Whatever we think we know about the immediate future of humanity and our increasingly beleaguered planet, one thing is for sure: in the face of ecosystem breakdown, new viral threats, and the myriad of other crises that continue to mount, our expectations about life will be continuously tested from this point on. And there’s one experience that inevitably follows all the others we are set to face – the trail of panic, anger, shock and awe at each mounting catastrophe, from unprecedented bushfires to devious new infections like the Coronavirus – and that is grief.
We were shocked at the extent and ferocity of Australia’s fires this southern summer and we are now showing signs of outright panic in the face of Coronavirus and its resistance to containment. Given the lack of political will for climate action, we can expect more communities to be torn apart, both by supercharged climate chaos and by less dramatic but just as shocking events such as empty supermarket shelves (wait until the crop failures start to kick in!).
Now is the time to begin to face this new reality. We are at the end of one era and the start of another. As climate scientists proclaimed, the halcyon days of the Holocene are over; welcome to the Anthropocene, wherein humanity has become so technologically powerful and prolific that we threaten the very viability of our planet’s atmosphere. This is a time to demand leadership that cares about our future; but it also a time that cries out for tears, as we relearn how to process our grief at what is happening to us, to our loved ones and our world.
Members of the community were invited to come together and participate in a grief ritual to assist healing after the bushfires. Held at Rosedale, a badly burnt suburb of Batemans Bay on the far south coast of NSW the event was facilitated by Geoff Berry, an ecotherapist and organiser of the local branch of Extinction Rebellion. “People need the chance to really feel and express their grief after crisis, loss or trauma of any kind. Modern society doesn’t do this very well and we need to fill that gap.” said Geoff. People were invited to bring something that they held sacred, or that connected them with whatever mixture of feelings the fires had brought. The ceremony offered a safe space to share feelings and featured some of the classic elements of grief rituals the world over – giving thanks, connecting with the spirit of place, singing together and a water element for cleansing.
In the south east of Australia, the fires are finally out. There are even full dams on some farms, bringing welcome relief to farmers and animals on the land. But even as bushfire is replaced by Coronavirus in the 24/7 news cycle, the more mundane, long work begins: of clean up, rebuild, the counting of losses, and the healing, which will be ongoing now for months, years, even generations in some cases. The loss of small businesses in regional areas affected by the fires is already a steady trickle and with it, increased unemployment and heightened risk of mental health issues. This won’t make headlines, unless it adds up to a big enough number to create some fear and trembling about lost GDP.
But as we Australians drag ourselves out of astonishment at the fact that we just joined our Pacific Island neighbours at the coalface of the climate crisis, some of us have decided to do something about it. In Batemans Bay, a small town known as the starting point of endless south coast holidays over the years, a small but dedicated local group of the Extinction Rebellion recently held a grief ritual against a stark backdrop of blackened trees and ocean vistas. As with the international group, they protest the lack of political will to act on the climate crisis that is exacerbating it daily. But enacting a grief ritual is also a time-honoured, even ancestral tradition, which is designed to help people affected by loss and trauma.
Grief is a natural human response to tragedy, so it’s strange that it’s not a more prominent part of current discussions about how we learn to live with our dangerous new world. Modern westerners are better at getting on with business, reacting and moving on, than we are at dealing with deep feelings of loss. But no matter where we stand on anthropogenic climate change, we will be undone, at some stage, by grief – and this is not all a bad thing.
Grieving allows us to feel what is happening to us in a way that opens up the possibility of something new, as we displace the power of our loss. Since time immemorial, grief has been ritualised, given time and space so that it can be processed as fully as possible. This doesn’t need to be complicated; all that is necessary for grief to be more fully experienced is that it is given breathing space and a supportive environment. When we do this collectively, we confirm each other as well. But we don’t only need to do this for ourselves and for each other: if we want to become adequate ecological citizens, we also need to explore grief for Country, as the Australian Aboriginal peoples call the lands, the animals, the trees, the rivers and even the soils we live on and with. This is something we modern westerners definitely haven’t been very good at acknowledging. Now is the time to admit that blind spot.
Enacting a grief ritual on Country after the monumental losses suffered this summer is touching material. The rites follow an ancient pattern, of joining in a circle, speaking truthfully about our deepest feelings and fears, singing a song of grief, and allowing tears of deep sadness and rage to spill freely upon the sand. Participants are invited to bring along an item that connects them to Country and a bowl of water is used to add a timeless ceremonial element.
We commemorate our losses in a way that is timeless yet timely, ancestral yet relevant, personal and collective. Maybe even in a way that will help us to reconcile our relationship with the first peoples of this Country – and with the earth itself.
We will not be afraid to talk about the climate crisis that fuelled this fire season, as the atmosphere of the earth is warmed by over a degree already, resulting in the extensive and damaging changes we are seeing today. We will face the truth as courageously as possible.
Because the truth may be bitter medicine, unwelcome in an era when corporate-owned media wants to divert our attention from the most dire threat to our planet we have ever faced. But, as the old saying goes, the truth will set us free. Free to act on climate, to build community, to be as resilient and self-sufficient as possible, because our governments have failed us, beholden as they are to vested corporate interests.
We must continue to demand better from politics and business, but we must also take time to grieve for what we have lost, to clear the way for active hope and regeneration, to be refreshed by the beauty of our love for the earth and the life it supports.
Dr Geoffrey Berry is the Australian Representative to the International Ecopsychology Society, an Extinction Rebellion leader, and CEO of the South Coast NSW Aboriginal Elders Association. His day job is in building a trauma-informed caring community.
Photos: Gillianne Tedder