The Big[ger] Death: Wilderness Loss by Cassandra Yonder (guest writer)

This Loss Across the Life Span course started with the notion that grief and loss happen in many areas of people’s lives. It was helpful to imagine the breadth of loss by making a list of all of the life losses we could think of, using Beattie’s Master Loss Checklist (Beattie, p.316) as a starting point. Many students added to the list. I was compelled to add the loss of Wilderness or Nature which is a loss I feel personally. Wilderness generally refers to ecosystems and their inhabitants that remain mostly unaffected by the influence of human beings. Nature includes the entire natural world. It is the total environment; therefore the loss of Wilderness and Nature can be referred to as Environmental Loss and includes such things as species extinction and loss of natural habitats. It is easy to imagine that we as Homo sapiens, as well as we as members of the total universe have indeed experienced drastic loss and are continuing to be bereaved of the environment in which we are embedded.
When I added grief for the loss of Wilderness to the master list of losses and a classmate replied that she also missed the woods near a cottage she used to go to, it did not seem to cover what I was talking about. I noticed that all of the other losses on the list were considered from the perspective of a human as a social construct within a human centered culture. To simply add Environmental Loss wasn’t extensive enough for me. My list would contain thousands of losses that might fall under the heading of Environmental Loss but are precious enough each in their own right that I would not condense them so. The tree in the backyard of my youth, half the world’s species of frogs, clean water for my children to drink, shared culture around the spirits of nature – to name a few. Other losses that were on the master list of losses would also be on my list, but by comparison they would be few. I suppose that each person’s master list would be unique in that those losses which are most impactful for them would be infinitely extensive since secondary and tertiary losses would be most obvious.

My reaction to this exercise provoked some self analysis and some research which is the basis of this paper. What exactly is Environmental Loss and why do I feel grief for the losses that are being suffered in the Natural world? Herein I will attempt to examine the bereavement we as human beings are experiencing through the lens of grief and bereavement. There seems to be much agreement about the fact that our environment is continuing to be radically depleted, but what can we learn about our reactions to this loss by applying some theories from the field of grief and bereavement?

When I initially set out to look for signs of grief regarding Environmental Loss in my culture I found many. There is a great deal of literature and media coverage detailing what we have already lost permanently (such as species that have gone extinct), what we are losing (such as access to clean water) and what we may lose if radical change in the way we live does not come about (such as biodiversity). When I asked people around me if they personally felt the impact of these losses they all replied positively. Many had a look of deep sadness in their eyes but could not articulate any more about their bereavement. There seems to be a lack of vocabulary around such issues, and this made me wonder: Are we as a culture and/or as a species experiencing our Environmental Loss in a healthy way?

Certainly the loss is ambiguous. There is no single event or moment in time that embodies Environmental Loss, though there are stories such as the plight of the Panda bear and now the Polar bear which bring this loss acutely into public awareness; however I think it would be more appropriate to think of Environment Loss as an accumulation of small losses that are constantly being added to. Those who work in the field of grief and bereavement are well aware of the particular challenges associated with loss that is ambiguous. It can seem as if the loss is so universal and ongoing and all encompassing that it almost becomes invisible in its universality. Such losses can become easily disenfranchised because it is difficult to separate the experience of loss from that of everyday life. In that sense the loss and grief becomes a way of life even if people are not consciously aware of it.

In many ways Environmental Loss is traumatic. Images from the Exxon Valdez oil spill that devastated thousands of miles of the coast of Alaska in 1989 is an example of an aspect of Environmental Loss that disturbs many people in a fundamental way. So is the harpooning of whales, the demolition of rainforests, the damming of rivers, the felling of the oldest trees and the extinction of the great buffalo herds, all of which bring about a sense of shock and numbness, of recurring and disturbing thought patterns and other signs of post traumatic stress (for many, but not all people). With increased media coverage and globalization we have ever more access to such news concerning the losses in Nature and it is interesting to note that many of us may be continually traumatized by the way Environmental Loss is happening. When loss is traumatic grief is complicated. When the trauma is ongoing grief can be very complicated.

Understandably, there is an immense sense of shared guilt about Environmental Loss since it seems that we as human beings are the cause of the loss. Guilt and blame often complicate grief too, especially when grieving people blame one another and the question of who has the right to grieve comes into play. It is easy to forget that sometimes it is those who may have caused the loss are most at risk for complicated grief. Ambiguous relationships with what has been lost and a sense of guilt for causing the loss tend to lead to unhealthy grief processes.

Do the above factors prevent us from adapting to our bereavement of Nature in healthy and constructive ways? Considering that many of us might be considered to be at a high risk for complicated grief reactions to Environmental Loss, are we as a species really able to maintain a healthy attitude toward our lives in the context of such overwhelming loss? In other words, if we could cope more successfully with our grief for the Wilderness, might we be better prepared to make good decisions about our changing identities within the context of our environment, possibly causing us to become a less destructive force in Nature?

Such questions interest me. My search began with books which only served to further articulate the one thing that is already painfully clear to me; that the magnitude of the loss is immense. I’m not sure how, in a few sentences (or a few thousand) to summarize the overwhelming destruction that is happening to Earth’s Wilderness; however, I think that E.O.Wilson does it best in The Future of Life as he describes the rate of acceleration of loss of biodiversity in the global environment. Maybe the series “Planet Earth” does a better job by simply showing flickers of the intense beauty of the Wilderness and allowing that bittersweet nostalgic feeling those images inspire in us to tell the story. Either way, we have access to evidence of all kinds which point to the great decline of Nature.

After accepting that such knowledge is to a certain degree (most definitely in the realms of science and reason) universal, why is it something that seems elusive? Is it that what we collectively understand to be the Truth about the future of life is too disturbing to accept or maybe that we don’t accept the Truths of this positivist era and chose instead to believe that Earth is rather inconsequential in the greater, spiritual Truth? Are we as a species still guided by a literal interpretation of the bible which articulates man as somehow separate from, or above Nature? Do we truly believe in Dominion, that we are stewards – or more than stewards – of this planet, that everything else is merely a resource for our own endeavours?

“Christianity also developed the notion that if an individual led a virtuous life and developed a relationship with Jesus, she or he would be rewarded in heaven. Norman Wirzba calls it a “life preserver” approach. Just as the individual with a life preserver survives his ship’s sinking, the doctrine of personal salvation renders the fate of the planet meaningless (Gibson, p.109).”

Here I encounter my Truth, and must test it within my own life and belief systems. In A Reenchanted World I read about the increasing spiritual meaning people are finding in Nature. Gibson describes a movement towards a new human identity that is conscious of itself as part of a greater whole that is our environment. We are Wilderness. Gibson and Wilson both describe transcendental experiences people are having which seem enlightening and have the potential to address this apparent chasm (or not?) between Religious and Environmental belief systems. One example is what Gibson refers to as the consecration of animals (p.40). He notes that many people are having profound experiences with animals (often around the event of looking deeply into their eyes near the moment of their death) which are found to be enlightening.

I am triggered. When asked why I became interested in the study of thanatology, I always reply that, “it has something to do with the fact that my father is a veterinarian and I literally grew up in the kennels of his clinic where I shared the birth and death experiences of many animals, but I’m not clear about the connection myself.” I realize now more clearly after reading The Reenchanted World that I have always been enchanted by the Natural world, but that not everyone shares my life experiences. I make note of this distinction I have felt between myself and most others in the culture in which I have been raised because I think it offers an explanation as to why I feel more affected by Environmental Loss than my counterparts; however, I don’t think it is as simple as concluding that Nature means more to me than it does to other people. When I read The Reenchanted World and learned that many people have moments of spiritual awakening to Nature and feel that communing with Nature helps them to make meaning in their lives, I realize that this is a shared phenomenon. If what people are doing with this sense of sacred connection to Nature is to feel the pain of Environmental Loss then I think that is healthy grieving.

This sense of connectedness to Nature tends to be expressed mainly in two ways; one is this expression of the sacred which acknowledges intrinsic value in Nature and the other is that Nature is something that is being lost. When I view such expressions as acts of grief I am taken aback by the appropriateness not only of the sadness people feel about Environmental Loss, but also of all of the other feelings, thoughts and behaviours we in the field of grief and bereavement are so familiar with. We as a species, along with all other life and matter with whom we share this Earth, this Home, this Gaia are collectively grieving an overwhelming loss. As I look for evidence of psychological, emotional, social, physical, spiritual affects of the bereavement of Nature I find all of these; but not obviously. As with other losses, our culture tends to focus on the sadness of grief to the exclusion of other symptoms, possibly hampering healthy grief processes.

How would a grief counselor appropriately address this grief? Firstly by recognizing it as such. If she were to follow a grief work model, Warden’s tasks may offer suggestions. 1) To accept the reality of the loss (Warden, p.27), and in this case of ambiguous loss, is continuing to occur at an increasingly accelerated rate. When viewed through this lens of recognition, the literature on rates of population explosion and extinction, of global warming and devastating pollution becomes very alarming indeed; however, for the first time I am able to view this sense of alarm as an important part of the grief work we share! 2) To work through the pain of grief (p.30). Knowing that grief is not just sadness but also anger, fear, numbness, loneliness, sadness, guilt, shock, anxiety, depression, agitation etc. then the fact that people’s emotions sometimes get in the way of a rational search for the most appropriate way to move forward together as a species is totally understandable! 3) To adjust to an environment in which the the deceased is missing (p.32) and learning new skills and to survive without what you have been bereaved of. The thought of survival without biodiversity on Earth is unimaginable. Many people need to deny the magnitude of the losses we face in order to cope with life in the present and this may be considered a healthy response to loss (denial), while at the same time other people are focusing their energy on learning to cope without the wilderness we are bereaved of. That might involve embracing aspects of technology which allow for maximum efficiency of resource allocation given the growing scarcity of [human] life-sustaining necessities such as clean water and food, but such initiatives are conflicted because they involve prioritizing human life which is what caused loss in the first place. 4) To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life (p.35). The idea of identity reconstruction is the most difficult part of bereavement to grapple with successfully when the loss is ambiguous. Here I stumble upon a possible reason why our Environmental Loss may often be unhealthy: We really don’t know who we are hurdling through space on this planet that is in ruin! Looking at our response to the loss of Nature according to Warden’s task theory indicates that we as a species seem to be coping to varying degrees with regard to the first three tasks, but accomplishing Warden’s fourth task may be necessarily complicating.

Since the idea of continuing bonds is so often included in the grief work model it is worth some discussion here. What is the nature of the bonds we maintain with aspects of our environment which are gone as well as those we anticipate losing in the foreseeable future? I cry as I wonder how we honour the frogs, the rainforests, the rivers, the oceans etc, etc, etc, etc, etc. How are we as individuals to experience resiliency and post traumatic growth when We (by that I mean Gaia, we-as-wilderness, as a collection of all life energy) are but a damaged fraction of our former self? What are our strengths and weaknesses in terms of coping with Environmental Loss? What are some examples of ways we are coping effectively and it what ways is our collective response to this grief maladaptive? How are we to maintain healthy bonds with the languishing planet on which we live?

Strobe and Shut put forward a dual process model of coping with grief. They articulate how it is normal and healthy to oscillate between a focus on loss and one towards restoration. As a society, we might spend time mourning those animals and habitats our children and grandchildren will never know while spending other time implementing policies to slow down future destruction. We can also use the dual process model to understand why at any given point in time there will be those of us who are pining and yearning and those of us who are taking a break from our grief and aren’t considering the effects we are having on the planet by flushing our toilets or driving our cars and throwing our coffee cups out the window. It is understandable that such disharmony can be as disruptive for policy makers as it is within a family system when grief is affecting each member differently. It is challenging to act as a cohesive unit and to move forward in a way that is right for all.

Many theorists in the field of grief and bereavement agree that we must be gentle and compassionate with ourselves as mourners and with others who are grieving to allow for healthy adaptation to loss. I think that point can inform healthy coping strategies when it comes to dealing with Environmental Loss in the sense that we may recognize that it is a loss we all share. Every single one of us suffers this bereavement and therefore all action can be considered an expression of grief though certainly we all experience our grief in our own way. When we acknowledge that we are grieving then we can take ownership and responsibility for our own processes.

In summary, it is apparent that we cognitively understand that we have had and are continuing to witness Environmental Loss that is substantial. In fact it is fundamentally life altering, but it is the process of coming to experience the personal grief associated with the loss that opens one to the possibility of healthy adaptation to such huge changes. As long as loss remains merely a fact, it is something that can be intellectualized, pushed away and blamed on others. It is only when it can be felt as a personal experience, or even shared as a collective experience that will be manifested uniquely in each of us that we can make use of theories that have been developed about loss and grief to engage in a healthy and adaptive grief process. Such a response to loss allows each to take ownership of their experience and as a consequence to feel empowered to live according to an authentic personal identity and to make choices that are right for them without excess burden of complicated grief reactions such as debilitating anger, guilt, avoidance, etc.

When we can recognize that we are a people in grief, we can begin to be gentle with ourselves and to tap into the shared experience in a motivating way rather than a stagnating one. Then we can allow our sense of responsibility to Nature as our home (instead of as something we are removed from) to guide our actions with honest intention. When we speak of our sacred connection to Nature we honour that attachment. When we analyze environmental devastation we articulate what we are losing and make it personally real. When we scream and cry and laugh and rage we suffer change and feel that in our bodies, minds and hearts. When we allow that suffering to change us we grow. When we change our behaviours and our policies as a result of that growth we adapt. When we embody a dynamic identity we find our authentic paths. When we are authentic we find forgiveness and we can accept this damage, this Environmental Loss and our embeddedness within it – and still find meaning in life. All these steps are part of normal, healthy grief.

Professionals in the field of grief and bereavement know that to deny loss is to cease to move forward in life. Unhealthy grief leaves us feeling insignificant. We believe ourselves to be hopeless, helpless and dissociated from our authentic selves. We throw up our hands and say that our actions don’t matter because life on earth is a lost cause. We ruminate without changing. We look to God and other supernatural forces to fix our problems. We become uninvested in life and come to believe that this life, this planet, this time; doesn’t matter. We find ourselves stagnant and without trust in ourselves or hope for our future. Considering the fact that Environmental Loss tends to cause complicated grief as discussed above, such unhealthy responses to the loss of Nature should not be surprising. We are all at risk. Compassion for one another as well as for our environment is essential at this moment in time.

Finally, I have found evidence for both healthy and unhealthy responses to the Environmental Loss we face. Discovering our reenchantment to and embeddedness within Nature is a crucial step to coping effectively with the changes that are taking place. I believe that Native traditions exemplify some effective coping strategies (Ross) and I hope that we as a species might seek the leadership of our Native Elders to guide us in maintaining our self respect as integral members of this shared life in Nature.

* * * * * * * * *

Submitted to: Eunice Gorman in partial fulfillment of the Certificate in Grief and Bereavement offered jointly by The University of Western Ontario’s Thanatology department and King’s College

GRBV 6007 – Losses Across the Lifespan (summer 2009)

Submitted by: Cassandra Yonder (Hurd)

Date submitted: June 30th 2009

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Beattie, M., (2006). The Grief club; The Secret to getting through all kinds of change. Hazelden: Minnesota.

Gibson, J., (2009). A Reenchanted world; The Quest for a new kinship with Nature. Metropolitan Books: New York.

Ross, R., (2006). Dancing with a ghost; Exploring aboriginal reality. Penguin Canada: Toronto.

Strobe, M., Hansson, R., Strobe, W., and Schut, H. (2001). Handbook of Bereavement Research; Consequences, Coping, and Care. American Psychological Association: Washington.

Suzuki, D., (2002). Good news for a change. Greystone Books: Vancouver, B.C.

Weisman, A., (2007). The World without us. Harper Perennial: Toronto.

Wilson, E., (2006). The Creation; An appeal to save life on earth. W.W. Norton and Company: New York.

Wilson, E.,(2001). The Future of life. Random House: New York.

Worden, W., (2002). Grief counseling and grief therapy (third edition); A Handbook for the mental health practitioner. Springer Publishing Company: New York.

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