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The complexity of climate grief: "You’ve lost something, even though it’s still there"

“You can see — the sky,” my dad said with boyish wonder in his voice when my family and I moved to California from New York City nearly 25 years ago. He later developed a habit of reclining on the diving board that hovered above the kidney-shaped swimming pool behind our house outside San Francisco, marveling at the expanse overhead, uninterrupted by buildings and utterly blue. I’d shrug off his awe, preoccupied with what I considered more pressing matters, like navigating the new awkwardness of adolescence.

Now, I understand what moved him.

My partner and I spent the past few months visiting his parents in Pennsylvania. We’d planned to return to Berkeley by early September, but decided to extend our stay once the wildfires broke out. The second week of September, he showed me a video of San Francisco set to the Blade Runner score, the sky a sickly orange.

I tried, and failed, to hold back tears staring at the ominous footage of streets I must’ve walked hundreds of times, commuting to work, hitting the bars at happy hour, celebrating Pride. As friends and family members texted and posted murky, sepia-toned photos from around the Bay Area, the dull ache of homesickness washed over me, but over a home that no longer exists. Massive wildfires, likely fueled by climate change, had transformed the home I had left in June. Yet this process had been happening for years, and would likely continue.

A lab rat-turned-journalist with a deep respect for data, the research alone had convinced me of climate change. Now, I feel it in my bones, too — yes, I remember fire season growing up, but nothing like I’ve seen in the past few years — and I was mourning it, as if the California that raised me had died, and I never got to say goodbye.

The skies have cleared, at least where I live, and the flames thankfully spared my apartment and loved ones. But I worry that I have to expect fires like this every year, and I’ve even wondered whether it’s time to leave my home state behind. What wrenches me is that climate change seems to be transforming the rest of the planet, as well. As wildfires devour the West Coast, hurricanes have pummeled the East and Gulf coasts with unprecedented frequency. Recently, I learned that I’m experiencing what psychologists refer to as climate grief.

Climate grief, while not a formal diagnosis, describes “that sense of sadness associated with either the awareness of climate change, or experience with a particular effect of climate change,” Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, tells me. It can indeed resemble the grief you experience when you lose someone important in your life, and you may take a while to come to terms with it. And, it “can make you feel a little bit like your sense of self has been held in question.”

That’s been my experience, as a Californian who takes pride in the mythos of my home state as something of a sunny, clear-skied Eden, brimming with possibility. I love California so much, I didn’t even bother applying to any colleges out of state. It held the same allure for my parents, beckoning them from New York City, where they initially settled when they immigrated to the U.S. On the hikes we took to stay sane during the pandemic, I joined my partner — a recent transplant, seeing California through fresh eyes — in heaping praise on the mild weather, dramatic landscape, and easy access to nature. I loved that we could love California together.

But now, I've also begun to equate California with annual, raging wildfires, hazardous air quality, and disruptive blackouts. For how much longer would our favorite hikes be possible? I think about Big Basin, where I've hiked with my family, staring in silent solemnity at the dense redwood canopy towering like a cathedral ceiling, now scorched and skeletal.

“There’s this notion of a stigmatized identity when part of the way you define yourself is now being seen negatively,” Clayton explains. Comments like “it’s so terrible what’s happening in California” convey concern, but also, on some level, a negative perception of a state that's strongly shaped how I see myself. I delight in friends from other states referring to me as "the Californian" or "California girl," because it implies in doing so, they seem to implicitly recognize me as someone who embodies what I view as quintessentially Californian qualities — qualities I also love about myself: progressive, nature-loving, sun-worshipping, and maybe a little spacey. What connotations will those monikers carry in the years to come?

The impacts of climate change might also prompt you to question other major aspects of your life, Clayton says. On the East Coast, as the wildfires made national headlines, people asked whether my partner and I have considered moving to another state, or half-jokingly suggested we do so. I’d always imagined spending the rest of my life in California, but as I struggle to wrap my mind around the possibility of year after year of ever-worsening wildfires, I’ve seriously begun to reconsider, and not without a sinking sensation. Indeed, “you have a certain foundation that you stand on, and a piece of that foundation got pulled away. It might make the rest shakier,” Clayton says.

She introduces me to a word that perfectly encapsulates my emotions right now: "solastalgia." A portmanteau of “solace” and “nostalgia” coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht at the University of Newcastle, it refers to pain in response to changes in natural environments that once brought us solace. “You’ve lost something, even though it’s still there, in a way,” Clayton says.

She adds that the pandemic, fights for racial justice, looming election, and other intersecting stressors can compound climate grief. In a pandemic, you can’t see the family members or friends who’d normally help you process it. News stories report on environmental catastrophes, but there aren't really meaningful plans in place for society to cope. Personally, I'm terrified of a Trump victory for a number of reasons, including what it would mean for the planet.

It’s even worse for Black and brown communities, often located in places that are more physically and geographically vulnerable to flooding, coastal erosion, and other climate change impacts, Clayton explains. They also tend to have poorer infrastructure and less access to political power. For the Indigenous communities on the Gulf Coast and other places that bear the brunt of climate change, “the emotional impacts are going to be strong, and also the social impacts, because your culture revolves around certain interactions with nature,” Clayton says.

For other communities devastated by climate change, it might represent the latest in a string of instances of society letting them down. While she doesn’t know of anyone who’s studied this, she imagines these disasters “would undermine trust in the government and mainstream society to consider your well-being.”

To cope with climate grief, treat it as you would any other form of grief, and recognize that your pain is valid, Clayton says. “I think some people feel embarrassed about feeling so sad about losing a span of trees or a meadow, but it is something we value, and it is ok to feel sad about it.”

She also suggests having some sort of ritual or commemorative ceremony for yourself, or with some close friends. Seek out others who feel similarly, and share your grief with each other, so you know you’re not the only one who feels this way. (The Good Grief Network is a support group for those grappling with the mental health repercussions of climate change.) Living more sustainably can assuage climate anxiety — a sense of dread or helplessness in the face of climate change — which, like me, you might also be experiencing. Even if one person’s actions aren’t enough to save the planet, they can spur others to follow suit, Clayton says. “You can have a ripple effect.”

There’s a certain comfort that comes from the ability to articulate your emotions, however painful. As I read about yet another swath of California, yet another place that holds so many memories, burning — this time, Sonoma and Napa counties, wine country — it’s at least something to hold onto.