According to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, there are five stages of grief that are outlined and accepted as normal in the process of coping with a tragic loss. A quick reminder — these are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Current psychological theory says these happen in no particular order and that they can recur many times during the grieving process.
You will often hear or read references to these stages from those who fully understand climate change and collapse. And I have experienced each stage (with the exception of denial) multiple times in my own journey. But right now this list no longer works. There is not an adequate way of describing the grief that comes from knowing we are witnessing the loss of everything. There is no emotional process humans have ever experienced that is on par with knowing that humanity and the planet are on hospice, that few species will survive, that our collective and individual legacies are coming to an end. There will never be a better day ahead if we just persevere and have patience.
Maybe the closest we can get from Kübler-Ross is depression. From this source, here is a more complete description:
During the depression stage, you start facing your present reality and the inevitability of the loss you’ve experienced. Understandably, this realization may lead you to feel intense sadness and despair. This intense sadness could cause you to feel different in other aspects too. You could feel fatigued, vulnerable, confused and distracted, not wanting to move on, not hungry or wanting to eat, not able or willing to get ready in the morning, not able to enjoy what you once did.
I am experiencing intense sadness. The source of this sadness is my awareness of all things climate change & collapse. But, I am absolutely not depressed. There’s not one descriptive item that comes close to my daily experience. I want to do everything I possibly can, every single day. I am energetic, focused and motivated. I get up early, eat well and exercise every day. And I take proactive actions on behalf of humanity and the planet.
Then there’s that one item in the description of depression that fits my experience perfectly. I cannot enjoy what I once did. Because it does not exist anymore to enjoy.
I’m not depressed. I’m sad. It just hurts, every moment hurts. It hurts to look at the natural world and know that it’s going away. It hurts to look at the planet and see its scars. It hurts to look at humanity and love and hate it at the same time.
I don’t know how anyone who fully understands what’s happening and what’s coming could not be sad. The loss of everything is the loss of everything.
Here is a short list of some of what we are losing:
- We are losing our great charismatic species, including elephants, leopards, polar bears, blue whales and eagles.
- We are losing insects of all types, especially the ones critical for survival of all land-based species, like bees.
- We are losing landscapes as they are eroded by storms, melted by heat, razed by fires or destroyed by the lasting impacts of humanity’s expansion and greed.
- We are losing oceans, as they acidify and heat up, leaving an inhospitable environment for aquatic species of all sorts, from coral reefs to crabs to seals to pelicans.
- We are losing our atmosphere, as it thickens with methane, sulfates, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide.
- We are losing our ice, from Greenland to Siberia to the poles.
- We are losing our forests, including the boreal forests of the far North, the Amazon, and the forests that are burning up in Siberia, Europe and the Western US.
This list doesn’t include anything humans have created. It doesn’t include language. It doesn’t include our mathematics, poetry, music, art, philosophy, literature, dance or architecture. It doesn’t include space telescopes and our deep understanding of the physical laws of the universe dating back to moments after the big bang, 13.7 billion years ago. It doesn’t include medicine, all the progress made that allows us (and many of our animal friends) to live longer and healthier lives.
This list doesn’t include our love for our family and friends. It doesn’t include our education, personal achievements and goals. It misses all the good we see in others and what we do every day to try and make things better.
And this list doesn’t include our collective legacy. The sense that humanity is itself a single entity, a being that has created science, philosophy and art over thousands of years, all of which is necessary to fully understand ourselves today.
The loss of everything is the loss of everything.
When trying to understand how to get through another day in this time of collapse, Kübler-Ross’ outline of the grieving process is surely a good tool for some. It at least gives a starting point.
We see the deniers everywhere, a stage of grief that many are finally getting past. There’s the transparent anger and outrage of individuals like Roger Hallam and groups like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. We see the bargaining going on at COP27, at the UN and in governments worldwide. There’s the depression broadly experienced by today’s youth who feel the future has been stolen from them — what’s the point of education, career and family for a future that will never come to pass? And now, the acceptance voiced by climate scientists and philosophers, from the testimony of NASA climate scientist James Hansen to the “code red” proclamation of UN Secretary-General António Guterres to the mindfulness meditations hosted by Catherine Ingram.
But for me, I cannot imagine there can be any stage beyond sadness. This sadness is so overwhelming, so all-consuming, that it takes my breath away. The things I do to cope with the weight of it all are mere distractions from this sadness. Volunteer for a few hours, then sadness. Go for a walk, then sadness. Listen to music, read, visit websites, then sadness. Visit with friends or family, then sadness. Sadness returns every time I have a moment to reflect on the predicament of the present moment.
And now I’m reading these words I wrote before and they are a small comfort, giving me some direction for how to get through the day:
And doomers believe that in this particular crisis there is an opportunity. They can use this common moment of suffering to find ways to be kind to others. They can use whatever personal abundance they might have to be generous as much as they are able. And while they still have the energy and mobility for action, they can look for ways to be of service. Volunteering is the greatest honor they can gift themselves in the limited time they have left.
So that’s what I’m going to do today. Be kind, be generous and be of service.
And then I’ll be sad.
The loss of everything is the loss of everything.