Photo: Alexander Hafemann/Unsplash

We need this’: Calgarians work through eco-grief together

In oil-rich Alberta, it’s complicated.

Last summer, like so many others around the world, Calgarian Laura Keeth-Rowledge became preoccupied by coverage of a mother whale pushing her dead baby through the ocean for 17 days.

“I was sobbing, in tears,” she said. “I couldn’t function.” For her, it was a devastating reminder of the existential threat facing the planet, its creatures and human society.

Between last October’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report calling for urgent action to avoid the unthinkable, and the subsequent Environment and Climate Change Canada study finding the country is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, many Calgarians are questioning what climate action can and should look like—and how to work through it all.

Grief can be a starting point.

In 2017, Keeth-Rowledge started hosting a bi-monthly Eco-Grief Support Circle in her home—a small, intimate gathering. “As climate realities become more dire, people need to know how to ground, and how to grieve,” Keeth-Rowledge said.

As climate realities become more dire, people need to know how to ground, and how to grieve.

Laura Keeth-Rowledge

With stories of climate crisis becoming increasingly common, she says, “the smallest responsibility we have is to honour them through grief.”

“Once that happens, you can start seeing any action as an act of love, as opposed to one of desperation."

'We need this right now'

While the connection between nature and mental health isn't new, people are increasingly conscious of it. The term "environmental grief" was popularized in 2004 by grief expert Kriss Kevorkian, who was also moved by watching whale populations in decline. This led her to “put a name to the grief that many environmentalists and others who are concerned about the plight of our environment are experiencing.”

Kevorkian emphasizes that the deep grief people feel at losing the world around us is often not recognized by society at large, which can make it even worse.

This can be especially true in a place like Calgary, with an economy reliant on fossil fuels.

Calgary now has several groups like Keeth-Rowledge’s, helping participants deal with the emotional fallout of climate breakdown. “Part of the reason we need this right now,” said local community organizer and narrative therapist Tiffany Sostar, “is that we don’t have a lot of cultural and structural support for this kind of grief work.”

Right now, the [dominant] stories are not reflective of people having agency and hope being possible.

Tiffany Sostar,

Narrative therapist

Albertans share many values such as a love of wilderness. But the sharing often ends when the conversation turns to climate change. This is one finding from the recently completed Alberta Narratives Project, led by The Pembina Institute and the Alberta Ecotrust Foundation.

As one environmentalist said in the project: “It’s kind of devastating to live here when you feel like you can’t express your views.”

But the project also identified that many Albertans share a desire to pull together in the face of extreme weather events, as Calgarians did after the 2013 floods. The province is experiencing longer and more frequent wildfires, continuing flood risks, and bracing for hotter, drier summers—so this may be needed more than ever.

Agnieszka Wolska has been involved in the Eco-Grief Support Circle from the beginning. For years, she'd been feeling isolated in her experience of ecological loss and anxiety. The circle, which is co-facilitated by participants, helps her move through these feelings.

As a a registered social worker and mental health counsellor, Wolska says she knows she'd likely be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

"But this is not generalized anxiety disorder," she said. "It’s a community experience, and we have to process together."

“Our nervous systems are not meant to do this alone.”

Eco-grief in the Ghost Valley

On the heels of the 2013 flood, Alberta’s Ghost Valley was the site of a clearcut logging project from 2015 to 2017. The clearcut brought significant ecological and human changes to the local community.

This led Amy Spark, Bow Valley College’s sustainability coordinator, to try and understand eco-grief more deeply. She wrote her Masters’ dissertation for the University of Edinburgh on the emotional effects the logging had on Ghost residents, proprietors and activists.

“We tend to view the things that are human-caused as harder to grieve,” she said, emphasizing the difficulty Ghost residents felt at grieving the forest loss while living in wood houses, or enjoying the prosperity of their province.

“I think it’s wrapped up with a shared sense of responsibility and guilt.”

It’s a community experience, and we have to process together.

Agnieszka Wolska

In 2016, Spark co-founded Refugia Retreats with Jodi Lammiman, which offers workshops and experiences that combine environmental concerns, spirituality and self-discovery. After witnessing eco-grief in the Ghost, Spark appreciates the messiness of these experiences.

“You’re grieving the environment, your memories of that ecosystem," she said. "You’re grieving for your children and what this means for the Earth.”

Spark recognizes that Albertans, who have among the largest eco-footprints in the world, have real difficulty facing their feelings about the changing climate. So she wants Refugia to be a space where these complicated emotions are honoured—and lead to action.

“By legitimizing it as eco-grief, you’re telling the world how much you actually care,” she said. “I think that recognition of care can go a long way for action.”

'Stronger stories' about what's possible

Tiffany Sostar has formed a new Climate Grief Circle in Calgary in response to some of those questions. This circle is held in nature and focuses on action as remedy.

“Part of what complicates the experience of climate grief right now is a sense of despair, hopelessness and powerlessness,” said Sostar. “That’s one reason I wanted the group to include some kind of action.”

The July gathering focused on connecting to the land and history of Blackfoot Crossing on the Siksika Nation. In June, the group picked up trash and cigarette butts around containR in Sunnyside.

Tiffany Sostar picks up trash in Sunnyside in June. Photo: Brianna Sharpe

While these may seem like small acts, Sostar sees them as “community care”: acts of service which allow people to process, take action and share meaning alongside one another—and ultimately, move into “stronger stories” about our capacity to act and overcome.

From there, people can take on the economic and political systems that contribute to the climate crisis—whether that be marching through downtown Calgary in protest or holding city council accountable.

“Part of this is about the stories we’re telling about what’s possible, who has power and who doesn't,” Sostar said. “Right now, the [dominant] stories are not reflective of people having agency and hope being possible.”

Brianna Sharpe is a freelance journalist covering gender/sexuality, parenting, the environment and more. She lives on a mini-acreage in the Alberta foothills with her family.

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