Being sad for the planet: Edmontonians share experiences with ecological grief

'I don't have any hope left but the only thing I know I have to do is continue to fight'

Posted: July 23, 2019

Michael Kalmanovitch (left) and Michael James (right) stand outside of the Welling Centre on 111th Street after facilitating the monthly Edmonton Eco-Grief Support Circle gathering on Sunday. (Fakiha Baig)

For Michael James, sometimes the grief was so extreme that it became debilitating. 

As he sits in a circle with six other Edmontonians on a hot Sunday afternoon, James recalled the six-month period of depression he went through.

He said that although he doesn't feel the same debilitation anymore, he does continue to cycle between anger and grief. 


"I would say I don't have any hope left but the only thing I know I have to do is continue to fight."

That's why James helped kick-start a monthly Edmonton Eco-Grief Support Circle that met on Sunday on the upper floor of the Welling Centre on 111th Street. Participants came together for about two hours, sharing their struggles with ecological grief, shortened to eco-grief.

It's a growing cost of climate change experts say they are hearing about more and more.

What is eco-grief?

"Ecological grief is a grief people can feel about the current and anticipated changes in the world's ecological system and what it means for human life and human health," said Dr. Courtney Howard, an emergency physician in Yellowknife and a leading expert on the effects of climate change on health. 

As Canadians continue to face more extreme weather conditions due to climate change, including rising temperatures, more floods and wildfires, Howard says she's hearing from a growing number of people who have eco-grief.

The cases of eco-grief she hears about can range from people feeling sad and grieving about the future to people who are so anxious and depressed that they have become suicidal.


"It depends on who the person is and what they're particularly worried about," she said.

Dr. Courtney Howard is an emergency physician in Yellowknife and an expert on the effects of climate change on health.  (EvidenceNetwork.ca)

Eco-grief also includes people who have had to deal with natural disasters, such as wildfires, as well as those who are concerned about the potential for climate-related events to affect their communities. 

"We know from Canada's Changing Climate Report that came out in the spring that we're headed towards increased wildfires, increased heat-related events, and that can cause people to feel sad and to worry about what that means for them and their children who may have to live through it all."

Howard said groups like the local eco-grief circle have the right idea. 

Mental health supports will be needed to address increasing reports of ecological grief, according to Howard, especially for children. 

Edmontonians with eco-grief

The Edmonton Eco-Grief Support Circle has been meeting for five months but the psychological pain caused by climate change has been affecting James for much longer.

"People who are immersed in the knowledge of what's coming and what's happening in terms of the ecological crisis feel isolated because they can't talk to their family and friends who aren't as aware and knowledgeable about what's going on," James said.

"People think you're nuts, it's a terrible thing to feel when the urgency and significance of it [climate change] is so bad."

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A support group meets in Edmonton once a month to share experiences with eco-grief. Dr. Courtney Howard says experts are learning more about the psychological cost of climate change.  6:50

James, who has lost friends because of his eco-grief, said the grief is ongoing because climate change is ongoing. 

"Unlike human mortality, such as the death of a loved one where you can accept the death, climate change has an uncertainty so you never get to acceptance and are constantly grieving."

He realized that he, like several others suffering from eco-grief, needed support so he helped kick-start the support circle.

Talking to your children about climate change

According to Howard, there's no research that anxiety among kids decreases if children know their parents are engaged in action toward a healthier climate, but studies on the psychological effects of the cold war could provide some insight. 

"We do have some evidence that came out of real nuclear worry. At that point, there was evidence that children of families who were really active in trying to promote peace, knew more about the nuclear war threat but were also less worried about it because they saw adults taking productive action and taking charge to fix the challenge."

Howard, who has been operating under the assumption that there are similar themes at play in the climate discussion, said she talks to her kids about her worries about climate change and tells them what she's doing about it.

"There are multiple conversations as an adult we have to have with our kids, such as the conversation about sex, and now there's the conversation around climate change," Howard said.