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Ecological Grief

Ecological grief is becoming increasingly common as climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, and other environmental issues continue to impact our planet. 
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Written by grief counsellor, Abi Catchlove

Ecological Grief is a term used to describe the emotional response people feel ‘in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change

Source: Ellis & Cunsolo Report, 2018

People may experience ecological grief when they witness or learn about environmental events such as deforestation, habitat loss, the decline of certain species, and natural disasters such as floods, storms and bushfires. These events can tap into a vast array of emotions, including sadness, helplessness, anger, anxiety, and despair.  

Who is Most Affected by Ecological Grief? 

People who experience ecological grief are those who live and work closely within natural environments, often where the impacts of climate change are most felt. This includes farmers and Indigenous communities, as well as climate scientists and researchers who are privy to specialist knowledge of climate realities.

Additionally, in areas with increased risks of climate change impacts, coupled with already escalated social concerns; ecological grief is more likely. Furthermore, emergency responders, women, young people – particularly girls, and members of minority groups experience ecological grief at higher rates than other people.

Related: Bradshaw, Gardner, Gergis & Blashki Report, 2023

How People Experience Ecological Grief 

We may feel ecological grief for the physical loss of landscapes, species, and ecosystems – seen and unseen – directly due to climate change, especially evident after extreme weather events and disasters, as well as longer-term environmental changes.

The term ‘slow violence’ is attributed to the invisibility of these shifts, changes and losses over long periods, resulting in less urgent action. There is also grief over lost knowledge and identity in relation to lost land and life. 

Anticipatory grief can include both the fear and notion that we will lose something in the future, and, in regards to the climate, that these losses will continue at a greater rate beyond the present (Vince, 2020).

Related: How scientists are coping with ‘ecological grief’

For those who have experienced the direct impacts of climate change and then observed others suffering in similar ways around the world, it can trigger an empathetic understanding and, thus, deepen the ecological grief;

“This is a slow and cumulative grief without end – unlike a human death. There’s not one moment that you can pinpoint, but long, enduring grief and anxiety that’s underneath.”

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/12/how-scientists-are-coping-with-environmental-grief

Not only is anticipatory grief felt for future environmental changes, but the ambiguity in looming threats of losing cultural knowledge, income and lifestyles compounds the experiences of loss. 

Disenfranchised grief can be understood as a grief that is hidden, questioned or even stigmatised. Thus, in an ecological grief context, this is a grief response to ecological losses that fails to be acknowledged and may even be ‘entirely absent, in climate change narratives, policy and research’, furthering a sense of hopelessness. 
 

The Impact of Ecological Grief on Mental Health 

The Climate Council’s research has shown that younger people are more likely to be worried about climate change, with the national poll revealing that nearly a third of people aged 18-34 are “very worried”, particularly girls.  

Percentage of Australians who are very worried about climate change and extreme weather events. Source: YouGov poll, 2022.
Percentage of Australians who are very worried about climate change and extreme weather events. Source: YouGov poll, 2022.

First Nations communities are greatly affected by ecological grief due to the pre-existing disadvantages further compounded by climate change disasters. This can deepen the disconnection from the land and speaks to the multiplication of consequences of intergenerational losses of place and identity.  

Due to ongoing exposure, environmental scientists, emergency service workers and other first responders experience decreased mental health. It is important to note, that ‘grief and post-traumatic recovery can strengthen resolve and inspire scientific creativity’. 

How to Cope With Ecological Grief 

Emotions within grief, such as anger or despair, can be powerful forces of productivity. When seeking to cope with and respond to ecological grief, it can be helpful to explore proactive ways to protect the environment. This can include taking actions such as:  

Connect with Nature 

Slowing down and finding solace in nature by spending time on land or water can also be a powerful way to connect and find comfort in the face of ecological grief.  

Connect with Others

Solidarity with people who are also grieving ecological losses creates a sense of community and hope. Connecting with and listening to Indigenous wisdom that spans over thousands of years across cultures can inform us of nature’s resilience and adaptation towards healing.  

It can also be helpful to connect with others through online forums and support groups. Speaking to someone such as a trained grief and loss support volunteer on the Griefline Helpline may also help you to process and cope with the emotions associated with ecological grief.  

Ecological grief can be a difficult experience to navigate, but several strategies can help you cope with it. Remember, it’s important to be patient and compassionate with yourself. It is a process, and healing takes time. If you are finding it difficult to cope, you can seek support and care from a professional to help you manage your emotions and maintain your well-being. 

Third-party resources

Bob Brown Foundation: https://bobbrown.org.au/ 

Article references

Bradshaw, Gardner, Gergis & Blashki, 2023, https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/Report-Climate-Change-and-Mental-Health.pdf 

Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0092-2.epdf?author_access_token=UJYCnlw0zZieuYACw3AJQtRgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0MZ8cLxe72VDW0esMFb0zEFM26k9KCrjCPa-wqxJcwmMgcIei5y7ci3SN_gtpLunMy-I9r_Qst3A5V3rz96ScHSGy2dP3IB1DKK9qNem8yIrw%3D%3D 

Ellis & Cunsolo, 2018, https://theconversation.com/hope-and-mourning-in-the-anthropocene-understanding-ecological-grief-88630 

Sills, 2019, https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aay9077 

Vince, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/12/how-scientists-are-coping-with-environmental-grief 

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