What is Ecological Grief?

By Amy Spark

The trees outside my window as a child shaped my view of the world (both literally and figuratively). I could observe the seasonal changes from my bedroom window. These trees brought me joy, adventure, and comfort. My friends and I would need a ladder just to climb up to the bottom branch, where we would scramble to the heavens. In fall, we would write notes on leaves and roll them into a scroll, tying them closed with the stem, and deposit them into our neighbours’ mailboxes. In winter, the sounds of road hockey would reverberate off their trunks.

One day someone mentioned offhand that “the City” may have to come and chop them down someday, as they were growing too large. From that day, I had a deep-rooted anxiety that my beloved trees would be there one day, gone the next.

Part of the reason Jodi and I started Refugia Retreats was to explore these connections between the self, our natural world, and our communities. How can our communities grow stronger and our connections deeper, as the world changes? We think part of it starts with acknowledging the deep-rooted connections to landscapes and places we all share (and yet experience differently).

Subtle or drastic changes in the environment and ecology around us can have drastic effects on our emotional wellbeing. This applies to natural environments such as parks, green spaces, or individual organisms (for which I use the term ‘ecological grief’) and human-constructed environments such as neighbourhoods, coffee shops, museums, etc. (‘environmental grief’).

Sarah Jaquette Ray, a Professor of Environmental Studies at Humboldt State University, describes environmental programs as “some kind of twelve-step program, with its own arc of affects, moving in stages from idealism, to lost innocence, shame, denial, grief, apathy, optimism, and then, I can only hope, agency to work against diminution.”[1] When one is passionate about a certain place, species, community, friend, or family – it is natural to have anxiety about their decline, and grief for its loss. 

In 2016, I had the opportunity to work with citizens of the Ghost River Valley, to explore and record their emotional responses to the changes in landscape around them. Lasting effects from the 2013 flood were apparent, clearcut logging was ongoing, and garbage was piling up beside roadways. What follows is a summary of my research: the similarities and differences between ecological grief and other forms of grief. These observations were made within a system (a case study), but I hope they are helpful if you are experiencing grief or anxiety yourself.

Is ecological grief real? Can you really mourn a landscape?

In short, yes. Responses to landscape alteration look surprisingly like patterns of grief identified by psychologists. Let’s break it down:  

1.       Everyone’s experience is unique

No two people experience a loss in the same way, and the same person may experience two losses drastically differently. This was true in the Valley – some people moved through the classic “5 stages of loss” identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. More often however, grief was sporadic: sometimes visceral, sometimes manageable, sometimes anger, sometimes contentment and acceptance.

2.       There are physical and physiological responses to loss

Loss of sleep, depression, crying, loss of breath, nausea, inattention or distraction, and aches in the heart or stomach are all physical reactions to loss. All of these were present in at least some of the people affected by the landscape changes.

3.       Rites of passage, lamentation, and bereavement groups can help

Several ceremonies were held in the Ghost River Valley to help cope with this loss (see our May 2017 blog post as an example). Participants mentioned talking about their experiences in community often helped them cope. Other forms of lament included art (writing, photography, etc.) and ritualizing loss (ex: cairn of mourning).

4.       There’s a strong presence of blame or guilt

Rational or irrational guilt or blame is common during grief. Anger at the person who died, anger at doctors, anger at oneself for not doing more before a person died. As you can imagine, in a system with multiple actors (industry, government, citizens, etc.) blame and guilt can fester. The guilt or blame doesn’t even need to be targeted – it can be obscure or diffuse. One participant put it as “What’s wrong with us? … Where does it come from, this hubristic disregard for the sanctity of the natural world?”.

In environmental change, we’re all to blame, and yet none of us individually are to blame. Environmental degradation is most often a result of a thousand small decisions, rather than few large decisions. So to look for a easy target of blame is understandable, but difficult.

5.       These experiences can cause shifts in worldview

Any large life event can shift one’s perception of the world. Environmental change is no different. For some, it creates cynicism. Sarah Jaquette Ray’s students, for example, move from idealism to denial to hope or despair. One Valley resident summarized their change as “all of a sudden I’m like struggling with these big questions… My personality changed… I have shifted from a cold person that only deals in facts to somebody… very different.”

6.       Current losses can bring forth losses from the past

Perhaps the most confusing and surprising part of grief is it can muddle our timelines. The loss of someone dear to us can bring forth losses that happened decades ago. That’s because no one exists in a vacuum – people and places influence others – often in ways we don’t truly understand until they’re gone. Memory and place are intricately connected. When a landscape changes, the relationship with others may change too. Perhaps you used to go for walks in a park near your house with a friend. If that park changes, will the relationship with your friend change too? On the other hand, current losses can actually help people grieve previous losses. Connecting with her local community around clearcut logging helped one participant grieve the loss of her father a few years before.

7.       Often, these experiences inspire action and a sense of hope

Dr. Kübler-Ross initially developed the 5-stage loss framework when working with people with terminal illness. What she recorded (and later applied more broadly to other forms of loss) was a framework of people grappling with their own death. What is interesting is even despite a terminal prognosis, each and every patient that Kübler-Ross encountered held onto some notion of hope[2]. Environmental degradation inspires similar sentiments of complex hope: nature will rebound, and we will learn from our mistakes and do better. For we only grieve what we love, and we work to protect what we love.

 

Is ecological grief the same as other forms of grief?

Absolutely not. As mentioned above, all forms of grief are unique. Ecological grief is particularly enigmatic for a few reasons:  

1.       Dull vs. sharp grief

Unlike the death of a person or clearcut logging event, the degradation of a landscape is often cumulative: increased litter, more disjointed spaces, less birds each year, etc. What I refer to as ‘dull’ grief are the day-in, day-out experiences, aggravations, and worries that come from living in an ecologically unstable world. ‘Sharp’ grief may occur after a specific event: a development, a flood, or a smoke-filled summer. It’s possible for ‘dull’ grief to wear you down, and ‘sharp’ grief to inspire you to action, or vice versa. 

2.       Simultaneous grief with anticipatory grief

When I lost my nana several years ago, I didn’t grieve her. And there was a lot of guilt around that (see point 4, above). When I discovered the term ‘anticipatory grief’, I understood why. My nana was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and had a slow decline. Over the years, she lost her bright personality and became confused, frustrated, and short-tempered – all the things she wasn’t. The reason her physical death left me more empty than sad was I had grieved her five years previously. You can grieve someone before they are physically gone.

A landscape is similar. You can grieve a landscape before it is gone – in the same way I had grieved the potential loss of my childhood trees. What makes ecological grief unique, is that you can grieve an environment in an anticipatory manner, while simultaneously be grieving what has already disappeared. Again, timelines get muddled.  

3.       Shades of loss

In Thom van Dooren’s book Flight Ways[3], he explores the question of species loss: when is a species fully extinct? Is it when the last member of a community has died? Or is it when there are so few numbers of a species are left that their patterns of life have changed? Can you really be a migratory bird when you don’t have friends to migrate with?

An ecosystem doesn’t disappear overnight. By definition, an ecosystem is a system of actors – both living and non-living, human and non-human. When elements are lost in an ecosystem, the system itself is not “dead” or “alive”. It might be less alive or diverse than before, or the elements many shift and change. In one way, this can make it easier to cope with: “well, this part of the forest is gone, but I still have forest over there.” In other ways, it feels like accumulated loss. It can feel like you don’t have a reason or justification to mourn because in some ways it still feels complete. This is an element I would love to explore more in future research.

4.       Natural spaces still provide solace throughout a loss

Related to the previous point, what makes ecological grief so complex is that the natural world still provides solace, even as we grieve it. Grief researchers explain that grief may arise from “the withdrawal of psychobiological regulation previously provided by the deceased”[4]. The paradox is the very person who used to be there to help through hard times is not there to help you through the hardest thing at all – their own loss.  

Fortunately, natural spaces don’t abandon us fully in the same way. Yes, certain natural spaces change and are lost over time. But thankfully, there are still beautiful spaces out there. Places to walk, think, dream, and play. These remaining spaces can renew and heal us.

And that is what Refugia is all about – finding the spaces of refuge and hope in a changeable world. Fostering healthy communities – both social and ecological. I believe our communities and our compassion are the tools for grappling with these emotional experiences to loss.

 

If you would like to learn more about this research, you can read Amy’s full thesis here or contact us at info@refugiaretreats.com

 

Join us for part 2 of this blog series next week, Oct 10th, as Jodi shares her story of ecological grief.  


[1] Jaquette Ray, S. (2018) Coming of Age at the End of the World: The Affective Arc of Undergraduate Environmental Studies Curricula. In Bladow, K., and Ladino, J. (eds.) Affective Ecocriticism: Emotion, Embodiment, Environment. University of Nebraska Press.

 [2] Kübler-Ross, E. (1970) On Death and Dying. London: Tavistock Publications Limited.

 [3] van Dooren, T. (2014) Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. New York: Columbia University Press.

 [4] LeBlanc, N.J., Unger, L.D., and McNally, R.J. (2016) Emotional and physiological reactivity in Complicated Grief. Journal of Affective Disorders 194: p.98-104.

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Refugia Retreats started as a collaborative effort to explore the tough issues of our time through dialogue, retreats, and workshops. Refugia's mission is to create life-sustaining communities where we connect to ourselves, each other, and the web of life.

Since 2016, Refugia has brought people together around 8 retreats and workshops, 4 concerts, 2 podcasts, and a book club. 

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Read More

Dharma Chasers podcast: Environmental Connection

In all that I do, I attempt to make connections. Between people, between the tangible and intangible, and between myself and the environment. Like any relationship, my connection with the natural world is complicated, sometimes disjointed, but overall positive. The natural world feeds me (physically and psychologically), it is the backbone of my work and my spirituality, and it provides comfort and grief. 

Aisha Zaman from Dharma Chasers podcast took the time to sit down with both Jodi and I to share the stories of how Refugia came to be. This is my story. See Jodi's story, below. 

https://www.dharmachasers.com/podcast/2018/2/5/environmental-connection

Thank you for listening!

Amy Spark 

Dharma Chasers .png

Dharma Chasers podcast: Spiritual Direction and Jodi's journey

The Journey
By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew 
what you had to do, and began, 
though the voices around you 
kept shouting 
 their bad advice--

though the whole house 
began to tremble 
and you felt the old tug 
at your ankles. 
"Mend my life!" 
each voice cried.

But you didn't stop. 
You knew what you had to do, 
though the wind pried 
with its stiff fingers 
at the very foundations, 
though their melancholy 
was terrible.

It was already late 
enough, and a wild night, 
and the road full of fallen 
branches and stones.

But little by little, 
as you left their voices behind, 
the stars began to burn 
through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice 
which you slowly 
recognized as your own, 
that kept you company 
as you strode deeper and deeper 
into the world,

determined to do 
the only thing you could do-- 
determined to save 
the only life you could save. 

 

Aisha Zaiman approached me in December to ask me to be on her podcast, DharmaChasers. The focus of DharmaChasers is to interview people who are doing the work that they are meant to do in the world. I was honoured to reflect upon the work I do in spiritual direction, and with Refugia as well as the journey it took to began that work. If you'd like to read more about my perspective on spiritual direction, please see our spiritual direction page found here: http://www.refugiaretreats.com/#/spiritualdirection/ 

Jodi Lammiman

MOURNING TREES: THE PAIN, THE COMPASSION, THE COMMUNITY

By Amy Spark

Photos by Jodi Lammiman

 

Thanks again for the ceremony and for guiding us through some of the stages of healing around the grief we all still feel. I found this very helpful for my own healing process, so I am certain it had significance to the many who attended. I suspect there is still more work to do on all of this however, but taking this step yesterday was very meaningful. – Anonymous

***

We have rituals following loss. Funerals, estate sales, storytelling, flowers on a grave. These are the markers of human loss. Ritual grounds us – it helps us cope. Yet what rituals do we perform when the loss is intangible? When we lose a wetland to development, or beach to erosion? At Refugia, we believe recognition and ritual is important and helpful for dealing with environmental loss.

So we had a funeral – for the trees.

The Ghost Valley community is a tight-knit bunch; one that has been brought together by mutual grief over the landscape changes in the valley. Clearcut logging, rampant off-highway-vehicle use, and the 2013 flood has left the landscape looking very different than it did even five years ago. So Jodi and I were honoured to be invited to help with this transition in a small way: by leading the community through a ceremony of loss.

It began with a pipe ceremony performed by elders Virgil and Glen Stephens. This ceremony honoured the transitions and seasons in the valley, and allowed the community to talk about their loss and pain. And together – we ritualized it through a cairn of mourning. We each took 15 minutes alone in the clearcut, looking for an object that would represent our individual grief. We gathered together and one by one, placed our item in the centre. In the end, what was created was a marker for what was lost and what we were leaving behind.

***

The Ghost Valley is a special place and is also part of the headwaters for all Albertans who live downstream. We have lost our natural wetlands, when once we had hundreds of water fowl come and go each spring and fall. Beavers, fish… that habitat has been destroyed for lack of water.

This group of people have put their heart and soul into trying to stop the logging but by also staying human about it as well…. We may not stopped it but we did make a huge difference. Not once since we have been involved have we ever heard someone knocking down another for what they believe in! That is a first for me and shows me as well that people can work well together. What a gift.

Our memories of this group shall carry with me wherever I go. These are the memories of the Ghost Valley and the many new friendships that have been made going forward.

So as we go our separate ways... we will always be connected to each other while one is advocating to protect for what they believe in. -- Anonymous

***

But it turned out to be less of a funeral, and more of a Celebration of Life. For its in the midst of chaos that friendships are often formed. And this chaos highlighted one very important similarity among members of the Ghost – despite all the other differences. To grieve something is to show that you love it. So to celebrate the life that still thrives in the valley, we spent the rest of the evening sharing a meal and stories over a campfire.

As a facilitator, this experience was powerful. But this is not my story to tell; it’s the story of those who live there. So the italicized sections are written by two Ghost Valley community members in their journey of grief, community, and compassion.

***

Doing this work I think, by its very nature, breeds compassion within us. Compassion for our neighbours, for the wildlife and the forest in which we live. But this compassion I feel extends further to include compassion for those who drove the machinery that leveled the land we are all connected with. Perhaps it’s like a victim forgiving their perpetrator, as impossible as that seems. But there is a hidden understanding that comes with compassion - it would be like looking into the eyes of an equipment operator and understanding his life, his children and his desire to feed his family etc. Compassion and understanding for him will lead to him having more compassion for those impacted by his actions.

Somehow, I know now that if I were to start down a similar path today, to the one we started 2.5 to 3 years ago, I would likely make some different choices, engage people differently and likely see even a better outcome than what we had this time around. Perhaps I could make that journey with less anger and more compassion.

There are still many wrongs in the world of forestry in Alberta (and beyond), but I feel that we need to collectively use our accumulated experience and knowledge to still push for change - but push from a place of compassion.

Below is one of my favorite poems, which to me this symbolizes our deep connection with the Earth - our Mother Earth and how, if we work at deepening our connection with her we deepen our own understanding of ourselves… and with this follows compassion.  -- Anonymous

 

***

Knowing the Earth

To know the Earth on a first-name basis

You must know the meaning of river stones first.

Find a place that calls to you and there

Lie face down in the grass until you feel

Each plant alive with the mystery of beginnings.

Move in a circle until you discover an insect

Crawling with knowledge in its heart.

Examine a newborn leaf and find a map of a universe

So vast that only eagles understand.

Observe the journey of an ant and imitate its path

Of persistence in a world of bigger things.

Borrow a cloud and drift high above the Earth,

Looking down at the smallness of your life.

The journey begins on a path made of your old mistakes.

The journey continues when you call the Earth by name.

N. Wood

"UNMOVABLE EARTH" - A REFLECTION ON refugia's Listening to your life retreat

By Jennelle Dippel

 

I've been watching a lot of space movies lately. It is quite comforting to me to imagine the vastness of the Universe. The Something so outside of myself. The Something much bigger. I imagine the quietness out there, and the slowness of a place without gravity. That might be a sign of how unsettled life here on Earth has felt during the last year. 

A few weeks ago I attended Refugia Retreats' Listening to your Life, a one-day event hosted in the breathtaking Ghost Valley. I had grown up frequently attending camps and retreats but, as can happen when you begin adulting, I'd lost touch with those special times of drawing nearer to myself, others, and nature.

Last to arrive, I joined a circle of people whose faces radiated different stories, backgrounds, and reasons for showing up. Though perhaps nervous, this group of strangers softened fairly quickly into beautiful exchanges of vulnerability as we were guided through reflections about the past year. As unique as our stories were, it was clear that as we let ourselves be seen, we could see ourselves in each other. The Universe bound us together through our shared knowledge of both struggle and hope. It was the Something so outside of us. The Something much bigger. 

Later, as I surveyed the plentiful options of where to cozy up for some self-reflection, I instead felt guided to the path that led from the top of the property to the riverbed below. My weak footwear choice had me slipping and sliding down the incline while I held on to branches and side-stepped into snow banks. In my hand I held a rock from one of our reflective activities and on it was written the word fear. It was to describe my 2016. I stopped and held it up, noticing how its shape and rough edges closely resembled the mountain towering behind it. Such a small rock. Such a small Me, in comparison. In order to continue along my trajectory, I had to make a decision. It wasn't working to carry my rock and also hold the nature-hands that were helping me down the path. I paused, almost laughed at the life metaphor, and threw my rock away. I let go of my fear and held on to the Earth, which sat unmovable around me. I held on to the strength and groundedness of the Universe. The Something so outside of myself. The Something much bigger. 

These small moments are the kind that shape our lives - the choosing to join in life when we feel nothing but chaos, and to put ourselves in places where we can look up to the heavens. Where we can connect to the Something Big. 

Thank you to Refugia for drawing me out to that place, where I could dip my toes in the flow of the Universe and trade in my rock for a bigger one.

"Turning Towards" - A Reflection on Refugia's First Workshop

By Christopher Lammiman

         

          I was tired. I was distracted. I wasn’t sure I had the capacity to be there at all. It had been a hectic season. We had just moved from the beauty and stillness of the forests of the Ghost Valley into the freneticism and discord of the city. We were both starting new jobs. It had only been two weeks since we moved into our new apartment. I hadn’t really even had a day off in over a month. It was a Saturday in October. Chilly, but the sun was out and there were still a few golden leaves hanging onto the poplar branches. I was attending the first ever event created by Refugia Retreats – a day long introductory workshop to Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects. I was tired. But I was there.

          I arrived with few expectations, but a fair bellyful of anxiety. I was anxious about the day for the sake of Jodi, my partner. As one of the workshop facilitators, she was taking a courageous step: hoping that the work she and her co-conspirators had prepared would be meaningful for us participants. But I was also anxious for my own sake. Meeting people can be hard. Sharing personal feelings and thoughts with relative strangers can be very hard. But even more than any of these things, my cursory knowledge of The Work made me aware that we would be dealing with some of the most personal and vulnerable parts of ourselves. I have trouble allowing myself to go there, much less allowing others into that space. I was there. But I was anxious.

          Others have probably stated it more eloquently, but the lesson I am learning about life is that all that is really required is to show up. Most of the messages I receive and amplify are variations on the theme of not being enough. Be better, do better, act better, feel better. Pull yourself together. This narrative is dangerous for me not only because it diminishes my intrinsic and kinetic worth, but also because it isolates. It is the story that disconnects: Like, I have to sort my stuff out before I’m any good to anyone else, so it’s probably best if I just don’t put myself out there quite yet. I’ll stay home today and work out my salvation – with fear. And trembling. But that’s a hard job, and so maybe instead I’ll just watch an episode or six of Breaking Bad. Thus, the not-enough messaging perpetuates a negative feedback loop that turns me away from my relationships, my community, my ecosystem, and my soul. I turn away. But showing up – tired or not, ready or not, comfortable or not – showing up is simultaneously an act of courage and an act of love. It’s not about being good. It’s about being there. Joanna Macy puts it like this:

“The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That was what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of the world.”   

          So I was there. I wasn’t fully there – “absolutely present” – as Joanna puts it, but I was there.  There were 17 of us, gathered in a small conference room in the west end of downtown Calgary. And it was, in the end, a hard day. The Work carries participants through four movements of a spiral: 1) Opening to gratitude; 2) Owning our pain for the world; 3) Seeing with new eyes; and 4) Going forth. It is beautiful, deep, meaningful work, but it can also be achingly difficult and personal work. It requires acknowledging and even embracing the whole truth of the mess we are in as a species. It brings to the surface the deep fear, grief, confusion, hope, and joy I hold in my soul – for the entire planet as well as for my little interior world. This is hard work. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. My heart though, was full.

         “Refugia” is the name Jodi and Amy have chosen for this endeavor. It is an ecological term: Refugia are the small pockets of sanctuary found amid desolation and destruction where life survives, endures, regenerates. These refugium have been discovered where no one expected anything to survive – after the Mount St. Helens eruption, for example – and are the catalysts for new life and new growth in devastated areas. On that chilly day in October, those 17 of us gathered in that little conference room simultaneously discovered and created a refugium together. Joanna Macy says that we have the opportunity to live in the Great Turning – where we as a collective species turn from life-destroying systems toward life-sustaining systems. This turning is as big as changing our economic, political, and social systems. But it is also as small as turning toward each other in gratitude, lament, hope, and love. The Great Turning is me turning toward you. It is us turning toward each other, and all our neighbors (human and otherwise). It is turning towards ourselves, honestly, and openly; tired, anxious, whatever. It is a refusal to keep turning away. This is the gift I received from our little refugium that Saturday. A glimpse of the Great Turning manifest in the small turning toward. A small seed planted within that I will cultivate and tend to and add to our shared garden. 

 So, I was there. So I will keep trying to be there.