Monday, January 12, 2015

Stages of Environmental Grief -- Deep Love & Loss

In my presentations on the ethics of designed landscapes in a time of climate change and the 6th mass extinction, I make my way to what I consider the heart of the matter: that facing the reality of how we live on the planet is not healthy or sustainable. Immediately, this can become for some an indictment, judgement, or even sermon in the most traditional Baptist way -- which is unfortunate and not my intent. We should be aware of our role on the planet, how our land and fossil fuel use is linked to very disturbing facts about the environment and ecology -- we should not put our heads in the sand and hope for the best (could you imagine what would've happened if "The Greatest Generation" did that?). There is nothing wrong with learning about these issues, but it's not easy, and it hurts. In a way, we have to face the loss of things we love -- homes, treasured landscapes, the idealized hope for our children to live how we've been fortunate to live, and a sense of innocence; this sense of innocence has been lost time and again in periods like the civil rights movement, equal pay for women, marriage rights, and even adding species to the endangered list.


Facing environmental loss is part of going through the traditional stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (I always include a 6th -- empowerment / liberation / freedom to think for yourself via education). I just read a fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times about how these 5 stages aren't exactly right; in it, therapist Patrick O'Malley recounts the story of a patient named Mary, who lost her baby to SIDS and was helplessly making her way from therapist to therapist because she just couldn't get over the death. Two quotes at first stuck out to me:

"The depth of her sadness was simply a measure of the love she had for her daughter."

As Patrick asks her to tell the story of her baby from beginning to end for the first time in her life, something happens as she cries in the deepest way possible:

"Now, in my office, stages, self-diagnoses and societal expectations didn’t matter. She was free to surrender to her sorrow. As she did, the deep bond with her little girl was rekindled. Her loss was now part of her story, one to claim and cherish, not a painful event to try to put in the past...." "[Society says] a person is to grieve for only so long and with so much intensity.... The truth is that grief is as unique as a fingerprint, conforms to no timetable or societal expectation."

In the same way, how we grieve for the planet -- for melting ice and monarchs and passenger pigeons and lesser prairie chickens and salt creek tiger beetles -- is entirely unique; it can't be anticipated or explained away. While the 5 stages of grief may help us identify solutions as we work through grief, true grief never ends because it is part of deep love, even if we don't consciously recognize or experience that deep love every day (I'm thinking working in the garden, holding bumble bees, taking kids for walks in prairie, etc).


For Patrick, the story of loss has 3 chapters

1) "Understanding the relationship between degree of attachment and intensity of grief brings great relief for most patients. I often tell them that the size of their grief corresponds to the depth of their love."

To me, this means that the more we act out the 5 stages of grief, the deeper our love, and perhaps the more empowered we can become.

2) Death "is often the moment when the person experiencing the loss begins to question his sanity, particularly when the death is premature and traumatic. Mary had prided herself on her ability to stay in control in difficult times. The profound emotional chaos of her baby’s death made her feel crazy. As soon as she was able, she resisted the craziness and shut down the natural pain and suffering."

Humans prize control -- it helps us feel safe in the wilderness of life. You can see this flying in a plane with roads and cites laid out in grids, rows and rows of crops, and manicured lawns surrounding suburban homes (even in the way we schedule our lives). What happens when the illusion of control over the planet begins to erode? What happens when the safety of what we think we know is challenged or redefined?

3) "Mary wanted to reassure her family, friends and herself that she was on the fast track to closure. This was exhausting. What she really needed was to let herself sink into her sadness, accept it."

We need to embrace our grief and loss as surely as we need to embrace the "good" times in life -- they are all authentic responses to the human condition, and our special ability to connect with other species and landscapes and to care for them. It's believed that we once spoke the language of animals -- indeed, some remote indigenous tribes still mimic the call of birds as they communicate with one another. 


"'All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them,'" said the writer Isak Dinesen. When loss is a story, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no pressure to move on. There is no shame in intensity or duration. Sadness, regret, confusion, yearning and all the experiences of grief become part of the narrative of love for the one who died."

I grieve by exploring environmental ethics in gardens and landscapes; this isn't unique to me, and it surely stirs the pot of grief in others and how they deal with these environmental issues. The only way I see to overcome grief is to embrace it -- by telling stories in our gardens by the choices we make in the plants and hardscapes we use. We tell these same stories in efforts to conserve or restore, or to pursue the new ideas of novel ecosystems. We must connect to the world through action and thought at once, be open to the extreme highs and lows of love for place as we are for love of one another in our best moments. Love a place so hard it hurts -- love it so hard you know the full measure of joy and sorrow and become fully human, connected deeply to life. Prairie up.

Sri Nisargadatta: "The mind creates the abyss, & the heart crosses it."

9 comments:

Jean Campbell said...

I was professionally an 'expert' on death and dying until my own child died in a motor vehicle accident. I had no idea.

Benjamin Vogt said...

I can imagine, Jean. How awful. So sorry.

Molly said...

Very thoughtful post, Ben.

Rambling Woods said...

I had shared the Times article on Facebook just before I saw this post. Very thoughtfully written... Michelle

Benjamin Vogt said...

Thanks, Molly and Michelle. Some day -- a book. :)

Lisa Rainsong said...


This is deeply moving and very powerful. The grief and loss I experience when I see - and hear - the signs of species loss in my region (NE Ohio) has left me feeling hopeless and deeply depressed at times, but then I resume my efforts to education people about what's left and what we can cherish and protect. Thanks for your beautiful writing - a naturalist friend of mine just forwarded your most recent post to me.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Lisa -- I'm glad you stopped by, and even more glad to have touched you with my words and ideas. You're doing important work.

Selina Gough said...

Lovely post. I wonder if you could tell me where the info about kids and butterflies come from?

Benjamin Vogt said...

Selina -- I'm short on time, but it's a study sited by Richard Conniff somewhere on his blog.