What Climate Grief Tells Us About Our COVID-19 Fears

Darkness breeds fear. Here's how to find some light.

Posted Apr 11, 2020

Patricia Prijatel
Source: Patricia Prijatel

I spent five years writing a book before I realized it was about grief. I wrote about what happened—the loss of a beautiful forest to a wildfire, the floods that came after, the invasive weeds, the bear that kept trying to break into our cabin. I wrote about the fear, the stress, the panic attacks, the PTSD. I wrote around the edges of my emotions until I finally had to acknowledge what was at the center: grief.

We had lost so much—about 70 percent of the trees in our 200-acre paradise. But, more important, we lost our sense of security, the calm and peace that surrounds our little handmade mountain cabin. And it is still difficult for me to confront the fact that I have lost trust in nature. Now, when I hike, I savor the beauty that remains and celebrate the health of the seedlings we planted, but I still look over my shoulder to see what new chaos might be coming. I have trouble sleeping at the cabin that had once been my tranquilizer. Now my ears always on alert for a flood or a bear on the deck. The smell of smoke panics me.

Acknowledging my grief was surprisingly therapeutic. It helped me stop fighting with myself, stop trying to be strong and solid and all the stuff that was pretty much impossible. Naming my reality let me live with it. Everything fell into place in my head. I was grieving the loss of the life I’d had, the life I wanted for my kids and grandkids. I was grieving our forest and those around the world that are burning and dying from fire and disease and are being destroyed for our consumption.

I’ve learned to live with the grief—it’s an honest and pure emotion and a healthy response to loss. It’s gotten a little softer over time, but it’s always there, in the back row, raising its hand.

Now, because of COVID-19 it’s been amplified. I am hunkered down in my home, which smells like Clorox; I venture out only reluctantly, armed with a mask and hand sanitizer. And, while the storyline is different now, I am faced with that same sense of fear, anxiety, and stress, all tucked into the overarching theme of grief.

I suspect many of my worries about what comes next are similar to yours: What will the world look like when this is all over? Will it ever be all over? When will I be comfortable hugging family and friends again? When will I again relax over a meal in a favorite restaurant? Will I ever get over my anger that this was allowed to grow unchecked for so long? In short, when will there be a normal? What will our mental health look like when we emerge from our homes? Will we trust one another? 

Of course, there’s the basic question: Will I get sick? Will any of my loved ones? Will I lose friends or family? Will I die?

This is anticipatory grief, mourning something that hasn't even happened yet. These are legitimate worries, but it’s important not to cede too much power to the darkness. Yes, this will end. Yes, we will have loss, but we will eventually hug. Yes, we will love and trust and understand a bit more every day.

One serious positive from this and from other crises I’ve faced is that my circle of beloved is much larger than I had thought. I love so many people, and they love me. We’re grieving together, and we will heal together. We’ll help one another face our losses and live with our grief.

What I have learned watching friends and family move forward after our forest fire is that humans can be resilient. We can recover from stunning losses, coming out the other end different people, with different strengths, different dreams. Maybe a bit smarter. I believe I became a better citizen of the planet after the fire, cutting my consumption significantly, even to the point of downsizing to a condo less than half the size of our former home. Our second car will soon be for sale.

Managing climate grief taught me some important lessons on how to get through COVID-19 emotionally. I was slow to learn to face my sadness then, preferring avoidance to confrontation. Don't be like me.

Allow it. Let your grief in, let it sit on the couch if it wants. It’s part of you now, at least for a while. You are mourning something important—honor it with truth. You feel what you feel and adding guilt or denial to the mix makes it worse. But don't wallow. Just don’t.

Stay in the present. This is Meditation 101. Don’t stew about the past or fret about the future. This is a good time to pray, meditate, listen to music, garden, walk, run, read a good book, or watch a movie. These all have a clear goal right now—to keep your mind focused on something other than this pandemic. Or write. That’s what got me through—putting my life into words was eye-opening and, ultimately, calming.

I found merit in a trick recommended by the Mayo Clinic to refocus your mind and break the train of unhealthy thoughts: Name five things you can see, four things you can physically feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. If it doesn't work the first time, try it again.

Breathe. The function that keeps us alive—breathing—also keeps us emotionally strong. Just taking deep breaths, I think, saved a bit of my sanity when I had panic attacks about fire, floods, bears. Breath in, breath out, is a solid but simple mental strategy. The University of Michigan Health Centers offers tips on deep breathing: sit or lie in a comfortable position, with one hand on your chest, the other on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose, then breathe out slowly from your mouth, feeling the breath in and out. Exhale until you have no breath left. Do this three to 10 times, as often as you need. 

In a pinch, just take a deep breath and let your shoulders slump with relaxation—no need for a fancy set up.

Limit your exposure to updates. Check the news only once or twice a day, and make sure that’s from a reputable source, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), The World Health Organization (WHO), and The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

Donate and support. If you are privileged to stay at home with adequate food and other resources, remember those who aren’t and support them with money, masks, food, time. Reach out to other people—one phone call a day to a friend can make a huge difference to them and to you. Greenpeace has other suggestions for how you can give back.

Hope. By facing my grief, I feel I allowed hope back into my life. I stopped hiding from my emotions, which put me more in control of them. Shining a light in the dark took some of the fear away. I now put my hope in the doctors and nurses and other medical personnel to do God’s work and save lives. I put hope in scientists looking to improve testing and finding a vaccine for COVID-19.

We conquered polio, but not before it ruined the health of the president who guided us out of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his first inaugural address, FDR uttered the line that would define him, and that should serve as a guide today: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

• Read More: Burn Scars: A Memoir of the Land and Its Loss.