A dozen people sit in an airy Salt Lake City conference room, the view of the Wasatch mountains a reminder of why they’re here. It is October 2016, and they have gathered to share in grief.
But this is not a typical support group. This smattering of artists, activists, writers, and others is discussing their feelings about how they each contribute to climate change.
The gathering is the brainchild of Laura Schmidt, who described the meeting in a recent Skype interview. Schmidt’s day job at HEAL Utah is to rally others to support clean air legislation in the state. By night, she’s been organizing this monthly “Good Grief” group, which focuses on working through heavy feelings about difficult societal problems, especially climate change.
There’s no clinical definition for “climate grief,” but for Schmidt, “It’s that feeling at the pit of your stomach when you realize that people – probably even the ones we love – and wildlife will suffer as the impacts of climate change become more prevalent. It’s the ache we feel when we see how non-existent or slow ‘progress’ to combat warming is.”
Photographer Leah Hogsten, who has been attending the meetings since April, says she likes the opportunity to talk with like-minded people – and discuss solutions, too. She also says she leaves the meeting feeling better than when she got there.
“You’ve vented and gotten some worries off your chest, and now you have a better understanding of what you can do as an individual,” she says.
It seems only natural that talking about the issue in a supportive setting would help a person address fear and sadness.
But at a time when climate change is a rare topic of conversation among Americans, Schmidt’s group is truly unusual.
So how did these folks end up together, talking about just that on a crisp October evening?
A master plan to cope with climate grief
Two years ago, while pursuing a master’s degree in environmental humanities at the University of Utah, Schmidt set out to answer a question: “How do we create resilient humans?” She says she wanted to understand how people could become better able to keep up the difficult fight to address climate change.
To answer her question, she interviewed people who spend a lot of time focused on the subject, such as climate scientists and activists. She says she hoped to find out what sustains those people in what can seem like an uphill battle.
Through conversations with the likes of author-activist Terry Tempest Williams and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, Schmidt says she discovered clear themes. The people she spoke with seemed unafraid to say they felt sad or mad or angry. They also drew strength and joy from a strong connection to the natural world. And they had a community they turned to for support.
“When things got really depressing for them, they could take a break and let their community care for them a little bit – and then go back out and fight or talk about climate change,” she says.
Schmidt says she wanted to do more than write about those insights in her master’s thesis. She is not a therapist, but she was familiar with Al-Anon family groups, which offer support to family members and friends of alcoholics. She used the stories from her interviews and extensive academic research to develop a roadmap for addressing climate grief. Like the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous program, Schmidt’s approach includes a series of steps.
1. Admit there’s a problem. This first step is about understanding that there’s a problem with how people are operating on this planet – and that as one result, some climate change is inevitable, even if we halt all carbon emissions now. “Step one is talking about how entrenched we are in this problem,” she says.
2. Acknowledge the ways in which we are complicit. “I think it’s really important for any of us looking at these problems to understand that yeah, we help cause them,” Schmidt says. “But it’s also not 100 percent our fault, because of the system we were born into.” This acknowledgment, she believes, allows people to take appropriate responsibility for the contributions they make, empowering them to make better decisions.
3. Let go. Some things are inevitable: Climate change will alter the planet, and the future won’t be like what many people imagined during their childhoods. Schmidt believes it’s helpful to let go of that imagined future, as well as the idea that one person alone can fix the problem.
4. Do inner work. Addressing sadness, fear, or despair about climate change isn’t easy. It helps to go into that work with a healthy state of mind. For Schmidt, that has meant addressing some of her own past pains. “If we deal with our past, and the things that have the potential to weigh us down, then it frees us up to be ourselves and to reconnect with the natural world.”
5. Feel your feelings. People need to give space to their light and heavy feelings alike. “This is about taking a step back and realizing how much pain and grief there is. And in acknowledging it, especially as a community, we can begin to work through it,” she says. When people suppress those feelings, she says, there’s a danger of falling into heavier depression in the long run.
6. Show up. As Schmidt says, “Part of the human condition is being vulnerable and connecting to others and saying ‘I feel this way too, or I’ve thought about it, too.’ It’s important to overcome discomfort and have the courage to say, ‘Me too.’”
7. Take breaks and respect your limits. Everyone needs a break now and then. That could mean taking a nap, playing with the kids, or going on a hike. The main thing, Schmidt says, is that people know their limits. “Respect those limits and do what you need to do to refresh yourself and come back.”
8. Look for beauty and meaning. Some stories from the Holocaust suggest that finding even the smallest examples of beauty, like a tiny flower in otherwise barren earth, can give people something to hold on to, even through horror, Schmidt says. She points to science that suggests different parts of the brain are responsible for triggering different responses: the reptilian part of the brain, which causes flight-or-fight fear responses, or the mammalian brain, which is what urges us to look more deeply at any given situation. “What’s cool about brain science,” she says, “is that with practices like meditation, we get to choose what part of our brain responds to these threats.”
9. Reinvest in the work. The preceding steps are all about working through feelings. This one is about discovering how that new wisdom can replenish action. “When you’re acknowledging these things, and you’re showing up, it gives you new strength to be a pillar of strength in your community, and to continue to make changes,” Schmidt says.
Schmidt says she plans to take the Good Grief group through each of the nine steps in an intensive weekly program in January 2017. Ultimately, she would like to form what she calls a grief resource center, which could host classes, workshops, and online offerings.
“I want people to go away with the feeling that their life has changed. If that happens to five people, that’s five people who will be pillars in their community,” she says.
Could this idea work elsewhere?
Creating a safe space for confronting climate feelings may seem especially challenging in a conservative state like Utah. But the need for a supportive environment for those conversations could potentially be useful elsewhere, too.
Psychologist Melisa Bailey, of Chicago, Illinois, who has no affiliation with Schmidt’s efforts, says a program like what Schmidt envisions could be valuable: “Space and awareness of how people can reach out and feel less alone regarding their views and concerns about, for example species extinction, rising sea levels and other markers of climate change they are struggling with is so very important.”
Kristin Urquiza, a San Francisco, California-based campaign director for Mighty, a global environmental organization, says she would “absolutely” want to join such a group, in person or virtually. “I think it’s a radical idea that moves past the politics of climate change and stands to really address where people are at,” she says.
But of course, that doesn’t mean a group like this is right for everyone.
Kate Ogden, a Burlington, Vermont-based field organizing director for Greenpeace, says the idea of a climate change support group is “interesting, but … I think about it all day. When I’m at home, with my friends and family, I don’t want to think about it.”
It all comes down to the individual’s way of coping. “Different people work through things differently,” Bailey says. “For someone who is more of a doer and less of a talker or processer, attending groups and just listening and sharing may not meet the need that they have. And for someone who does better one on one, finding smaller spaces of connection may be better.”
Still, she says having a supportive group could be really helpful for those feeling strong pangs about climate change. “For people who are feeling overwhelmed about climate change, finding supportive space to talk about it would likely be quite valuable.”
And now, with many expressing concerns about risks posed by climate change — and fearful of the actions of an incoming Trump administration — the need for groups like Schmidt’s may be greater than ever before.
Schmidt organized a last-minute grief meeting for the weekend after the November 8 elections. “It’s easy to fall into despair right now,” she says. “The only solution is solidarity. Coming together as a community. Respecting each other. Listening to each other. Being vulnerable together.”
Starting with vulnerability may sound like a tall order right now. But if Schmidt is right, and if becoming more in tune with deep emotions can make people more resilient in the long run, then it may be time to open up, and let go.