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  • Roxy Humphrey

Are you navigating distressing emotions due to climate change?

Updated: May 16, 2022

I recently wrote a paper on how hospice philosophy can be useful to incorporate in helping people who are experiencing ecological distress. Below is a synopsis of my paper. If you have more questions or are experiencing these emotions and want support, feel free to be in touch and schedule a session with me! The tumultuous emotions related to climate change can be very isolating and lonely, and reaching out to talk to someone can help.

(Image by Amy Frueh @amy_frueh, used with permission)

Ecological distress refers to “any forms of emotional, psychological, or existential distress related to present or anticipated ecological/climatic change.” Indeed, ecological distress is a rapidly growing phenomenon that is increasingly impacting more and more people. As Elin Kelsey, author of Hope matters: Why Changing the Way We Think is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis, notes, “We lack any recognized infrastructure to support children, or adults, suffering from despair about the planetary crisis. It’s as if we are engaged in a mass movement of emotional denial.” This emotional denial that Kelsey refers to excascerbates experiences of ecological distress. In her book, Kelsy introduces hospice philosophy and explains some of the parallels between the rise of hospice care in the face of existential crises and our present moment, with its turbulent ecological distresses. She goes on to explain that, as a result of technological advances in the 1950s, more people were dying in hospitals rather than at home. Death in the medical context was then viewed as a failure - where the focus was on extending one’s life as long as possible - and this contributed to more and more people's lives being prolonged “beyond the point that many would argue was meaningful existence.”

It was at this point that hospice philosophy emerged as a helpful framework for people to navigate the existential crisis that emerged as a result of the prolonging of life and avoidance of death. Kelsey suggests that looking at hospice philosophy might offer helpful insights to working with people experiencing ecological emotions, who don’t have the tools to deal with the doom and gloom projections of the future.

Indeed, in light of the rapid amount of global and climatic change and how more and

more people are facing an existential crisis related to the gloomy projections about the future,

hospice philosophy offers a helpful paradigm for people to navigate the uncertainty of the future. To be clear, hospice philosophy is about the end of life, however some of the key tenets can offer help to those of us who experience ecological distress because life as we know it is changing.

Rather than therapy to soothe or heal these turbulent emotions - which is not even possible given the escalating nature of the crises - perhaps what would be most helpful are strategies to support people in directing these emotions in productive ways. Indeed, key tenets from hospice philosophy offer such strategies.

As we look to the hospice philosophy for guidance, it is useful to consider its emergence

in the field of end of life care. Cicely Saunders began advocating for an alternative way of

working alongside terminally ill patients in the early 1960s in the UK. She criticised the “never

ending intensive treatment carried to the bitter end as patients suffered and became more

helpless.” Instead, Saunders envisioned a form of care where listening was considered an

essential act of care. In this way, it looked more like hospitality rather than treatment. She used the term ‘hospice’ for this vision because it derived from the Latin hospes, which meant both guest and host. Saunders drew inspiration from the original hospices - Christian shelters that dotted the landscape of Europe, run by monasteries. “Given the primitive state of medical care and the difficulty of travel, strangers often straggled in exhausted and sick. Those who recovered may have journeyed on, but many drew their final breath in the care of the monks.” These ‘way stations for pilgrims’ provided metaphorical fodder for Saunders to cast a vision for what might be modern day hospices.

In our current moment, it might be useful to consider ourselves as pilgrims, similar to the strangers who entered those initial hospices, because we are between two realities (life before climate change, and life after). It is this ‘in between’ space which fosters existential distress, similar to what people nearing the end of life face, because the future is uncertain.

In this way, we can draw from hospice philosophy four key tenets which might help us

navigate this ‘in between’ time.

A) Hope is rooted in a sense of a meaningful present.

As Saunders articulated, hope can be rooted in a sense of a meaningful present, rather

than a specific outcome in the future. This is a useful concept to draw on when experiencing

ecological distress because many people undergoing distress, especially young people, are

overwhelmed with the gloomy projections of the future, rather than with their experience in the present moment. This invites a sense of agency as hope is a source of inspiration and movement within the present moment. Through fostering an awareness of the present moment, people navigating ecological distress might find a source of hope in the “now” which might help them go into the future. As Kaira Jewel Lingo says,

It is especially tempting in times of transition and challenge to worry about what will

happen in the future. This is precisely the moment we need to return to the present

moment,....because the future is made of this moment. If we take good care of this moment, even if it is very difficult, we are taking good care of the future.

b) Comfort and Safety

Furthermore, as people face and lean into the often overwhelming realities of climate

change, the hospice tenets of comfort and safety are useful. People experiencing the distressing realities of climate change need places of safety and comfort in which to relax so that they can do the important work of navigating their emotions. Comfort and safety can come in the form of a homely atmosphere in a therapy room, or be found in the beauty of a retreat centre. Indeed, just as pain relief was incorporated into hospice care as a way to restore people as “social bodies”, so too do people navigating the isolating emotions of climate change need avenues in which to be relieved of their embodied sense of threat so that they can get in touch with their emotional, social, and spiritual selves. This gives people the ability to “stay with the trouble of living and dying together on a damaged earth.”

c) Existential openness towards death.

Open awareness of dying is essential in working with people with ecological distress,

because the future is unknown and the messages related to the changing climate make clear that the ecosystems that support us may become unlivable. As a result, helping people do the hard work of facing and accepting their own death - whenever that may be - is important. Contemplating impermanence is not intended to make people feel depressed or anxious, but to help people feel more alive and in touch with life, “to appreciate its preciousness even more.”

Indeed, the latest IPCC report stated that climate change has become a fact of modern life and many of its effects are irreversible. This means that we are living in a time of climate

change, and no longer able to avoid it. While this might be something to grieve and lament - and accepting its reality is certainly hard - it might also not be the end of the story. As

Anthropologist Donna Harroway notes: “[What] comes after will not be like what came before. I think our job is to make [this period] as short/thin as possible and to cultivate with each other in every way imaginable epochs to come that can replenish refuge.” The more readily we can openly address and talk about such a death, and work through the painful process of accepting this, the more readily we might foster the maturity needed to be able to envision and create such a replenishing epoch.

d) Holding the future with open hands.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we simply encourage people to accept that all the

impacts of climate change are a fact and cannot be avoided. Rather, as people are encouraged to face their own death and the impacts of climate change, holding a tension between death and life can foster a way to engage deeply in matters of concern. It allows people to hold the future with open hands and not become overwhelmed or attached directly to the outcome, because there is a sense of hope beyond (or greater than) those particular results. Looking to the soil as a guide in how to hold a tension in this is helpful, since what makes up the conditions of good soil is not simply living organisms but a balance between both decaying matter and living things. It is exactly this combination of both death and life that creates good soil from which new life can emerge. This ability to hold a tension can be an anchoring place in which to hold steady in the midst of rapid changes.

While these four tenets are not always easy concepts to embrace, often a fair amount of distress and pain can be found in actually avoiding them. As a result, becoming increasingly open towards these ideas can lead to a greater sense of peace and well-being. If you are interested in exploring these ideas with me, individually or in a group format, be in touch and we can schedule a session.

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