Coping with ecological grief

by Marianna Beltrami

My grandmother was a bubbly, active, independent woman who loved picking mushrooms illegally and singing an Italian mountain song that goes something like, “The blackbird has lost its beak! Poor blackbird.” We often went to a beautiful forest near our home. We sang a bit, we chatted, we ate wild strawberries. It was a time of peace, of excitement, of learning from the earth and the air, of pure oxygen and pure soil.

Losing my grandmother was traumatic. I can still vividly live the ten seconds in which my whole life changed. What got me through that grief was sharing suffering with the rest of my family, and time. With time, we look back and place a big event within a wider picture, like a jigsaw piece. Time truly does heal and change scales of perception.

One other thing that helped me was going back to our places – our forests, our trees, our secret shelters. She was so alive there – all it took was a big breath, and I felt her laugh as she sang that depressing song. I especially loved to go back to that one forest, especially during sunset. There was a special healing power in the tangible feeling of her being there.

The forest does not exist anymore. It was destroyed by a climate change-induced storm a few years ago. It was a similarly traumatic experience, but this time the grief was a bit different. Firstly, I felt like I could not count on that precious time that had helped me grow around the grief for my grandmother. When you start to see that climate change is having an impact right now, and it is no longer a remote possibility, how can you say, “give it time”? There is no time! Moreover, when you lose a place, how can you recreate the experience of being-together? It is gone, and if it does regrow, it will take a century.

Here is how I tried to cope with this new kind of grief.

  1. I went back to the place a few more times. I tried to find some alternative paths among the ruins. I brought my dog, who was happy enough to jump across fallen tree trunks. There was still life there. Grass was growing, I found a few mushrooms. Earth has a healing and regenerative power. It might not see the forest again, but if we trust our Earth and follow her timings and processes, small, beautiful things can still happen.
  1. The whole population was shocked by these sudden storms that destroyed millions of trees in the region. At a community level, it was good to have conversations with elderly people. We often find it difficult to have cross-generational dialogue, especially when it comes to climate change. But this time, it was an occasion to come together, and share knowledge on the causes and remedies. Dialogue is possible, and it is needed in a monumental crisis. It led to hope: this particular disaster in my Alpine region created a great number of community projects, start-ups, pieces of art, shows, educational programmes in school, and initiatives to minimise future risks.
  1. When my grandmother died, sharing suffering with others helped my grief immensely – not to feel better, but to make sure grief led to growth. This time, I reflected on how ecological grief might be something new for us, but it has been a reality for many populations for centuries. Colonialism, invasions, the disruption of ecosystems by violent modes of development – this has all been a sad, silenced reality for millions of people. What can I do right now to educate myself on these experiences?

There is no easy way to cope with grief, and especially with new, grand-scale kinds. But it is a conversation that we need to have, and something we can deal with as a community in crisis. So I would love to know how you have experienced similar things – do you have suggestions, thoughts, examples?

ACTIVATING A GENERATION