As summer comes to an end in the Northern hemisphere, I want to feel the relief of fire season ending, but we’re not quite in the clear yet. In September of 2020, the Pacific Northwest of North America became a dark orange haze. With a combination of drought, record high temperatures, high winds, and lightning, the world around me became engulfed in flames.
During this time I was seven months pregnant and terrified. With fires just miles from my home, my partner at the time and our two dogs had to evacuate for nearly two weeks. We were fortunate to not lose our home, but hundreds of people on the West Coast did lose their homes and some even lost their lives that year.
While 2020 felt like it couldn’t get any worse, 2023 broke multiple records for heat and wildfires in certain parts of the world. One of the most devastating being the fire in Lahaina, Hawai’i that currently sits at a death toll of 97 people, with a handful of others still missing. According to the CBC “The 2023 wildfire season is officially the most expensive and most destructive on record.”
But what do we do with the grief that comes with the loss of our homes, loved ones, or even a sense of security in our own spaces? How can we cope with potential and future losses that will come as the climate disaster worsens? In this reflection, I consider the topic of ecological grief and the power of community during what seems like a perpetual grieving process.
The Incomprehensible Grief of Watching The World Burn
Ecological grief is defined as the grief felt in response to climate-related losses of valued species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to climate change. In Yusra Bitar’s personal essay titled On Fires and Grieving, they write:
“The grief has been perpetual. When it arrives, it sits heavily on my chest until my lungs feel blocked and my heart painfully squeezed. The grief is also anticipatory — deeply-seated worry and anxiety before the loss.”
This anticipatory grief has not left my chest either. Anticipatory grief (also known as anticipatory loss or preparatory grief) is the distress someone feels in the days, months, or years leading to the death of a loved one. Our anticipatory grief is in the loss of our homes, our forest, and a planet to feel secure in.
It can feel hard to stay present and appreciate what I have in this moment, but something that helps me cope with the ecological and anticipatory grief I experience, especially when fire season comes back around, I have found myself reaching out more and more to people who share this grief.
Community Led Organization
Living in the haze of late stage capitalism it seems impossible to rely on political parties and our government to take climate disaster seriously. It feels even more impossible when you belong to a marginalized group or identity.
According to the Human Rights Watch, “The consequences of climate change for health, housing, livelihood and security will disproportionately impact individuals and communities living in already-fragile ecosystems or with tenuous land title.” This especially impacts indigenous communities, women, elderly individuals, those with disabilities, and the poor.
[The environment is] not just an inanimate backdrop to our lives, it’s the very foundation of life.
This leaves us relying on each other and our local and online communities to find solace and solutions. Hank, who was in the hospital delivering a child during the 2020 wildfires in Oregon, thinks that the grief of wildfires connects us all. “The grief itself is bigger than me,” says Hank, “it showed me how connected humans are to the environment. It’s not just an inanimate backdrop to our lives, it’s the very foundation of life.”
Since the Environmental Revolution of the 1970s, grassroots and community led organizations have led the way in creating change and advocating on behalf of our environment. “Today’s grassroots environmental movement has evolved to embrace the current zeitgeist: that environmental activism must be inclusive, accessible, and global to be effective.” says The Goldman Environmental Prize in their article titled How Grassroots Environmental Activism Has Changed the Course of History. Many of these groups are led by Indigenous communities all over the world.
The Expression of Grief
Like any form of grief, finding meaningful outlets to process our emotions can be very important. As a writer, I have found a lot of comfort turning my grief into a fictional newsletter that explores a future after decades of wildfire seasons. Many Californians have turned their wildfire grief into artwork as well, from Brian Fies’ illustrations of homes on fire to Norma Quintana’s photos of household items in the aftermath of a wildfire.
Projects like the Life with Fire podcast hosted by Amanda Monthei allows you to process along with the host and guests as they discuss topics like traditional ecological practices, controlled burning, and community-informed wildfire communications.
Grief is always complicated and messy, and if you can’t turn your grief into a creative outlet, that’s absolutely okay. Give yourself time, surround yourself with community members who understands what this specific grief feels like, and if it feels important for you to do your part I recommend supporting Indigenous-led projects that are working toward returning to traditional wildfire practices that worked long before their land was taken.
Margo Robbins, a member of the Yurok tribe, states in a PBS article that “It’s a whole different frame of mind to purposely light fire, rather than fight fire.” I think we can use this framework to consider our grief when it comes to dealing with what we have lost and anticipating what we will lose. We can fight it, or we can bring light to it and give our grief the attention it is asking for.