An atmosphere of grief

Living with loss in the Anthropocene (Part 2)

Ivor Williams
12 min readJan 14, 2020

We are living through the sixth mass extinction, due to climate change and ecological breakdown. Collectively, we are experiencing unprecedented change and decline within a short time, with visceral feelings and experiences of grief and loss.

However, rather than simply despair in the face of extinction, these experiences of loss, and the resulting collectives forms of mourning are an important transitional step in a changing world.

Although, the scale and depth of change is unique, we have gone through transitions like this before. What were they, and how did we respond?

How might we better understand these feelings of grief and loss from climate and ecological breakdown, in a contemporary sense?

In Part 1 of An atmosphere of grief, I described how bad things were. In this essay, I will describe how we’ve been here before, and how people have responded in the past.

We have simply forgotten about our relationship with death. In many ways, we have lost our collective connection to the most human of emotions: loss. So when we think about acclimatising to climate change through what we have lost, it is terrifying and massive enough to think it is impossibly new.

However, we have been here before. Countless times. The very fact we have words, rituals, formations and cultures that enable us to make peace with death and loss shows us that when faced with annihilation, there is always the opportunity for something to happen: transformation, change. As Victor Frankl, the neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust suvrivor once said:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Our ability to weather the transitions, to be present at what may be the end of things, is deeply ingrained, we may have just forgotten how to do it. Many of the traditions that we might recall in Europe have been frozen like the seeds in Siberia, but with a bit of luck we can invigorate them back to life. So let’s go back a bit.

In the Western tradition, we can look all the way back to the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Jeremiah — known as ‘the weeping prophet’ — authored the Book of Lamentations, which amongst other things documents the destruction of Jerusalem, along with a funeral dirge in which the wailing bereaved address the dead.

The book, “is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal.”

There is one moment in the Book of Lamentations, when absolutely wrecked with grief and despair, mothers begin to eat their own babies.

The fall of man, to be like an animal, to resort to cannibalism and horrific behaviour, and suffer so deeply is a lasting, haunting image.

Which makes it all the more startling when a woman — even fully accepted as a political stunt — stood within an audience with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez in 2019, to declare that “we need to start eating our babies” while wearing a T-shirt that said, “Save the Planet, Eat the Children”.

Jeremiah, as a prophet, offered change in his sermons by first acknowledging grief. He believed that before we can begin new things, and bring about change we must first mourn. We must tell the truth about the pain we feel. As the pioneering psychotherapist who specialises in grief, Julia Samuel, recently put it to me in conversation, “pain is the agent of change. Pain forces us to recognise that the present is different from the past.

Through the Medieval period, despair featured heavily in ritualised traditions. The Dies irae, a poem created in the Middle Ages (around the 12th century) and incorporated into the liturgy — the public worship in the Catholic Church, a very public and regular time to collectively engage with each other. The Dies irae talks about the Last Judgement, where the world dissolves into ash. Used as part of the Requiem Mass, it was actually removed by the Catholic Church from the sequence used in funerals and Masses for the Dead in 1969. However, its power to instill a deep unsettling feeling has meant that the Georgian melody is essentially defined our musical response to dread, and is featured in almost every movie you might care to think of.

This time in history — the Middle Ages — is a very interesting period to inspect the relationship between climate, culture and loss. Taken as a woven tapestry of events, trends and timelines, we can’t take them apart mechanistically, but we can understand see threads and view interesting parallels to our current world.

Firstly, for the most part, the Middle Ages sat within a period called The Little Ice Age. A period of cooling where global temperatures fell on average 1.5 degrees lower, with great seasonal variation. The Baltic Sea froze over, along with the major rivers. Growing seasons in the summer were reduced to just weeks. In 1565, in Delfshaven, near Rotterdam in the Netherlands, an iceberg hit the town.

Across this period in Europe when the summers grew cold, crops failed, people and livestock were susceptible to disease and famine. And so death stalked the earth. In 1347, the catastrophic arrival of the Black Death in 1347 killed around 30–40% of the entire European population.

When such massive loss of life occurred atop poor farming yields due to dark, bitter winters and poor summers, the compounding effect of less ploughing and reforestation in the fields and land meant that CO2 was captured by biomass, bringing temperatures down further.

Studies points to this being true also across the Atlantic in with the European invasion of the Americas in the 15th century. Where European settlers wiped out indiegonous people on the American plains — through disease and violence — the abandoned fields quickly regrew, absorbing carbon in the atmosphere, accelerating the cooling.

During this period in Europe, death was embodied in the danse macabre. No matter who you were: King or peasant, adult and child. Death was universal. Ever present. Loss was so ordinary, grief was a normal feeling to regard.

This type of death is regarded by Philip Ariès — the French medievalist and historian — as a ‘tamed death’. During the medieval period in Europe, the dead were seen among us and death was an aspect involved in everyday life. The average age was around 40 years old, and infant mortality was rampant. We have lived through periods of bleak climate, poor life chances and a miserable outlook. It came to pass. What is interesting is how our relationship with death changed in the subsequent centuries, bringing us to the wretched denial of death we’ve had through the 20th century.

Ariès laid out 3 other mentalities that defined the historical understanding of death, that moved from a ‘tamed death’, to ‘‘my death’ in the 11th century which implied a more individualistic attitude to dying — where the physical life was merely a preparation for an immortal soul in the afterlife.

Around the 17th century, the focus shifted to ‘your death’ which was characterised by the intolerance of losing a loved one. Here the fear of death lies in the fact that people are physically separated from the deceased — likely due to the fact that as cities expanded, and the populations of dead grew, more graveyards were held outside of city walls, further from their communities and churches. However, death is also a desired state in which people are finally reunited with their lost loved one.

Ariès noted a 4th stage of death mentality, that until recently has held firm: that of a ‘forbidden death’. Where death was transformed into a taboo. Death became a shameful activity, seen through the lens of infectious disease and slow deterioration. Likely due to the fact that longevity and lifespan radically increased through the 20th century.

That, and the catastrophic losses experienced by populations from genocide and horrific warfare in two world wars meant that death became separated then medicalised. Death no longer occurred in the private of people their own bedrooms, but in hospitals and elderly homes that are far away from the young and living.

This taboo of death infected the idea that life should only focus on happiness and therefore the experience of dying — full of pain, regret, grief — is ignored till the very end. This focus on happiness and hope for ever better denies us the realities of what will happen to us, and everyone we care about. This has had almost untold effects on our ability to respond to death, change and grief. As Michael Jacobsen remarks:

“Because the era of “forbidden death” tried so desperately to ostracize death and remove it as far away from public view as possible… it continues to haunt the consciousness of the living. Modern society’s insistence that death be removed from human sight and public awareness paradoxically resulted in quite the opposite: death has come to dominate ever larger proportions of our lives. “

In response, Jacobsen proposes a contemporary mentality of death, that situates how we live and die now, in a phase that moved on from the ‘forbidden death.’ He calls it the ‘spectacular death’.

The “spectacular death” thus inaugurates an obsessive interest in appearances that simultaneously draws death near and keeps it at arm’s length — it is something that we witness at a safe distance with equal amounts of fascination and abhorrence, we wallow in it and want to know about it without getting too close to it.”

In this contemporary context, distinctly different from a Modern one where things that have died must be ‘let go’ allowing us to ‘move on’, a spectacular death is far more present, for longer. Rather than being flat out denied, as before, death and loss co-exists with us.

We are in a liminal space where practices are emerging — the Extinction Rebellion grief march, funerals for glaciers — that incorporate this notion of death as a spectacle, sitting alongside pre-existing, but increasingly commodified rituals such as the Mexican Day of the Dead.

This significant evolution of death is that it is “not longer separate from everyday life but pervading it”. This is especially true when it comes to the death of our way of life, due to climate change. It may in fact, be one of our defining features as Anthropoceneans (‘citizens of the Anthropocene’).

As a civilisation living today, we are now reckoning with the ideals of the past. The Enlightenment and Modernist views that there is a “hopeful future with the possibility of striving for improvement, both individual and collective” have put catastrophic pressures on all the ecological systems on our planet. As a result, as we see what is happening, we enter a new phase of identity that defines who we are collectively. At the heart of this identity is grief.

“Grief and climate change are inextricably entwined… Grief is not something that we can get ‘beyond’, rather it has to become part of our lives and politics. The specific expressions of grief will be variable and much more discussion is needed as to how it can be incorporated more creatively into everyday life. But… the first step is to acknowledge this companion. If part of what we are grieving for, and what we must farewell, is our modern selves, it follows that a necessary intellectual and practical task is to imagine new kinds of selves.”

In this way mourning needs to become re-ritualised, and some practices have emerged from the ecology movement that respond to these feelings in particular.

After the Three Mile accident in Pennsylvania in 1979, a new ritual emerged, created by social activist Chellis Glendinning. Called the Despair Ritual, it was itself inspired by the Speaking Bitterness practices of Chinese farmers during the land redistribution of China in the 1950s, providing them “opportunity to express their anger and sorrow about old injustices”.

In Glendinning’s Despair Ritual, people gather in three concentric circles called the Circle of Reporting, Anger and Fear, Sorrow — and in stages report their comments about how they feel about the world. And in phases of commiseration, anger, tears and sometimes wailing, the ritual:

“…offers people the opportunity to ‘touch bottom,’ in experiencing and expressing their pain for the world. As they do, people lose their fear of it. And the bottom becomes common ground.”

This is a beautiful bonding experience that sadly happens rarely in public. The previous experiences that have until now defined our greatest collective expressions of grief and mourning, such as Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, can really be seen for what they are: public expressions of private grief. They are not the same as what we experience now, that which can be seen if you are fortunate with experiencing a Despair Ritual: collective mourning for a collective loss.

So how might we better understand these feelings of loss in a contemporary context? I’ll close with some thoughts that will help to set up the next essay.

Firstly, when we can start with ourselves and the bodily experience of grief. We’ve traditionally needed a focus for our grief: the body of a loved one, their clothing, or a possession. We’ve focused on the physicality of death and grief for so long. One reason is that the body in grief is a potent image. A person crying, wailing, hair tearing is so etched into our collective unconsciousness, we can still empathise with figures from Antiquity that do so — like Niobe (left), who had her seven sons and seven daughters murdered — thousands of years later.

The experience of grief has a physicality to it. During the mourning period, we have traditionally disposed of the body, with rituals that follow it. For centuries we commonly bury our loved ones in set burial grounds, but increasingly in out-of-town cemeteries or burial plots.

And to an extent the grieving of a glacier exemplifies this physicality but “grief is a cognitive emotion that informs the embodied person about something in the world (the loss of a glacier) and it is a communicative emotion conveys significant information to others (that this will continue to happen)”. And as climate change continues to happen, and we need to convey this information to others, the things we mourn increasingly disperse into the atmosphere.

Our practices of cremation already signal this: what we physically do with ashes is secondary to the image of ashes scattering to the wind. It is a potent symbol of pervasiveness. That comforts us in our grief. But this is also true for the meltwaters, fossils. What is lost, is literally dispersed. Our bodies in grief are embodied, beyond the biological and phenomenological, into the environmental, connected to the environment.

Secondly, climate change has two long term effects for social systems. It will and is beginning to cause intergenerational conflict, as Greta Thunberg proclaimed in September 2019:

“The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say — we will never forgive you.”

But this conflict also emerges alongside transgenerational trauma. In a family system that experiences trauma — a child losing a partner, a history of abuse, systematic deprivation and subjugation, abandonment — until someone prepared to feel the pain of the past, it will carry on. The systematically oppressed and traumatised indigeous people of the world know this better than any other industrialised society. In this sense, they are horribly ahead of us.

Thirdly, most people understand grief through what is known as the Kubler-Ross model. Which is to say that the experience of grief passes through five stages of emotions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When faced with loss, it is the shorthand that most people will reach for, to grasp at what is happening.

The problem is, it is by almost all modern measures it is outdated. Instead, for Julia Samuel, “the essential task of mourning, is facing the reality of what you have, not what you had, or wish you have.” For her, and for many others who handle grief in all its facets, the framework developed by William Worden present a more useful picture.

It begins with accepting reality. It is the emotional demand for our time of extinction:

Tell the Truth. Accept Reality.

In their completedness, Worden’s Four Tasks are to:

  • Accept reality
  • Process the pain of grief
  • Adjust to a world without the deceased
  • Find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life

However for Samuel, climate grief is what she calls a ‘living loss’. It is not concrete like in the same way as other forms of loss. It is much more difficult to receive the acknowledgement that it exists, which is vital in order to recover. Like solastalgia, it is exactly the experience of it that makes it difficult to see. The grief is invisible. Often you cannot really point to it. It is diffused through the atmosphere.

So to get acknowledgement from society — requiring everyone accept this reality, and to get permission from them, to normalise this grief — is so much harder to do. But it is exactly what we need.

In the second third and fourth essay in this series, I’ll discuss how can we incorporate grief and loss into any current and future responses to climate change. What might we learn from other disciplines. How might we individually grieve for the loss of our environment, culture, way of life and future. And also find solidarity and community through collective mourning, in a way that respects and honours our own and other cultures and histories, and enables us to move to another state of being — together — in the face of possible extinction, as or as Mark Vonnegut said, “we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

An atmosphere of grief (parts 1 and 2) were originally presented as a lecture at the Royal College of Art on Thursday 14 November 2019, at Marco Ferrari, Elise Hunchuck and Jingru (Cyan) Chen’s Architecture Research Unit, ADS7: Something in the Air: The Politics of Atmosphere.

Next: read part 3 here



Ivor Williams

Designer, developing new ways of thinking about and experiencing death, dying and loss in the 21st century.