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Living Grief, Finding Connection

Mary Ann Percy
On Loss (May 2023)
Healing the World

As climate disasters, species extinctions, and the relentless unraveling of the Web of Life on Earth become ever more impossible to ignore, eco-anxiety becomes ever more widespread. There’s now a name for this unique mental anguish – solastalgia – a term created by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht in the early 2000s. Unrelenting hurricane seasons, devastating forest fires, smoke- and smog-filled air, prolonged drought, extreme heat, clear-cutting – all these can trigger solastalgia. Buddhist deep ecologist, eco-philosopher and activist Joanna Macy expresses this well in The Bestiary:

. . . The lists of endangered species grow longer every year. With too many names to hold in our minds, how do we honor the passing of life? What funerals or farewells are appropriate?

Reed warbler
      Swallowtail butterfly
            Bighorn sheep
                  Indian python
                        Howler monkey
                              Sperm whale
                                    Blue whale

Dive me deep, brother whale, in this time we have left. Deep in our mother ocean where once I swam, gilled, and finned. The salt from those early seas still runs in my tears. Tears aren’t enough anymore. Give me a song, a song for a sadness too vast for my heart, for a rage too wild for my throat . . .

 – Joanna Macy and Molly Brown, Coming Back to Life (2014)

I have served on the Steering Committee of Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW) since 2015 and also during the 1990s when it was called Friends Committee on Unity with Nature. I have been writing about and offering programs on behalf of Life on Earth for many years, especially in the past decade. The increasing distress that I have noticed in recent years, both within and beyond Friends’ circles, related to the multi-faceted losses of Life on Earth, has been striking. I’ve seen this show up as grief, fear, anger, anxiety, despair, guilt, longing, restlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, and even disruption to individuals’ sense of identity, belonging, or security. All these reactions seem perfectly reasonable to me, given that damage to our “physical environment” has a negative impact on our mental health – as researchers, therapists, and doctors are increasingly becoming aware. In their 2017 guide for therapists, Mental Health and our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance, The American Psychological Association wrote, “The psychological responses to climate change, such as conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness and resignation are growing.”

Although these countless, profound, and multi-faceted losses often go unacknowledged, even unrecognized, they still insidiously gnaw at us. Yet more distressing, we are also aware that it is our own species, homo sapiens, that is responsible for all this death and devastation. It evokes in us an existential despair. . .

For the most part, we carry this awful burden privately. The dominant culture offers us little assistance, insisting that our distress is due to a personal pathology or personal failing, that the “solution” is to simply take a pill . . . or to go shopping!

So, we are battered by relentless waves of frightening images and news stories, increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists and population biologists. Rarely told in the mainstream press are the countless positive stories of people engaging in work on behalf of Life on Earth. (I especially recommend Yes! Magazine and Paul Hawken’s 2008 book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World.)

It’s as though the powers-that-be are suppressing the idea that common people are not powerless, that they can and do make a positive difference. As if that idea might disrupt the current economic and political order.

Thus, many of us are worn down and paralyzed by our despair, feeling powerless to change the trajectory of the ongoing losses and destruction of the biosphere.

What’s a good Quaker to do?!

For a start, we can turn to these words from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. When he was asked what we most need to do to save our world, he replied, “What we most need to do is to hear within ourselves the sounds of the Earth crying.”

If we do, however, pain, dread, rage, sorrow, guilt may arise. These are healthy and inevitable feelings in their place, yet we often turn away from them just to cope, just to get through our daily lives. And as we repress these feelings, we may become stuck or paralyzed by them. Or we can become so inured to images of suffering that we look away in a state of apathy.

I’ve heard Joanna Macy say, “Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.”

So what then?

[In] all the spiritual traditions, there has been a place for collective mourning, communal lamentations, tears that cleanse, hearts that open that get washed together, and words that get spoken of our anguish. What a deliverance to learn that’s not a private burden, but a shared experience with our human, and even our more-than-human family! It’s a radical [whose original meaning was “root”] and subversive “jewel” we carry inside, essential to our waking up to see the immensity of who we really are, and our deep connection with all the world.

When we’re suffering massive collective trauma, we have a choice of how we relate to suffering; one opens us up to each other to bond us in greater trust, collaboration, and shared strength; the other divides us into feuding, conflict, and bitterness.

– Joanna Macy, Climate Crisis as Spiritual Path (2021)

In acknowledging and living into our pain for the World, in the safe crucible of community, we may recognize on a visceral level that our pain springs from our connectivity with all Life. The true meaning of compassion means “to suffer with.” We only grieve the loss of that which we love. Our capacity to respond to our own and others’ suffering – that is, the feedback loops that weave us into life – can be unblocked, and we may then be led to take Spirit-led action on behalf of all Life.

And I am reminded of the words of William Penn: “Let us then try what love will do”!

There are many opportunities to engage in such deep, communal “grief work.” I encourage Friends to explore some of the following organizations and initiatives which do this sort of work:

  • The Work That Reconnects (https://workthatreconnects.org/)
  • The Good Grief Network (https://www.goodgriefnetwork.org/)
  • Quaker Earthcare Witness (https://quakerearthcare.org/)
  • The earthcare committees of many monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings
  • Quaker Institute for the Future (https://quakerinstitute.org/)
  • Faithfulness groups (https://awholeheart.com/2018/01/25/faithfulness-groups/)
  • (While faithfulness groups are in a slightly different category, they provide Friends and others an ongoing opportunity for support in their work, ministry, and leadings, including around earthcare, ecological witness, justice, and grief. The faithfulness group can be a great blessing in providing us with both the support and accountability to be faithful.)


My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

– Adrienne Rich, Dream of a Common Language (1978)


Mary Ann Percy carries a life-long spiritual concern for Earth and all our relations, and currently serves as an NPYM representative to Quaker Earthcare Witness. She is a trained Joanna Macy facilitator in The Work that Reconnects, a student of Thomas Berry and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Mary Ann offers Earthcare programs for Friends’ Meetings and groups and is a member of Bellingham Friends Meeting (NPYM).


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