The stages of climate grief

By Rhiannon Gallagher

Let’s talk about climate grief for a bit. There are stages to every grief process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The challenge with this global grief is that we’re all going through it at different paces.

And while there are plenty of predatory deniers out there, most people, I think, are in the denial stage because they’re scared. Scared of getting kicked out of their circles, scared of losing their income, scared of acknowledging that their deity isn’t going to save them.

Seeing most of them this way helps me be merciful and kind. It means I’m not letting the toxicity of their stage of grief affect me in my stage of grief. It doesn’t mean that I don’t get angry, though. Anger is a valid and common stage of climate grief.

It can also be incredibly powerful. Angry people can rise up. Angry people can get stuff done. Angry people can organize. But it’s a tough emotion to live in, all day every day. And it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re fighting for when your vision is filled with your fury.

Bargaining is also a really common climate grief stage. Controlling what we can control: recycling, biking, giving up planes, giving up plastic, embracing local food, embracing veganism. It’s all good stuff, it’s all good action. But it’s also possible to lose yourself in it.

It’s possible to be so consumed with your own actions that you aren’t seeing the big picture, or taking action there. It’s possible to be really hard on yourself when you aren’t absolutely perfect at fulfilling your bargain.

It’s also possible to be so consumed with your bargain that you push people away who aren’t at the same level of commitment. You can lose some of your community. This can lead to feeling isolated and lonely, and send you into depression. 

Climate depression can result from the isolation. But there are so many reasons for it: hopelessness, uncertainty, powerlessness, frustration. It’s real, it’s valid, and if you’re in the stage, you have plenty of company.

Because the truth is that most of us, most of time, pulse between these three stages. We’re angry one day and frantically bargaining the next and sobbing at 3 am the next. We are facing the biggest challenge in human history, it’s not surprising that we’re overwhelmed.

We need to be kind to ourselves and to each other in these hard days. We need to accept that our emotions are going to pulse and turn and get twisted up, and that is a sign of how much compassion we have, how desperately we want to save this planet and the people on it.

And then, we need to find space between the pulses for the Acceptance stage of climate grief. We won’t be there every day, we need our rage and our bargaining and our sorrow too. But we can be there some days, and find a little peace.

Peace is expressing gratitude – like the Thank You Brigades when we thank scientists at  and  and . Peace is celebrating the science and the art that is teaching us about our planet even as its fragility is increasingly exposed. 

Peace is finding awe. Awe increases our dopamine levels, reminds us that this is an extraordinary planet we’re fighting for, and connects us, deeply, to the natural world. Awe is reawakening your toddler mind that can stare at a leaf for 10 minutes.

Awe is getting blown away by a flower on  Sunday, or the way the sun hits a lake, or the way a snowflake glides. Awe is watching waves and shooting stars and trees budding out.

Acceptance is also about positive action. It’s not all toil and sacrifice. It’s also about connection. Write a note to an African wildlife ranger through . Join a citizen science project on . Connect with your farmer, your park ranger, your neighbor.

Acceptance is about inspiration. Get to know the kids of . Follow and . Amplify the voices of the environmental justice movement, so when you pulse back into anger and you get out there to fight you understand and fight for the connections.

No one can live in acceptance all the time. But living there for a little while gives us strength, gives us hope, gives us inspiration and awe and gratitude that keep us going through the days we are in other phases. Climate grief is hard. But we’re not alone. 

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