Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Grief and science

Grief. It's a mouthful. It kind of hangs in the air when spoken, it can even be heavy on the page and the screen. Some people might view it as a downer of topic for this time of year, others might be relieved by its expression during these long nights. I remember the first time a person I deeply respect told me with great compassion that she saw me struggling with grief  - it was many years ago and I actually found it deeply confusing. And yet, now, it is so clear that was what exactly what that feeling was. I'd experienced it acutely a couple of times with the loss of a friend, a teacher, a grandparent. The idea that grief could also be chronic was new to me.

But, now I look around and see it all over. Because being a scientist or practitioner that works in the environmental field can be a pretty grief-filled endeavor these days, at least for some of us. And, what are we to do with that grief? It can be uncomfortable in the closest of relationships, and even more so in most professional settings. It seems like societally we've come to terms with grief being maybe okay for doctors and other caregivers, and maybe for people who work in humanitarian and other crisis situations... perhaps there are a few other situations where grief is professionally "allowable." But, it's a subject rarely broached in the sciences.

Many environmental scientists and practitioners enter the work because of a love for the world. I grew up entwined in the high mountain desert and forests of northern Arizona - it's a place that is completely inseparable from my sense of self. Within my lifetime, I have seen that same place altered by development, drought, fire suppression, pest invasions, and any number of other really painful processes. In some ways it is not the place I remember anymore, and yet that place is still there, and as beautiful as it ever was. I've heard many colleagues describe watching the places they love and study change within a decade or two - from coral reefs to alpine lakes to tropical streams.

Maybe that change is okay, maybe it's not (I'm still figuring out how I feel about the Anthropocene), but either way,  processing it is as deeply psychological as the experience of aging or watching a child grow. Yet, we rarely talk about it that way. Consequently, my experience is that, for lack of a better way to say it, grief is starting to "leak out sideways." Undigested grief tends to do that. It can lead to anger and anxiety and feelings of helplessness. And I feel sure that it can't help but affect the way we work and the approaches that we take, particularly in science communication and engagement where much of the job can involve talking about things that can be hard to talk about.

There are resources bubbling up around helping people to cope with things like climate change. For example, Renee Lertzman and Ro Randall both take psychoanalytic approaches to climate issues in helpful and compelling ways, and the deeply generous work of Joanna Macy offers much comfort and hope. There are relevant pieces in these and many other works in psychology and other fields that are helpful for the science community. I also think there is an important piece of work to be done more directly with the people that research, communicate, and engage others on these kinds of issues on a daily basis.

But because jumping straight to solutions and not allowing time for grief is in fact one of the main challenges with how it tends to be dealt with, I'm going to stop here. For now, I think it's enough to simply acknowledge that grief might be a common experience for some environment-focused scientists and practitioners, and that it's actually one of the sanest responses a person can have to working in such challenging times.

Related posts:

I'm taking a little break to unplug and hibernate. I will be back in January. Until then, best wishes for a peaceful new year.


  1. Amen, sister. How can you work for a world you love and care about, and not feel grief at its abuse and misuse? I totally agree, and thank you for articulating this.

  2. Thanks for reading, sister! :) Glad it resonates.

  3. Faith, this was beautifully written. Moreover, I think your vision of combining some of the "softer" concepts (grief, etc.) wth science/your identity as a scientist is brilliant. Very interesting and engaging. Just wanted to say kudos. CM

    1. Thank you for reading, Catherine. I really appreciate the interest and the comment.