Drought, smoke and climate change getting you down? You’re not alone.

#BeatTheHeat, cartoon man sweating excessively in the hot sun

Droughts in the news again. There have been air quality alerts from forest fires and ozone on and off all summer. Are these things getting you down? Do you toggle between loving the dry sunny weather to grill and recreate in but struggle with the damage they’re causing your grass, trees and farm fields? If so, you are not alone and these feelings are real and have names. 

As we all live through the impacts of a changing climate it’s important to know what emotions we’re feeling and healthy tools that can be used to manage them and make you more resilient. 

Understanding our feelings

Solastalgia is “the mental, emotional, or spiritual reaction of an individual, group, or community to the negative transformation of their environment.” If you’re longing for the days before you needed to worry about ash in the air from massive wildfires or sad the trees that have died because of emerald ash borer, droughts or floods, these are negative feelings related to environmental transformation. 

Ambiguous loss is an unclear loss without closure. The lack of clarity is based on something or someone being both here and not here at the same time, such as a missing person or the destruction of sentimental objects. Others may not recognize or understand the loss, and people may not be able to move forward in solving the original need or problem. In the era of climate change the loss of certainty like planting a garden and expecting it to rain can be a type of ambiguous loss. As we consider physical and psychological losses, we must also consider the role grief plays in them. 

Disenfranchised grief is grief for the loss of something that may be minimized by others or for which there aren’t cultural norms around ritualizing that grief, so the grief may not be understood or taken seriously. Not everyone loves trees or has special memories about the tree shading your backyard playground. Not everyone is an avid gardener and mourns the loss of a reliable crop. Only some people are significantly impacted by forest fires or droughts. But those experiences impact individuals, families, and communities and the feelings of grief that accompany these changes are real and should be recognized. 

Frozen grief is a result of the ambiguity of not yet knowing whether or not any effort will be successful. This frozen grief can go on for years while various efforts are made to try and salvage aspects of the land. The uncertainty of the future of the land and its features does not allow people to fully grieve and move on. Examples include haunting questions like: did I plant the right tree, have I watered it enough, am I using too much precious water. Instead, you may be consumed by a sense of dread about your trees, land, and the effects of climate change. 

Anticipatory grief occurs upon realizing a loss is imminent, but before the loss has occurred. It’s very likely that many landowners feel a sense of anticipatory grief as climate change continues to impact the world around us. I am experiencing anticipatory loss of a lovely lakeside cabin because I know much of the shoreline and many large white pine trees have been lost to significant flooding at the site. 

Processing these feelings 

Sadly these feelings will continue to impact us as the effects of climate change continue to creep into daily life. Below are some tips on how to manage these feelings.

1. Recognize your feelings, state them and help others recognize them. 

2. Create rituals to process these feelings. For example, create a memento or display a photo of the tree you’ve lost, the garden that is no more, or the forest that was damaged. Honor that memory, talk about and share what made these places special. These memories will live on; make them happy.

3. Empower hope and agency. You’ve had a loss, when it’s safe and you have time, reflect on what went well and what could be improved. Take joy in thinking about the climate resilient plants you can plant. This is a time of change, create a change that you can enjoy for years to come. (UMN Extension Forestry is working on a state wide Rewilding Your Backyard Woods project and developing climate resilient, charismatic microfauna friendly, native tree and plant list for 11 different ecoregions all across the state. Sign-up for the My Minnesota Woods newsletter to stay abreast of this ongoing project.)

4. Embrace the nature-based human health benefits. The research is clear, being in nature can improve your mood, lower your blood pressure and offer time for physical activity. These benefits can be experienced if you’re smelling the flowers, removing invasive species, cleaning up a downed tree or replanting a forest. Remember to enjoy, embrace and intentionally include time in nature into your daily life.

5. Build resiliency. Making meaning of loss helps build resilience, which in turn can help you move forward as you deal with more adversity and loss. Resilience grows in tough times and in community. 

Article by Angela Gupta & Emily Krekelberg, University of Minnesota Extension Educators