Social Grief: coping with ‘the end of the world’

Embers fly above a firefighter as he works to control a backfire as the Delta Fire burns in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. The blaze had tripled in size overnight. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

“How are you coping with everything”. The question came as a shock to me. Up until March 2020 the new decade felt just like any other, from a selfish, personal perspective at least. And when the news of the pandemic first broke, I was in a state of blissfully optimistic denial. Its not until the first deaths happened and the seriousness of the situation transpired to us all that I felt a sense of very real grief. Specifically, that out of place feeling which lies at the intersection of not knowing how to feel against a background of actual stories of grief that were flooding from the news, and the anticipated grief of everything that would come next. How was I coping with everything? ‘with the end of the world?’ came the darkly humorous response. It wasn’t of course, but entertaining the idea felt like a great coping mechanism. Then another thought occurred to me. What keeps humans from curling up in the face of seemingly insurmountable threats to human life and the world around us?

Despair…

In my last blog post I talked about Greta Thunberg, and how her autism is integral to her activism. In doing my research I was particularly struck by her assertion that “I thought it was very strange that humans who are part of the animal species, could be capable of changing earth’s climate, because if we were and if it were really happening than surely we wouldn’t be talking about anything else”. Indeed, she was one of the people most affected by what can be called climate despair, until she found a voice through her decision to strike. Perhaps that’s one way we deal with seemingly apocalyptic scenarios – the idea or hope that we have control or can do something. I won’t deny the importance of that motivation.

Another explanation is that like grief, the climate or even the pandemic doesn’t appear to have a tangible form. Its influence can be felt in different ways across the course of our lives, but the lack of visual presence makes it easy to ignore, even if we can see effects such as burning forests and crowded hospitals as tangible evidence that these are issues which we ought to be worried about. One classic, if oversimplified, characterisation of autism is that we struggle to see the forests for the trees. We see details before we see categories. This might be why, when thinking about climate change, Greta Thunberg thinks of the ecosystem as a large system of which we are a part, and not something separate from ourselves.

This relates to an issue called the non-identity problem – a classic example comes from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle who tells the story of a man who goes to Oxford and asks to see the University. So, they show him the lecture rooms, the debate hall and even the students walking between classes. At the end of the tour he says, ‘thanks, but where’s the university?’. This is a brilliant example of mistaking a concept for a separate object. Rather than seeing the university as an interaction between objects, people and what they do, the man in the analogy thought of the university as a separate ‘object’. This is why talking about ‘the environment’ or ‘the pandemic’ as things separate from ourselves, is a mistake. Autistic people aren’t the only ones to apply a more integrated look at issues like the environment. Indigenous communities may have grief over loss of the natural world, which is so closely connected to their identity that they rightly see themselves as part of nature. An Innuit elder is famously credited as saying “We are people of the sea ice. And if there’s no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?”

Denial…

I’m oddly reminded of the music video for the song ‘Just’ by Radiohead, where a man going about his daily routine stops in the middle of the street and lies down. When he’s asked why, he simply replies ‘you don’t want to know’. This process repeats until the man has amassed a pretty decent crowd around him. Eventually they convince him to describe why he is lying there. His lips move without subtitles before eventually cutting to a wide shot of everyone in the street led down, as if stuck by some unbearable truth. Many have debated what the man says at the end of that video but I like to believe that he’s found a way to distil the enormity of the problems we face to a few sentences, in a way which forces everyone into despair…

The type of despair we see represented there could come as a consequence of climate change, or the pandemic. Its part of the reason campaigns like ‘look into his eyes…’ are considered effective: they turn invisible danger into something tangible and real. According to psychology scholar Renee Lertzman, we can see this process happening with the environment.

“It’s a surreal experience because we’re still in the same system, so walking around, people are driving, and everyone’s eating a lot of meat and everyone’s acting like that’s normal. For some people, that feeling is incompatible with carrying on with the business of everyday life”

Renee Lertzman, Environmental Melancholia

However, simply inspiring an emotional reaction in someone, doesn’t mean they will change their behaviour as a result. Climate despair goes beyond worry’s that a warming planet will force us to make difficult decisions. In the case of coronavirus, previous lockdowns and promises of being “out of this by Christmas” have undoubtedly harmed public trust. In a study into climate despair, data visualizations were presented to test subjects who were urged, in fear-based terms, to take action. Mostly, these appeals produced “denial, apathy, avoidance, and negative accusations”. The researchers concluded that “climate change images can evoke powerful feelings of issue salience, but these do not necessarily make participants feel able to do anything about it” In other words, presenting something in starkly negative and fearful terms forces people to retreat. A common reaction to “there is no solution” is “then there is no problem”. It doesn’t matter how many times you shout ‘danger!’ if people don’t feel like their actions have any difference. News briefings on the pandemic take care to emphasise the seriousness of the situation but make a conscious choice to present a positive outlook for the future. Greta Thunberg is always keen to emphasise that something can be done (although, is keen to emphasise ‘system change’). Being presented solely with pessimism gives us a choice between denialism or despair – between being the man lying down or being the people who initially criticise him. Thankfully, that’s not a choice we need to make…

Bargaining…

I’ve talked a lot about the subject of adapting to transitions as an autistic person. Well, as well as being an autistic issue, it’s a distinctly human one. When confronted with a change, we eventually accept the inevitable, before trying to capture the last fragments of normality that we might find for a while. When we knew that lockdowns were coming, many still spent the weeks leading up to them as if they were like any other. You may have heard people downplay the impacts of climate change by focussing on “better weather”. The key component of this reaction is the attempt to feel better, to avoid facing the loss. For autistic people those feelings of dislocation and denial can be especially prevalent.

This might be why commentators like Bryant associate climate grief with privilege. They argue that we can only ‘bargain’ about things like global warming when we have the luxury to avoid its consequences. How someone in Latin America experiences atmospheric warming will be different from how someone living in the UK experiences atmospheric warming, and the emotional response will be different because of that. An autistic or disabled person living in shared accommodation and unable to access the same level of support as they are usually able to, will experience lockdown in a very different way from someone who is able bodied or neurotypical. When we notice ourselves bargaining, it is perhaps worth asking whether we are bargaining for our own peace of mind at the expense of “invisible” groups

Interestingly, early theories of grief do not discuss social grief but say things which can be applied to the environment or the pandemic. William Worden and Thomas Attig argued that one of the key tasks in a grief process is “the adjustment to a new environment” or new way of behaving. They described the whole grief process as “relearning the world”. Something has profoundly changed, something or someone is either lost or in the process of going away, and grief can help to us adjust. When they were writing they used the death of a loved one as an example, but their work is strangely applicable on a larger scale. Both pandemics and climate change require us to change our behaviour and relearn our ways of thinking. I think if this pandemic has changed anything it’s the way people think about the world around them: how we shouldn’t take anything as given, and how we can never put our faith in stability again.

Acceptance…

The original Kubler-Ross model of grief was again based on very personal matters and talked the calm acceptance of the inevitability of death. However, here’s where we’ve got to draw a distinction between despair and grief. The later says that ‘there is nothing we can do anymore. The apocalypse is coming. It’s too late’. The former is far more cathartic. If you want something that will really depress you, just read ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’, by Cumbria University professor Jem Bendell. The paper takes as its starting point the assumption that societal collapse is on its way. Its been rightly pilloried for being quite oversimplistic and for the use of hyperbolic assertations like “You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.”. Many also called the paper irresponsible accusing the piece of spreading despair, not grief.

When we lose a loved one its obviously very tragic but there are harmful and healthy ways to deal with that tragedy. Grief over human life is assigned a series of stages but is really considered a legitimate reaction to social issues like climate change or pandemics. Kriss Kevorkian – an expert in bereavement – notes that we lack the language to describe the feelings of loss that come from watching the destruction of species or mass loss of human life. This is called ‘disenfranchised grief’ – i.e feelings that we don’t acknowledge because they don’t fit within our traditional ideas of what those emotions are, or what causes them. A 2012 National Wildlife Federation report on the psychological effects of climate change estimates that 200 million Americans will be exposed to serious psychological distress from climate-related events and incidents. “This anxiety will increase as reports of the gravity of our condition become clearer and starker.”

An Atypical Perspective…

It goes without saying that I suffer from a lot of social grief. I described earlier how, as an autistic person who views myself part of a large ecosystem and a society, seeing that fall apart upsets me, quite a lot. One way I deal with this is maintaining a healthy emotional distance, trying not to look at the news or social media too much. However, as much as that has its positives, its quite limited as a strategy. So, what do I sometimes do in order to process my emotions on the climate or the pandemic? I grieve. I often temporarily allow myself to give into those emotions and acknowledge how fucking bad everything can seem. This isn’t the same as wallowing in despair. It’s a healthy acknowledgment of your emotions. A moment of saying ‘this is how I feel’ so that we may move on and use that acknowledgment to help affect change.

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