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In Facing Mass Extinction, We Must Allow Ourselves to Grieve

“Grief is a way to honor what we are losing,” writes Dahr Jamail.

Grief is a way to honor what we are losing.

Part of the Series

In 2015, my best friend, Duane French, came down with pneumonia and was taken to the hospital. Pneumonia on its own is bad enough, but for someone who has been quadriplegic for more than forty years, it is also life threatening. I met Duane when I first moved to Alaska in 1996, then I became his personal assistant. Duane is now one of the oldest living quadriplegics on the planet and he has always been one of my heroes. He broke his neck in a diving accident when he was just fourteen and spent his adolescence in a rehabilitation hospital with mangled Vietnam veterans returning from the war. Duane decided not to allow something like a broken neck and confinement to an electric wheelchair stop him from working to help pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since then, he has run more than one state government division that assists people with disabilities.

Struggling to breathe, Duane was moved to the ICU shortly after being admitted to the hospital. His partner, Kelly, his personal assistant Sakhum, and I took twelve-hour shifts by his bed. Three weeks went by as one antibiotic after another failed. Duane’s heart rate was over one hundred beats per minute for weeks on end. He was barely eating, and he began spending more and more time wearing a breathing mask.

Knowing the odds were heavily stacked against him, I sat at his bedside and gave him my full attention. When he slept, I watched his chest rising and falling, savoring the fact that he was still alive. When it was my turn to rest, I would go to bed in Kelly and Duane’s guest bedroom back at their home, knowing that Duane was still alive. But he continued to decline and, as he did, every moment with him was an ever more precious gift. It was easier for me to sit by his bed than anywhere else on Earth. My heart was breaking; yet I did not want to miss one single second of Duane’s life. I had no idea if he would survive, and that became less relevant as each moment I had with him became increasingly inestimable.

Duane’s condition grew worse. There appeared to be nothing left to do. The nurse administered morphine to calm his struggles to breathe.

Duane ended up, miraculously, pulling through, but the experience stayed with me as I wrote this book. Reflecting on what is happening to the planet, I realize that the intimacy I shared with Duane when I thought I was losing my best friend is the intimacy we should have with the Earth. When I thought I was losing Duane, I did not want to leave anything that was in my heart for him unsaid, nor were there any wrongs left to make right. In an analogous way, we may be watching Earth dying, so we each get to ask ourselves: what am I called forth to do at this time? Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has written how “the most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When our mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” Only by sharing an intimacy with the natural world can we begin to know, love, and care for her. By regaining this intimacy we can begin to understand the ramifications of what it is to lose so much of Earth’s ice, species, and biosphere. For so long we have lived in a world where many never experience this intimacy, love, and connection before it’s too late.

For decades, many of us have turned a blind eye to what is happening to the planet. But now, given that Earth may well be dying, we may be ready to stand up to protect what we love. An extraordinary alchemy can take place when people follow their inner directives to stand up and face squarely the dire odds of biosphere survival. These actions involve extraordinary outer and inner courage, which can nurture a profound activism. The gifts provided by the crisis at hand are the conditions that make possible widespread shifts in political identity, purpose, and consciousness.

No one knows if the biosphere will completely collapse. Our future is uncertain. Given the fact that a rapid increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere coincided with previous mass extinctions and that we could well be facing our own extinction, we should be asking ourselves, “How shall I use this precious time?” Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of the value just in being present with what is happening to the planet: “When your beloved is suffering, you need to recognize her suffering, anxiety, and worries, and just by doing that, you already offer some relief.”

Reporting on the catastrophic impact of climate disruption for this book involved trips to the front lines of collapsing geo- and biospheres and interviews and reports about near-apocalyptic scenarios: about rapidly thawing permafrost, the release of methane into the atmosphere, the flooding of coastal cities, the increasing likelihood of billions of people dying in the not-so-distant future. Though I learned to find a way of looking unwaveringly at what was happening to the planet, I fell into a deep depression and I began to wonder whether there was any point in even writing about this.

I had hoped my work in Iraq would contribute to ending the US occupation of that country. I had hoped, too, that writing climate dispatches and bludgeoning people with scientific reports about increasingly dire predictions of the future would wake them up to the planetary crisis we find ourselves in. It has been very difficult for me to surrender that hope. But I came to understand that hope blocked the greater need to grieve, so that was the reason necessitating the surrendering of it.

Back home from Denali, I had to continue to find a way to balance what I was experiencing. I resumed my weekend forays into the nearby Olympic National Park. Again drawn to the mountains, I hiked through old-growth forests up into alpine basins filled with mountain lakes and hemmed in by rugged peaks. Scrambling up steep rocky slopes toward another summit and finding a cliff ledge to perch on for a lunch of nuts, dried salmon, and coffee, I breathed in the scene below: a valley running toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the glacier just below the summit of Mount Carrie, a raven flying above. I savored every moment. Each trip sparked my curiosity about another peak or valley. When I returned home, I cleaned my gear and replenished the food bag, and the maps came out again, and I would begin packing for my next hike or climb. These forays into the mountains are my way of being with the Earth in order to remain connected to my sorrow for what is happening, as well as to honor her.

We are already facing mass extinction. There is no removing the heat we have introduced into the oceans, nor the 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere every single year. There may be no changing what is happening, and far worse things are coming. How, then, shall we meet this?

“The question is not are we going to fail. The question is how,” author and storyteller Stephen Jenkinson, who has worked in palliative care for decades, states. “The question is, What shall be the manner of our inability to care for what was entrusted to us? The question is our manner of failing.” Jenkinson, who now makes his living by teaching about grief and the acceptance of death as an integral part of living, spoke eloquently about grief and climate disruption during a lecture he gave at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. When he talks about our failure to care for what is entrusted to us, he is also saying that the time to change our ways is long past. “Grief requires us to know the time we’re in,” Jenkinson continues. “The great enemy of grief is hope. Hope is the four-letter word for people who are unwilling to know things for what they are. Our time requires us to be hope-free. To burn through the false choice of being hopeful and hopeless. They are two sides of the same con job. Grief is required to proceed.”

Each time another scientific study is released showing yet another acceleration of the loss of ice atop the Arctic Ocean, or sea level rise projections are stepped up yet again, or news of another species that has gone extinct is announced, my heart breaks for what we have done and are doing to the planet. I grieve, yet this ongoing process has become more like peeling back the layers of an onion— there is always more work to do as the crisis we have created for ourselves continues to unfold. And somewhere along the line I surrendered my attachment to any results that might stem from my work. I am hope-free.

A willingness to live without hope allows me to accept the heartbreaking truth of our situation, however calamitous it is. Grieving for what is happening to the planet also now brings me gratitude for the smallest, most mundane things. Grief is also a way to honor what we are losing. “Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them,” thinker, writer, and teacher Martín Prechtel writes. “Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.” My acceptance of our probable decline opens into a more intimate and heartfelt union with life itself. The price of this opening is the repeated embracing of my own grief. Grief is something I move through, to territory on the other side. This means falling in love with the Earth in a way I never thought possible. It also means opening to the innate intelligence of the heart. I am grieving and yet I have never felt more alive. I have found that it’s possible to reach a place of acceptance and inner peace, while enduring the grief and suffering that are inevitable as the biosphere declines.

I believe everyone alive is feeling this sorrow for the planet, although most are not aware of it. Rather than grieving for her, many are given pills for depression, or find other ways to self-medicate. To live well involves making amends to the Earth by finding gratitude for every bite of food and for every stitch of clothing, for every element in our bodies, for it all comes from the Earth. It also means living in a community with others who are remaking themselves and their lifestyle in accord with what is. “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well,” Czech dissident, writer, and statesman Václav Havel said, “but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” Writing this book is my attempt to bear witness to what we have done to the Earth. I want to make my own amends to the Earth in the precious time we have left, however long that might be. I go into my work wholeheartedly, knowing that it is unlikely to turn anything around. And when the tide does not turn, my heart breaks, over and over again as the reports of each succeeding loss continue to come in. The grief for the planet does not get easier. Returning to this again and again is, I think, the greatest service I can offer in these times. I am committed in my bones to being with the Earth, no matter what, to the end.

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