I Wish Someone Would Ask Me…

Sometimes I wish somebody would ask me…

What does it feel like to be me? How do I manage to get out of bed in the morning; how do I find a good enough reason to bother? How do I keep doing it day after day, when sometimes it feels like there is nothing stretching out ahead of me in my life but a succession of further losses and then death.

I wish they would ask me what I have to look forward to, what my dreams are, what my hopes are. Ask me to explain what it feels like when all hope has gone, when your reason for being, your identity, and your sense of who you are in this world has shattered. What is left?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

I wish they would ask me how I motivate myself to go to work – who am I earning my money for? What is the point of doing it, day in, day out? Ask me why I continue to keep in touch with friends, with family, when their conversation, their presence, the circumstances of their lives can bring so much pain.

Ask me how I manage to leave my house anymore, when all around me I feel bombarded with the sight of people who have achieved my dearest wish, seemingly effortlessly. Ask how it feels when it seems like the universe is rubbing my nose in it, delighting in shoving things in front of me that just emphasise what I cannot have. How do I survive it? How do I not howl and scream when I finally pluck up the courage to venture out of the house and maybe go and sit in a café, only to find a couple with a newborn baby come and sit at the next table. Or how it feels to settle in for a long train journey, looking forward to some peace, and then the elderly women behind me spend hours talking of nothing but the joys of motherhood and how lucky they are to be grandmothers and how amazing their grandchildren are and what a precious and important job being a mum is. What does it feel like to be trapped by the ‘normal’ world in that way? What is that like – the feeling that there is no escape, no safe place in this world anymore? Ask me what it is like to feel tortured in my own home when new neighbours move in next door, and they have a baby and another on the way, and the walls are thin so I hear crying in the night, and when the sun shines I hear laughing and playing in the street, and all I want to do is close my window and shut the curtains and pretend that I am not here.  What is it like to run away from my own home because it no longer feels like the only safe place I have in the world?

Ask me how it is that my eyes cannot rest on a baby or a child or a pregnant woman anymore – they seem to just slide over her or him and then I have no choice but to look the other way. Or why I can’t enjoy watching tv anymore or films, or reading novels, or joining in conversations. Ask me how it feels to walk down the street and feel like I am tiptoeing through a minefield – because at any moment an unexpected blast of pain could assault me.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

I wish somebody would ask me how it feels when I’m at a party, or a conference, or on the bus and somebody says, ‘do you have children?’, or, ‘do you have a family?’, or, ‘how many kids do you have?’, or some such ‘innocuous’ question, and I have no good way to answer without killing the burgeoning conversation, or making up some lie, or revealing my deepest heartbreak to a stranger.

Ask me what people say when they learn I am childless. Does it make me feel better when people say ‘have you considered adoption’, or, ‘lucky you – mine are nothing but trouble’, or ‘if you want it enough, you will find a way’, or ‘there’s always hope’, or ‘you can have mine if you like’? Does it help when friends say, ‘I don’t understand why you are still grieving this’, or when a family member says, ‘I do wish you’d make an effort to be cheerful – you’re bringing everybody down’?

Ask me whether it hurts me when all of my colleagues in the office joke or complain about something their kids got up to, or the fact that they have to attend yet another tedious nativity play, or how tired they are because their baby is teething; or when they coo over the latest photo or talk about maternity leave or due dates or birth plans or Mother’s day or stretch marks or morning sickness or labour pains or childhood illnesses or birthday parties or the naughty step or reading progress or SATs or homework or detention or being a taxi service or Christmas shopping or falls and scrapes or funny behaviour or frustrating behaviour or irritating behaviour or babysitting or the good schools or school holidays or…or…or…

Ask me what my dreams are now, ask me whether I mind that I’ll never be a grandparent, ask me whether I wonder what my children would have looked like, whether they would have inherited my straight hair and my sense of humour, or their father’s whatever. Ask me whether I miss the cuddles, the tantrums, the exhaustion, and the pain. The feel of them in my arms and the smell of their hair and the sight of their tiny fingers and toes.

Ask me what their names would have been.

Ask me whether I am frightened of dying alone, or living alone, or being ill, or having dementia, or falling and having nobody there. Am I frightened of having nobody to advocate for me when I cannot do it for myself?

Ask me whether I mind not becoming somebody’s ancestor, or not having anyone to leave my legacy to. Does it matter that my precious possessions will probably not be valued or kept by anyone when I’m gone, or that nobody is likely to visit my grave? Ask me if it matters that my surname dies out with me.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Ask me what it felt like when my hopes were dripping slowly through my fingers, month by month, year by year, inescapably. Ask which is worse: the last desperate hope or the grief that sits alongside it. Ask me whether it was a relief to finally put hope away and pick up grief fully, which had been making itself comfortable within my house for years, anyway.

Ask me if carrying this grief around, invisibly, is exhausting. If sometimes I’m just too tired to get up and pretend that everything is ok. If I sometimes retreat to the nearest toilet cubicle to cry over that thoughtless comment, that shared photo, that pregnancy announcement, that unempathetic response, that intrusive question, that assumption about my life. Ask me whether I am still the same person that I was before this happened (or rather didn’t happen). Ask me if I think I will ever ‘get over’ this, or whether the changes that this grief has wrought are permanent scars that I will always carry.

Ask me if I mind suddenly being ‘other’, suddenly becoming a minority, an oddity, somebody who doesn’t ‘fit’.

Ask me whether I mind never seeing somebody like me in an advert or as the hero in a story.

Ask me how it feels when somebody says, “As a mother…”, as if they have the monopoly on empathy; or when a politician talks about ‘hard-working families’, or when somebody jokes about how easy it must be to be childless during lockdown, or assumes that we must all be dripping with spare cash and sleeping peacefully every night, after spending our days enjoying ourselves sipping cocktails with hordes of carefree friends.

Ask me whether I sometimes feel shame and shamed, whether I get judged by other people for having failed at being a proper adult, for having nothing to show for my life. Do I feel that? Do I blame myself? How have I found ways to forgive myself and recognise that sometimes it is just down to luck and that I have been unlucky when others, seemingly less worthy, have been lucky? Do I sometimes rage at god, at the universe, at my luck, at my past boyfriends, and my parents, and my upbringing, and myself?

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

I wish someone would ask who in my life understands and supports me, and who does not. Ask me how many friendships have fallen by the wayside in this grief. How many new friends have I found through my grief? Have I managed to make friends with myself?

Ask me how I have survived.

Ask me what I have done to grieve my griefs, and what this has taught me, and how I have grown and thrived. What strength have I found within myself to get through this? What can I do now that I could not do before, and what new skills have I learnt, whether I wanted to or not? What other emotions come in the wake of grief – do I find myself more receptive to joy now, having been broken open by grief? Ask me what are the gifts in my grief.

Ask me if I would swap these gifts for a chance to become a mother.

Australia is burning

Something unimaginably horrific is taking place across Australia at this moment. It is impossible to avoid the terrible news of the unstoppable fires sweeping across the country, too big to be controlled, too big to be stopped.

People have died; many more have lost their homes. Important ecosystems have been destroyed, and millions and millions of animals have been killed. It has been estimated that this fire season will kill around 1 billion animals. That estimate is creeping up all the time – I’ve heard it may be as many as 1.25 billion.

Photo by suzie maclean on Unsplash

How can we even begin to imagine that number, that much suffering and pain and fear? The mind doesn’t seem able to stretch far enough to imagine something so huge. How can we take it in?

Those who are directly affected by these fires are suffering greatly at the moment, with ongoing trauma, raw grief at the loss of loved ones, homes, livelihoods, communities, ways of life, as well as the animals and the trees. Fear for their futures – when will it happen again? This is going to take a lot to recover from, for Australia as a country.

For those of us watching from afar, who are not dealing with the immediate impacts of it, we are still very much affected; there is something particularly horrific about the scale of loss of wildlife and ecosystems here, that is hitting home more deeply than anything has before. I know I’m not alone in feeling this – many of us across the world are feeling the same way. It feels like as a planet we have suffered a deep wound with this loss. We may not be grieving a personal loss, but we are grieving a collective one. And the knowledge that humanity has caused this great harm to so many other species is very hard to bear.

One element of the tragedy of it is that what we are seeing now in Australia has been predicted for years. We’ve known where we were heading, and we haven’t managed to take enough steps to avoid our fate. And the most frightening fact is that this is only the beginning. This is climate breakdown in action; it has started, but what will come next?

It was Cassandra in Ancient Greek mythology, who always struck me as the most tragic figure of all. She was gifted with the ability to know the future but cursed never to be believed. I can’t avoid making the comparison with many in today’s world – many of us have been shouting increasingly loudly for years, for decades. But the truth, the science, hasn’t been believed or attended to; at least not by those with the power to take action to save us.

And how should we be responding to this? How can we adequately respond to death and suffering on such a scale? It is almost too hard to look at, but I think we must look at it. We must look at the terrible images of burned and injured or dead animals that are coming out now. We must allow ourselves to open up to feeling the magnitude of this catastrophe. If we block this out or forget that it is unprecedented in its awfulness, then it will become normalised – and that must not happen.

This is unbearable and we owe it to those creatures who lived and died to recognise that it has happened. Anger is an appropriate response; rage and fury, frustration and despair.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Sorrow and sadness are what many of us are feeling; let us weep together. I have read that it is likely that some species have been totally destroyed by this fire; a sudden wiping out of existence. More extinctions; and again, our fault. How can we bear the shame and guilt of this? That is also something to weep for. How could we do this to the other creatures that we share the planet with? What right do we have to destroy everyone’s world? It is sickening; how could we knowingly head down this path and not manage to stop ourselves in time? What have we done?

The Kangaroo Island Dunnart, a tiny population of endangered mouse-like marsupials, is feared lost after fire swept through its entire known habitat range in a couple of days.

The survival of the endangered Glossy Black Cockatoo is also in doubt as its entire habitat has been destroyed on Kangaroo Island.

Koalas were also in trouble before these terrible fires; their populations have fallen by almost a half since 1990. They are now an endangered species, at risk of extinction.

Photo by Zizhang Cheng on Unsplash

It is terrifying – watching the dreadful images and hearing stories about the millions of people breathing toxic air. What have we done to our home and our future? What legacy are we leaving to the next generation? If you aren’t terrified by this, then you probably have your head in the sand. Fear is a very reasonable thing to be feeling right now.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

How do we cope with all of this, these emotions demanding to be felt?

Let’s feel our grief, let’s speak of it and cry together, support each other’s pain, and recognise the magnitude of our own.

We can do the following: take in the individual stories of tragedy, of heroism, of loss and pain and despair and fear. We can read the stories and view the images and feel the loss, alongside those who are there. Let us feel all of it; let us not drown it out with business as usual, with entertainment, distraction, life as usual.

We can do what we can to let our fellow humans in Australia know that they are not alone, that we are watching and caring and grieving with them. And we can do what we can to help in practical ways; there are now so many appeals to donate money to, if we can spare anything.

And then let us direct our fear and our anger into protest; let’s stand up and say, ‘we refuse to tolerate this; this must be prevented from happening again.’ This is climate breakdown in action, and we must do all we can to prevent it from getting worse.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

We must keep shouting, and protesting, and trying everything possible to get those in power to take action. We do have power as individuals, when we gather collectively and refuse to be ignored. Life these days is not ‘business as usual’, so we must stop pretending that the old rules apply. The rules have changed, so we need to change.

If we do not manage to get real change accomplished now, this will surely happen again. It will get worse and more will be lost, until there is nothing left.

Finally, we honour those who are lost; the people who lost their lives, the cows and the sheep and the horses and the pigs and the dogs and the cats and the koalas and the kangaroos and the birds and the small mammals and the rodents and the marsupials and the reptiles and the insects and the trees and the plants. So many gone, so much pain and so much fear. Our hearts are broken for you all. The whole world is watching and the world weeps with you.

We will not forget.

None Remain

Mātuhituhi  -1972

The first name you were given by us was Mātuhituhi. Did you know that? In those days, we coexisted quite happily.

Later, we called you Bush Wren.

We wanted to classify you, so we decided that you belonged in the genus of New Zealand wrens, Xenicus.

We gave you another name, Xenicus Longipes, ‘the long-footed one’.

The Long-footed one

We discovered you. We named you. We categorised you.

You used to live in the forest; you didn’t really fly very well, but that didn’t matter. You were safe in the forest and could move around easily with your long feet. You were so little: only 9cm long and weighing just 16g.

You built your nests on the ground, which used to be perfectly safe; that was how you’d always done it.

You lived in what is now New Zealand, perhaps for hundreds, thousands of years before we came to your home.

Then we brought predators, deliberately and accidentally, who gradually took over. It wasn’t that long before there were only a few of you left, and then just one. And then no more.

It didn’t take very long for us to destroy you, without really noticing. Less than 100 years before you were all gone. No more births and no more deaths.

We killed you. We tried to save you. We failed you.

We tried to stop it, but it was too late. We tried to find a way to keep you alive, but it didn’t work. We lost you.

You were unique and you were sacred. We are diminished by your loss.

We had no right to do this to you. You did not deserve this.

I am sorry.

I remember you. Even though you and I were never on this Earth at the same time. You are significant to me and I will not forget your names. I will not forget what you look like.

I will not forget you.

Photo (taken in 1911) of the South Island Bush Wren (Xenicus longipes longipes). From Bird Life on Island and Shore (1925) by Herbert Guthrie-Smith (1862–1940).

Population Information: None remain.https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/22698580/93690852

Solace in Grief

One of the ways in which I have found solace in my own grief is through poetry. Here are a few of the poems that have given me the most comfort as I have moved through my own grief.

Photo by Daniel Mirlea on Unsplash

Adrift, by Mark Nepo

Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.

This is how the heart makes a duet of wonder and grief.

The light spraying through the lace of the fern

is as delicate as the fibers of memory

forming their web around the knot in my throat.

The breeze makes the birds move from branch to branch,

as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost in the next room,

in the next song, in the laugh of the next stranger.

In the very center, under it all,

What we have that no one can take away

and all that we’ve lost

face each other.

It is there that I’m adrift,

Feeling punctured by a holiness that exists inside everything.

I am so sad and everything is beautiful.

Photo by Marko Blažević on Unsplash

The Unbroken, by Rashani Reo

There is a brokenness

Out of which comes the unbroken,

A shatteredness

Out of which blooms the unshatterable.

There is a sorrow

Beyond all grief, which leads to joy.

And a fragility

Out of whose depths emerges strength.

There is a hollow space, too vast for words,

Through which we pass with each loss.

Out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sound

Whose serrated edges cut the heart

As we break open to the place inside

Which is unbreakable and whole,

While learning to sing.

Photo by Stanislava Stanchy on Unsplash

Let This Darkness be a Bell Tower by Rainer Maria Rilke (tr. Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows)

Quiet friend who has come so far,

feel how your breathing makes more space around you.

Let this darkness be a bell tower

and you the bell.

As you ring, what batters you becomes your strength.

Move back and forth into the change.

What is it like, such intensity of pain?

If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,

be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,

the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,

Say to silent earth, “I flow.”

To the rushing water, speak, “I am.”

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

Sometimes it won’t be ok

I used to have a safety net. It was just a feeling, but it was very real. And the funny thing is that I didn’t notice it was there until it disappeared.

Photo by Andrés Canchón on Unsplash

It has gone now, but I remember it well. It was a sort of confidence in the universe, a sort of faith or certainty that everything would somehow work out alright in the end. Not very logical, I agree, but it was absolute and unwavering and always there. It didn’t really matter what I did or didn’t do in life, or whether things were tough at times, because eventually, when it really mattered, things would just work out. It would be ok in the end. There would be a balance of good luck to counteract the bad luck, happy times to outweigh the sad ones. And the general order of things would be maintained. The things that were supposed to happen would happen. My life milestones would be reached without any difficulty.

There was never any awareness of exactly how it would work out, just that it would.

For example, I always took it completely for granted that my life would turn out to have the same kind of shape as my parents’ life did, or my friends’, or the life of everyone else I saw around me, or the way novels, films and TV showed life to me. At some point in my twenties I would meet a man and we would fall in love with each other and then get married and then have several children. And, indeed, this is what has happened to almost everyone I know. Maybe not in their twenties – things have changed; but certainly at some point in their thirties. But it didn’t work out that way for me – not through lack of wanting it or trying to find it, or wishing or praying for it, or doing everything I could to achieve that outcome. And gradually my confidence that ‘things would just work out’ started to diminish. I knew by my late thirties that I was cutting it a little fine, but things would somehow work out ok, because they just had to. Any other outcome was inconceivable and I couldn’t allow myself to go there.

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

By my early forties I was really frightened because I couldn’t see how the universe was going to manage to work everything out in the way it had to be, but I still had some hope left that somehow, miraculously, it would.

But it didn’t.

Around the age of 44, I got real and my hope left me. And with it, this safety net, this feeling of the universe having my best interests at heart. A security blanket of reassurance to wrap around you when scary things happened. “It will be alright in the end”: I’ve woken up to the fact that this is the story I have been soothing myself with my whole life. It worked really well when I was a child, but I have learnt that it is a lie. Of course the universe doesn’t have my back – why should it? Terrible, unfair and undeserved things happen to good people all the time. I’m not special, so why should things miraculously work out the way I want them to? Sometimes, in low moments, I feel like the universe is actually trying to torture me (for unknown reasons), such as when I need a moment of peace and a heavily pregnant woman or someone with a newborn baby comes and sits down next to me on a train or in a café, or when someone at work asks me if I ever wanted children or why I don’t just adopt, or when my heart feels so broken that I’m surprised I am still alive.

But most of the time I realise that it is all completely random and that there is no reason why things didn’t work out the way I desperately wanted. It isn’t my fault, and it isn’t the fault of god or the universe. It is just that I had it wrong all along – and sometimes things just do not work out in the end. Sometimes things just are not ok and will never be ok. Sometimes our worst nightmares do come true. And we have to learn how to live without that treacherous safety net – it was never real anyway.

When my hopes of becoming a mother left me, all of my other hopes departed at the same time – it seems that they were all interconnected. When I ceased to believe that things would be ok, I found my eyes opened to a much clearer view of our shared future on this planet. I stopped believing that things would work out ok, in terms of humans waking up to the damage that we have caused to the climate and to our biodiversity. I had been hopeful for the previous couple of decades, and had been trying to change things in every way I could think of, knowing that somehow, eventually, we would all wake up and fix the problems we had caused on this planet, and that everything would be ok. But when I stopped kidding myself in one area, I couldn’t continue to delude myself in other areas. So all of my hope went. I now no longer feel any sense of denial that we are heading for very dark times – it seems impossible to avoid the future we have driven ourselves towards and I don’t believe that everything is going to work out ok in the end.

It makes the world a lot scarier, I can tell you. Living without hope or expectation is very hard and I don’t quite know how I’m doing it, but I can tell you that it is possible. Things like resilience, determination, integrity, and respect are what keep you going when you reach this place, instead of hope and faith. I no longer expect things to be ok in the future, even if the alternative is unimaginable. I do feel that hope is a kind of denial and is perhaps no longer helpful for us. Maybe the world needs more of us to live without that kind of denial, in these dark times. If we can bear to face head-on towards our likely future, then maybe we can mitigate some of the worst of it before it arrives. But if we continue to stick our fingers in our ears and lie to ourselves that ‘surely it’ll work out alright’, then I truly think we are in trouble.

Unlike the random chance of whether or not somebody will get to have children, there are actually things that can be done to change our future on this planet; we don’t have very much of a chance left, it is true, but we do know that if we continue not to act it will be much worse for us than if we start to act now. So I think we should act now, not in hope, but in determination to do the best we can in a terrible situation. We can grieve for what we know is lost and what we’ll lose in the future, while also working to preserve whatever we can of life on this planet. And we must do this hard work ourselves, because I don’t think the universe has our backs anymore.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The Grief of Childlessness

It’s more common than you might think.

In recent years, ONS in the UK has reported that 1 in 5 people reach their mid-forties without having children, and there are similar statistics from other countries including the US.

One of the many painful things about unwanted childlessness is that other people tend to assume that if you don’t have children, you didn’t want to have them. And while this is true for lots of people who remain happily childfree, it is also likely that many others without children experience some grief around their childlessness.

Photo by CHIRAG K on Unsplash

In fact, of the 1 in 5 people who reach their mid-forties without having children, only approximately 10% have chosen the childfree path. The remaining 90% are childless not by choice. And you might be forgiven for assuming that most of these people have experienced medical infertility. Actually, medical issues preventing pregnancy account for only a small proportion (perhaps another 10%) of those childless not by choice. The vast majority find themselves childless by circumstance.

And there are many many different circumstances that can lead to unwanted childlessness. As Jody Day, founder of the wonderful Gateway Women community (which provides support for women struggling with unchosen childlessness) says, “The room called childlessness has many doors; not just the ones marked ‘didn’t want’ or ‘couldn’t have’. She has written a blog post called ’50 ways not to be a mother, though she reckons that she has identified more like 100 ways since she started counting them. It could be anything from lack of a suitable partner to lack of money, lack of support systems, other health factors, or a whole host of other reasons.

So, for every 100 women in their mid-forties, 20 will not have children. Two of those will be childfree by choice (didn’t want children) and 18 will be childless by circumstance, and quite possibly in the throes of their silent, invisible grief. It isn’t quite as black and white as this, of course, and there are many shades of grey in between definitely not wanting kids and definitely wanting them – there is a whole complex area of ambivalence for many women who find themselves in circumstances which aren’t ideal for having children.

For many of these childless women, the last years when they are still hopeful of becoming a mother and the years when they have to accept that this will never happen for them are the most painful times in their lives. Many women find that they struggle to cope with everyday life, and it is common to feel depressed, isolated, even suicidal, as it can seem like they are the only person in the world who feels like this.

In part, this is because the subject of childlessness is such a taboo in our society that it is very hard to find people to talk to about our feelings. It is common for women to think that they are going mad, before they realise that what they are feeling is actually grief.

And, of course, it isn’t only women who suffer from this grief. There is a lot less attention paid to childless men, and fewer resources out there to support them, but thankfully there is increasing recognition of their pain. Hopefully a support community for childless men will soon come into being; as far as I know there is not one yet.

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

It is a kind of disenfranchised grief, which means that it is widely misunderstood and unrecognised. The pain of having your feelings judged, ignored, belittled, denied, or ridiculed can make the grief itself that much worse. It is shocking, considering the numbers of people dealing with this, that it is such a hidden grief that even many grief counsellors are unaware of it and therefore may do more harm than good when their help is sought.

Many of us have had the experience of having to educate our own counsellors about what not to say and what is helpful to us.

Brene Brown has said that childlessness is one of the major areas of empathy failure, and empathy failure is certainly a very common experience for those of us living with this grief. This increases our feelings of isolation, and removes our sense of safety in being authentic with others; when our pain is so often received without empathy and we so seldom receive a response which helps us, then it is natural to withdraw and to close off from people and hold our pain close to our chests.

For this reason, it is vital that those suffering in this way seek the help of others who are able to provide understanding and support. It is very difficult for people who are not in this position to understand why it is so painful – either they didn’t want children so find it hard to empathise with our grief, or they were able to have their own children and can’t imagine what it must feel like not to have them.

Many people make the assumption that you cannot grieve for what you have never had.

But other childless women (and men) can and do understand. Even a decade ago there were no support networks or groups for childless women, but these days it is becoming much less of a taboo and more and more communities are arising. One of the first was Jody Day’s Gateway Women community, which has thousands of members from all around the world now, and which provides some invaluable resources to those suffering and those who feel alone.

There are also Gateway Women meetup groups worldwide now, so you can join up and go along and socialise with women in similar positions as you – it is so helpful to meet others and it can really help to ease that feeling of isolation.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

There are also many other resources for those grieving unwanted childlessness. Here are just a few of them:

The Dovecote Community – Facebook Group

Childless Path to Acceptance – Facebook Group

World Childless Week – 16-22 Sept 2019

Walk in our Shoes

Living the Life Unexpected – Jody Day a wonderful book, written specifically to help you deal with the grief of unwanted childlessness.

There are many other books and resources out there, and I’ll be adding these in future posts.

The most important thing to know, right now, though, is that you are not alone. There are many of us out there who do understand. Finding ways to connect with others who understand is invaluable and can really help you, if you find yourself grieving this loss.

Mourning the unremembered

How do we even begin to grieve these losses, these extinctions? How do we grieve the enormity of the breakdown of our climate?

Is it not appropriate to feel these emotions (grief, anger, desolation, hopelessness, guilt, fear, frustration, anxiety, depression, emptiness, and denial), given what we know about what is happening, and given the threats to our very existence? As Jiddu Krishnamurti famously said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” (Charles Eisenstein talks about this very thing here https://charleseisenstein.org/video/it-is-no-measure-of-health-to-be-well-adjusted-to-a-profoundly-sick-society/.) My view is that these feelings shouldn’t be avoided but need to be talked about openly, as a step on the path to fixing the mess we have created, i.e. changing our sick society into one which works in harmony with the natural world, rather than in an exploitative way. Grieving and expressing our anger and our sorrow and our rage will help us to connect to ourselves and each other, and will make it easier to move through these paralysing feelings and into action.

How do we reconcile the guilt we feel over humanity’s role in this destruction? Can we ever forgive ourselves?

How do we live with this existential fear of our own extinction hanging over us? How do we cope with our fear for ourselves and for the next generations?

One way to start is by remembering those that have been lost; by honouring them and trying to ensure that their existence was not meaningless. There is a sacred duty of remembrance that we bear, I believe. We must remember all that have been lost, even though only a small proportion were actually known to us by name. We must remember them all.

I’ve always liked the idea of the ‘tomb of the unknown soldier’ – a feeling that it was somehow overwhelmingly important to remember those who were lost beyond our ability to name them. The idea of this came out of the horrors of the First World War, when so many died that some soldiers were buried without their names being known. This unknowing remembrance has become a sacred duty in so many countries, and the tomb of the unknown soldier is still honoured today.

In just this way, I believe we have a sacred duty to remember those creatures and plants who have existed and then ceased to exist without ever being known. There have been so many of them.

In the same way, I also believe we have a duty to remember all humans who have died unmourned and unremembered. It is the same sacred duty of remembrance.

Joanna Macy says, “We are capable of suffering with our world, and that is the true meaning of compassion. It enables us to recognize our profound interconnectedness with all beings. Don’t ever apologize for crying for the trees burning in the Amazon or over the waters polluted from mines in the Rockies. Don’t apologize for the sorrow, grief, and rage you feel. It is a measure of your humanity and your maturity. It is a measure of your open heart, and as your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal. That is what is happening as we see people honestly confronting the sorrows of our time.”

Extinction Grief, Climate Grief

We are in a unique position as human beings: to be alive right now, at this precise point in the earth’s history. Never before have we knowingly faced the possibility of our own extinction, and never have we known that we have brought this situation on ourselves. Human actions have caused climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.

Our powerlessness to halt our own destructive stupidity should be the trademark of our species, rather than our intelligence.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Not only that, but, knowing that our actions were leading to the destruction of our world, we have continued, even accelerated, down the same path through ignorance, avoidance, denial, greed, or short-term gain. Our powerlessness to halt our own destructive stupidity should be the trademark of our species, rather than our intelligence.

Is it any wonder that these realisations are causing us to recognise a new kind of affliction which is facing so many of us? Feelings of grief, anger, desolation, hopelessness, guilt, fear, frustration, anxiety, depression, emptiness, and denial are rife in the world today. It may well be that our existential concerns about Earth and humanity’s future are what are underlying the mental health epidemic which is facing Western society today. This ‘climate grief’ is a newly recognised phenomenon, but one which is increasingly being talked about and taken seriously.

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash
Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

And it isn’t just our own future destruction that we are grieving. We have created a situation in which we are facing a massive extinction on this planet, through loss of habitats, the introduction of invasive species, and climate disruption. We are losing so many species, the most since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and we know that we are causing this mass extinction phase ourselves. Currently we are losing around 200 species every day (1,000 times the ‘natural’ rate), and are facing a potential loss of 50% of all species on the planet within the next 30 years. According to the IUCN, more than 27,000 species are threatened with extinction; and that is just the species we know about.

We are causing the loss of well-known animals such as rhinos and tigers and polar bears, as well as those we have never had the chance to see, or to name. Many have been destroyed before we had the chance to see them. Not just animals, but plants and trees and other organisms. They are disappearing forever, these unique beings who are the final results of millions of years of evolution. Gone. Because of us. They are impossible to replace and our ecosystem, what survives of it, will be immensely poorer for their loss. Every creature had a place in this system, and the system is diminished without them.

This kind of grief is almost the opposite of a death loss. This is the absence of a birth, any birth, ever again. It is almost unimaginably vast, as a loss.

As Joanna Macy says, “This is a dark time, filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, because these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings.”