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Beyond Grief: There’s a Sadness Deep Inside of Me

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.

Eliot Jacobson, Ph.D.

Retired professor of mathematics and computer science, retired casino consultant, now a full time volunteer, husband and grandfather. Know-it-all doomer. Born in the year 316 ppm CO2.

20 thoughts on “Beyond Grief: There’s a Sadness Deep Inside of Me

  • 5

    Hi Eliot!
    Great work! However, and you knew there’d be a catch, you have left out the greatest cause for depression in a dying world: bringing another child into this already massively overpopulated world (3,000 times greater than were our Hunter-Gatherer ancestors just 1-14kya), and without giving even a second thought as to what kind of life that child will have, struggling just to survive among the 206,000 other newborns coming here just today. Sorry, but I have lost faith in our species. We are world destroyers and Mother Nature is attempting to rid Herself of us through the medical consequences of population density stress. CONTRACEPTION. Stress R Us

  • Peter K Trabant

    Spot on Eliot! One can only be “depressed” so long before realizing the futility and simply becoming sad. It is the realization of our predicament upon reading LtG as an earth scientist that I got “fixed” and devised an “escape machine” (sail boat) upon which to travel and observe that left of the beauties of our planet. Cheer up, the end is near!

  • Jackie

    Thank you for this, Prof. Sadness is my overwhelming emotion as well and I really identify with doing something and then feeling sad. I work full time so have a great distraction, but in quiet moments I find myself looking out of the window and feeling heartbroken at the loss of everything.

    “Be kind, be generous and be of service” helps me immensely and in so many situations. Thought I would take this opportunity to thank you for those words, as well.

  • Peggy Gates

    The sadness around collapse/extinction, like awareness, ebbs and flows… To live fully in the present is a strategy and effective – sometimes. The full measure of sadness comes with the knowledge that it didn’t have to be this way. We have had teachers, poets, naturalists, etc. who spoke of ways to listen and act. Thanks for all that you do.

  • Brian R Smith

    I’m parked on Main Street in my small town, steeped in the same sadness that has daily become overwhelming, watching the endless flow of vehicles taking turns at the light, and thinking how few of these people are concerned about climate danger, much less worried about the loss of everything. I want them all to know the truth but am afraid for what will happen then, when a majority of people realize they face an existential endgame with no way out. We can only hope that kindness, compassion and mutual care will be a bigger force than the me-first predatory impulses that will also come. Meanwhile, here is another clueless, youthful MAGA cowboy in his tricked out truck, muffler set on kill, screaming through the intersection, demanding attention, trailing a cloud of black smoke.

      • Brian R Smith

        Thank you, Eliot, for baring all & puting it so well. It is strangely encouraging.

    • J W Ford

      Sadly, there are way too many ignorant clueless, youthful MAGA cowboy in their tricked out trucks with their mufflers set on kill, screaming through the whole town which never stop from demanding attention and leaving the innocent bystanders in a horrific cloud of black smoke or even worse, ran over!

  • 4

    Hi Eliot!
    Hate to add to your gloom, but looks to me like you can handle it. Al Jazeera just published two climate science articles: (1) Europe has heated 1.5 deg C in the past 30 yrs., so says the UN World Meteorological Organization, and (2) Norwegian climate scientists just released an astounding new finding for Karl XII Island in the Barents Sea over the past decade: a 2.7 deg C temp increase, or 13 times the global average. That’s why global averages can be so misleading, as most of the rapid warming is occurring above the Arctic Circle and is speeding the ice melting that so far dampens the rest of the global warming. When the ice is gone, we are toast. Still want to keep driving your car all over hell and back, or planning for another child? Stress R Us.

    • Alex S.

      There’s a lot of talk about the importance of year-round ice coverage in the Arctic ocean in regulating Earth’s temperature and climate patterns.

      Realistically, how soon could an ice free arctic occur? Once this happens, how quickly would temperatures rise to the extent that animal life forms die en masse from heat stress and agriculture fails? In other words, how probable is the 2026 extinction date [Some content redacted by EJ]? Is 2030 more realistic? Or do we have bit more time — albeit in abysmal conditions — say 2050 or so, before it’s all over for complex life on this planet?

      • 0

        BINGO! It’s the melting ice that drives this Doomer to and beyond despair. My research indicates that 1.2 TIRLLION TONS are melting a year, while absorbing 1.08 X 10 to the 17th BTUs/DAY of global heating, as the oceans absorb an equal amount. DW, Copernicus, estimate it’s ALL gone by 2,100, so your doomer timeline is extend, but not by much for those who may come after us. Swiss glaciologists just reported a 10% decline in glacial ice over just the past 2 YEARS! All gone by 2041? What will it take to terrify us enough to drastically cut back on fossil fuel burning- 8 BILLION TONS of coal in 2021, and 100 MILLION BARRELS of oil EVERY DAY WORLDWIDE???? Thanks for your post, you are not alone!

  • Diane

    There is nothing left to do but live life to the fullest. Fill it with love of nature, with time spent in nature. Nature is not gone right now. Bees still buzz right now. Scholars of autocracy tell you never to surrender in advance. It seems to me this sadness that all is gone is a form of surrender in advance. To spend time in nature, witness it’s aliveness and feel appreciation for it, to insist on living in a space of love, seems like a better use of one’s time and emotional energy.

  • 0

    Hasn’t the polar bear numbers increased quite dramatically in the last 20 years? Helped by banning the hunting of them

    Hasn’t the great barrier reef shown complete recovery from the 1980s predictions of destruction?

    Reasons to be a little more optimistic? Perhaps…

  • 3

    Hi Eliot,
    I appreciate your expression of climate peril induced grief and sadness. I’m not quite so all in in that the final outcome is a given, but in addition to further being more present with my own responses about this going forward, this gives me pause to more fully be present to what my kid’s (28 and 25) may be feeling, consciously or not. Thank you!!

  • 1

    The five Elizabeth Kübler-Ross stages of grief do apply to climate and resource depletion acceptance, moving through the changes is hard.

    In life our first job is to divide and distinguish things into two categories..

    1) Externals you cannot control.

    2) Choices that you make with regard to externals you do control.

    What upsets people are not externals themselves, but their own judgments about them.

    Discard climate anxiety because it is your perception and you control it. Choose not to want something outside your own control, and anxiety will evaporate.

    This is classic stoic philosophy. More useful now than ever.

    Kübler-Ross is fine if you can get through the stages. But to move through the stages you need philosophy.

    “It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

  • Lorraine Murray

    I have that sadness with me always now. I remember going to a music festival last year, the first since covid – and my response to wonderful live music was to weep uncontrollably. The loveliest of things make me happy still, but they also make me grieve so much.

  • Lee Heller

    Thank you for sharing your feelings. It really helps to read about your compassionate understanding of yourself, and by extension, all of us who see what is coming.

    I have been grieving the coming (now current) loss of ecosystems for decades. Now that the imminent is present, grief haunts me daily. I struggle with mood swings, trying to manage my anger and frustration with a world in denial. Like you, I try to serve my community as the only way to make meaning out of catastrophe.

    There is a sad comfort in knowing I am not alone in my feelings. With one exception (a friend who ran an environmental nonprofit here in SB and who works tirelessly for our community while privately sharing doomerism), I have felt isolated in my Cassandra-ism. Finding your work is validating but my God! I so wish it weren’t….


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