Species are Threatened

We don’t have to look far to read or hear about the devastating events that are happening in the world around us. Everybody knows this on some level and perhaps deep in their bones.

Our seas are rising. Our ancient rain forests are being pillaged for oil, grazing and all kinds of other purposes. Bee populations are dying. Whales are beaching themselves, from having become entangled with fishing nets and colliding with ships. Fracking is causing earthquakes. The UN Report on Climate Change reports that 1 million species are threatened with extinction. (1)

Parts of our country are literally withering in droughts. One billion animals disappeared in the Australian fires. And just in my small garden, I notice fewer bees in the blossoms. There is an eerie silence as morning bird songs disappear.

Grief Pervades

Sorrow and loss are everywhere.

But do we really know it in our bones? It’s very difficult to feel and absorb the full weight of these changes around us. It can be easy to deny, minimize or give in to despair when we read the news. In the face of the overwhelming reality of what is happening, we can easily feel that anything we do is insignificant.

The language of researchers and scientists does not lend itself to feeling the impact and grief. We read words like “environmental, climate or ecological grief”, but they don’t begin to describe the magnitude of what is happening. We know the facts. They are written everywhere. And yet, we don’t have a lexicon for the loss of our creatures and the natural world around us. It’s hard to access a pathway to let our feelings in and grieve.

Disenfranchised Grief

Also, there is no cultural recognition of these losses through ritual or gatherings of remembrance. This kind of grief is disenfranchised.

What if we used different words to describe the devastation? A word that might help us tap into and more consciously feel and acknowledge our grief? There is a Dutch term, Landschapspijn. which means “landscape ache.” An Australian eco-philosopher, Glenn Albrecht, uses the term solastalgi which refers to the pain of no longer finding solace in a place that previously felt like home.

The sound of the word when I say it carries a softness, a relatable tenderness that our English terms don’t hold. There is an ancient Sanskrit word – bodhicitta –which means “awakened heart”. I like that word because it is a call to open our hearts and feel.

Inhabiting the Uninhabitable

What if our hearts really opened to what is occurring on our planet earth? Might we begin to see how deeply we are all interconnected, and that the only real response to this planetary crisis is compassion and action?

We might begin to realize that our well being is intricately woven into the well-being of the planet as well as with all those around us. We all share this home together. We are now faced with trying to inhabit a place that is becoming uninhabitable for all species.

If we can find words to describe this devastation, it can awaken our hearts to the deep grief of these losses. If we can move the “conceptual language” of environmental crisis to relational words that allow us to feel the destruction that we are causing in our bones, perhaps our awakened heart will awaken us to act.

Our Home is on Fire

You might well ask why feeling our grief so important? You might even decide you have no interest in feeling that kind of sadness, that it is paralyzing for you.

We must remember that our grief is an expression of what we love. Francis Weller, author and grief therapist, writes that grief is a protest against the collective agreement to turn our back on what is happening (2). If we turn our backs on what is happening, we will fail to act on behalf of the home that we share and love. Our home is on fire. It begins with awareness and listening, finding and using words that poignantly describe the plight of our burning and aching earth.

Let’s call it like it is. Our aching, dying landscape, our wounded planet, our burning home. Once the scales fall from our eyes, what do we see?

Small Steps

What words can we find and speak so that we feel this in our bones and in our bones and in our hearts? Then maybe together we will begin to feel the deepest sorrow we have ever known, our heart wrenching grief. Perhaps this will enable us to move forward, in collective action, taking small but radical steps toward change, working together with our broken open hearts.

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(1) UN Climate change Report


(2) Weller, Francis. “The Geography of Grief”. The Sun Magazine, October 2015

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About the Author:

Claire B. Willis is a clinical social worker who has worked in the fields of oncology and bereavement for more than 20 years. A cofounder of the Boston nonprofit Facing Cancer Together, Willis has led bereavement, end-of-life, support, and therapeutic writing groups. She has co-taught Spiritual Resources for Healing the Mind, Body, and Soul at Andover Newton Theological School. She maintains a private practice in Brookline, Massachusetts. As a lay Buddhist chaplain, Claire focuses on contemplative practices for end-of-life care. In addition to Opening to Grief, Willis is the author of Lasting Words: A Guide to Finding Meaning Toward the Close of Life. OpeningtoGrief.com


Claire Willis Claire

As a child, grief was the wall paper in my home. Unspoken traumatic deaths and losses swirled through the lives of both my parents. As a child I felt the unspoken sorrow in my home. I made a vow at that time to live differently. After college I went to social work school to become a clinical social worker. Initially my work was focused on working with those at the margins - the voiceless ones - and when my mother's health failed, I switched the focus of my work. I started working with people living with cancer when my mother was dying in the late 80’s. Before she died but with death clearly on the horizon, I had conversations with her that I had yearned to have my whole life. I saw how rich and healing these weeks could be in people's lives. I wanted to have conversations with people that were meaningful – that were open, honest and heartfelt. I found a place where my intensity was welcomed. About 12 years ago, I developed pulmonary emboli and had a near death experience. At that point, my life took an unexpected U turn. The first book I read after my hospitalization was called Living Fully, Dying Well. As it happened it was written by someone who had also had a near death experience with pulmonary emboli. He had experienced, as I had, that coming to terms with death enhanced his life. I felt even more deeply called at this point to working with people who were dying and grieving. Having come to that edge of life and death shaped my work going forward. Shortly after, I was drawn to a Buddhist practice when i met my teacher at a workshop. Buddhism emphasizes the impermanence of life and the inevitability of suffering. But I also came to realize that coming to terms with what is instead of what or how I wished things to be was essential to lessening the suffering in my life. I have had a daily practice ever since.

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