of solidarity, strength, and commitment to your community. Perhaps you are feeling betrayed and angry, sad to witness a time of such turmoil and transition. You can often find me talking about the power of story and the value of organizing our ideas of ‘self, us, and now’ with a cohesive, mobilizing narrative. But sometimes you have to stop storytelling. Sometimes you have to stop trying to explain it and just feel it.

I’m quite new to somatic therapy, but the handful of sessions I’ve had with my grief counsellor were transformative. It makes me all the more interested in work by people like Selin, combining somatic approaches with climate conversations and social justice values. What I’ve learned already this year is that it makes a difference when I actually listen to my body and the messages my emotions are telling me. They don’t always have to make sense or fit into a tidy narrative box. I think it’s more about letting my nervous system get my attention – tuning in for a moment letting the feeling resonate in my body for a moment without trying to rationalize it or change it.

I’ve found that by making room for these visits from grief and all her friends – friends like anger, frustration, guilt, motivation, gratitude, and yes, anxiety –  they stop feeling so unwelcome, and I have an easier time sitting with them and learning from them. I don’t feel ashamed in their presence anymore.

What’s visiting you lately?