By Naomi Alfini
Image: An unbroken green forest seen from above (Markus Spiske via Pexels)
In my last blog I wrote about climate anxiety for early childhood educators and parents; how it affects our ability to feel safe and present, to regulate ourselves, and to connect and co-regulate with our children. I spoke with Teddy Kellam and Kristin Klingelhofer who facilitate support groups about climate anxiety with the Good Grief Network, about how working on our skills for emotional regulation is one of the most powerful climate actions we can take for children, and the planet’s future with humanity.
I also shared about my own climate anxiety, which started from a place of isolation. As a mother and advocate for young children, climate change felt to me like the most important thing in the room, yet I couldn’t find many people in my daily life who wanted to talk about it. I found this crazy-making. Was I overreacting? Were they underreacting? Were we even in the same room?
Recognizing my grief
Then in 2019 I came upon a despairing post on Facebook that resonated in a way I found somehow comforting. It was written by someone I didn’t know, Cody Petterson, a conservationist, activist, anthropologist, and father of young children who lives in California. He’d been working almost two decades on restoring the forest around Volcan Mountain, the land where he grew up, which had been badly burned by wildfire. On Earth Day that year he found himself facing the realization that the hundreds of seedlings he’d cultivated would not survive the heat and drought, while the ancients of the forest, the Canyon Live Oaks, were dying out from a beetle infestation. He returned from his hike to his car, sobbing, and wrote the beautiful essay he posted. I felt an instant connection to his words:
“… something in my mind buckled under the weight of it. I thought, ‘How do I tell my kids?…That there’s no place left in the world for these trees they’ve grown up with? ’… And then the question that was probably there the whole time, waiting to surface: How do I tell myself?”
It was a raw, tragic post. He didn’t answer questions or offer hope. He just pulled back the curtain and shared the pain of his grief.
How did I find comfort in his despair? It validated the similar feelings I was having – making it possible for me to, first, recognize my own experience as real. And then in that, to feel some relief. It reminded me of the relief expressed by Kate Bowler, author of Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), which she wrote after being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at the age of 35, with her child aged 2. She describes feeling relieved because the sickness she’d experienced for years, that doctors had repeatedly failed to recognize, was finally acknowledged as real. It was pronounced, unequivocally; she hadn’t felt sick because she was just crazy.
Petterson’s show of despair said I wasn’t crazy, and I wasn’t alone. In fact, his post was viewed by thousands. It even garnered the attention of Bernie Sanders, who made it a point to meet with Petterson during his presidential campaign for the 2020 election. The knowledge that so many others resonated with his message also eased my sense of isolation.
In our interview, Kellam says, “According to a 2022 survey conducted by the Yale Program Climate Change Communication, 64% of Americans said they were very worried or somewhat worried about climate change, but 67% of those surveyed also said they rarely or never discussed the climate crisis with friends or family. So that leads us to understand that people are facing all of these big emotions (or trying not to face them), and their fear for their future and for children’s futures, all alone. So we’re seeing a lot of isolation in this area.…
“In our Ten Step (support group series), we have people coming in really activated, or emotionally numb and detached. Feeling deeply, or trying not to feel it. What most people are feeling is isolation, loneliness, and an inability to talk about it. People say they don’t want to be the buzzkill at the party.”
She continues that “Parents and educators often feel the crises of our world with a personal intensity because of the children who we love and care about in our lives, who have so much future ahead of them. This can lead to all kinds of heavy and uncomfortable feelings. And our culture, even our families and friends, don’t always welcome these feelings.
“So what do we do? What we recommend is finding a way to break the isolation that many of us are feeling. Adult to adult support. Just listening and sharing, not giving advice.”
And what do we share? In large part, our grief.
What is grief?
Grief is an emotional reaction to loss. According to grief expert David Kessler, that loss can be the death of a loved someone, or something — like a marriage, a relationship, a job, a way of life, a worldview… a world.
Grief is not one emotional experience. It’s a collection of emotions, a process of experiencing different and complex feelings that change over time, but never end. Grief expert Marisa Renee Lee says, “Grief is the repeated experience of learning to live in the midst of significant loss.”
Kessler and his colleague, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, examined the grief experience as a process of stages, of which they originally identified five: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. After the death of Kübler-Ross, and then years later, his young son, Kessler added a sixth stage: Meaning-making. Various models about stages of grief have been adapted over the years. In conversation with Brené Brown, Kessler says “… grief is so organic, there’s no one right model or one right way to do it. …For people in grief … stages are a little scaffolding that just helps you know there is something. There’s some sort of structure loosely, that will be there for me”, as one moves through what he refers to as “the darkness”. And how does one move their way through? According to Kessler and other leading grief thinkers, the only way through grief is to feel it.
Referring to the climate, Kellam says, “People who love children are asking, ‘What should I do?’ which is a good question,” however, “at GGN we believe that starting with ‘How do I feel?’ is an important shift.”
In conversation with Glennon Doyle (et. al), Lee explains, “When we surrender to our feelings — when we name them either internally to ourselves, write them out, share them with a friend, that is actually when they become easier to deal with.”
Kellam says GGN support groups offer participants such a space for sharing; “We work on recognizing and metabolizing our feelings about these big changes in the world. When those feelings come out into the open air in some way, when we have a chance or a determination to look under that numbness or that paralysis, and allow the big feelings of grief, anger, fear, whatever comes, [then] a process tends to begin that allows us to eventually tune into our own wisdom and clarity, …a connected brain.”
Can we avoid the grief and its hard emotions by, say, occupying ourselves with other priorities, such as getting busy working on solutions (like Petterson, who literally seeded thousands of trees)?
No, according to Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and professor in Yale’s Child Study Center. He says often, “we think that just by suppressing or repressing, we can move on… [but] these emotions don’t go away, the suppression doesn’t mean it goes away, it means it gets buried in your belly, or in your heart or in your lower back.” Lee adds, “When we try instead to ignore or suppress our feelings, that’s actually what keeps us stuck and often leads to other challenges…. Unacknowledged grief… generally manifests as other things, from addiction to forms of abuse, serious mental health consequences. It’s not something that we can afford practically to ignore.”
But wouldn’t feeling all the grief be dysregulating? Well, yes, so part of the process Kellam and Klingelhofer facilitate involves learning and practicing self-regulation strategies as participants share big feelings together.
Brackett says, “Regulating does not mean not feeling, it doesn’t mean getting rid of the feeling. You’re not going to not feel anxious. There’s a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability going on.” But there are strategies you can take to help you get regulated. For starters, he recommends, “you don’t have to watch the news ten hours a day, being bombarded with crazy information that’s going to make you go nuts. So, you can be with the feeling and not let the feeling have power over you, that’s the ultimate form of acceptance of that feeling.”
Bringing adults with young children back into focus, Kellam reminds, “when we digest our own emotions, we are more open to meeting children where they truly need us…” Not only do we show up more able to regulate ourselves and co-regulate with them, but we also role-model how to live with grief.
Speaking from the grievous context of Covid lockdowns, child psychologist Susan Stiffelman says, “I actually am trying to reframe at least one small part of what we’re all going through as an opportunity for kids to discover, on the other side of this, that they can go through difficult things. I mean, this is the way that we’d grow resilient, and this is how we become resilient ourselves. We go through something we didn’t know we could go through. We find our way through it, as hard as it might be at times. And when we come out the other side, we are sturdier, we’re more confident.”
So the paradox we must face is that our big feelings about climate change are both a great obstacle and a catalyst to moving forward towards the future we want. In a sense it seems, for my climate anxiety, the cure is in the sickness. When I began to think about the experience that way, I saw new meaning to the phrase “good grief”.
What do we need in order to have “good” grief?
Although going through the whole grief process is imperative for healing, society currently doesn’t support it as such. That means we’ve got to create ways to facilitate it for ourselves and others. How can we get started? According to Brackett and Lee, here’s a short list of what we need to give ourselves and others in grief:
1. Permission to feel
Brackett says, “Give yourself the permission to feel all these emotions. There’s no bad emotion. There’s no such thing as a bad feeling. Feelings are feelings, emotions are emotions. Allow yourself to experience them all.”
I didn’t feel permission to despair until I read Petterson’s post. At the time, there was a lot of talk going around about our responsibility not to despair about the climate or any of the accompanying turmoil (political divisions, social and economic injustices, wars, refugee crises, extinctions). The popular discourse said that too much needed doing, there was no time to despair, and to do so was selfish. Petterson helped me see it was okay to grieve.
2. Permission to ask for help
“Whether it’s help that you pay for in the form of therapy or counseling, or a support group, or just family and friends who you can reach out to when you’re having a hard time,” says Lee. We need to shift as a society from seeing shame in needing help, to seeing strength in seeking it.
To Lee this means to “regularly extend grace to myself and also to extend it to other people who deserve it when they don’t show up the way that I expect them to,”and are instead dysregulated, not functioning or producing as usual, or otherwise struggling with grief. For example, when Lee was in the darkest depths of her grief, she wrote an email to all the people reaching out to her and said: “Listen, I’m not writing any of you back…. I still want you to reach out and invite me to things. But I need you to expect that I’m not going to write you back right now. I’m not going to be able to reciprocate, but I feel you.”
4. A safe space
Lee says we also need, “Spaces and places and people where you feel comfortable expressing that grief…. It’s really hard to feel comfortable being emotionally vulnerable if you don’t feel safe…”.
Brackett points out that these days, people don’t own enough of their time to take care of mental health. He describes the effect where, “we don’t want to spend time dealing with people’s feelings… Think about teachers. Think about parents… You know they say, ‘Good morning honey. How are you feeling?’ And what if they hear, ‘hopeless, disappointed, sad? I’m angry. I’m overwhelmed. I’m anxious.’ That means you’ve gotta stop what you’re doing and provide that unconditional love and support. And it sounds crazy, but people don’t have the time for it, so why bother asking?…. That’s something that really needs to change in our nation, in the world.” It’s a shift we all need to work on making together.
6. A Safety Net
Lee: “Vulnerability requires a sense of safety that is not equally distributed in our society. Some people are too busy, too female, too poor, too Black for vulnerability. If day-to-day living feels like a battle, grieving seems like a luxury… Healing shouldn’t be a privilege. But we know, in this country that continues to worship capitalism and white supremacy, that healing is a privilege…”. Many people “…don’t have the practical safety or security or access to the things that can help with grief, like good mental healthcare, good physical healthcare, access to childcare, paid time off from work.”
This is particularly relevant in the lives of early childhood educators, who by and large tend to be women, lower paid, and often BIPOC. But it also goes for everyone in society. We should all have access to a right to grieve without jeopardizing our security, or the security of our families.
And here is an opportunity for schools, centers, boards, legislators, and the wider ECE ecosystem to support early childhood educators by finding ways to ensure they have the benefits they need to be the regulated, generous, inspiring people our children need them to be.
The current critical shortage of early childhood educators has schools and centers everywhere concerned about burnout. In attempt to address the crisis, some student teaching programs in ECE have begun placing greater emphasis on early childhood educators building skills to avoid burnout. A leader in one such program recently told me “Ultimately, the onus is on them to avoid burnout.” But in actuality, early childhood educators can’t do this on their own. Achieving this goal requires everyone (that is, schools, centers, teacher training programs, families, boards, agencies of education and child development, legislators, the general public) – to extend the safety nets, time, space, compassion, and permission, that folks in early childhood education need to take care of their grief and mental health.
May we hold such grace in our minds and hearts as we continue raising our children, ourselves, our standards, and our game, together.
Thanks for this opportunity to dive into these ideas and join the exchange about the planet and young children. I look forward to the continuing conversation.
“We are all dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew…. I don’t know how this is going to change, but it will. We’re gonna find meaning. We’re gonna come out the other side of this. And we’re gonna say things, like ‘Remember in the old days…’ or whatever it is…. We’re in this together. It is not going to be forever. It will end. There is not a dark night that stays, and yet we have to feel these feelings. We’ve got to feel the grief.”
“So there is the potential here, if we can take this gently and be kind to ourselves and to each other, that our kids will become more resilient as a result.”
“What is Climate Anxiety”, by Naomi Alfini. January 25, 2023. Our Planet x Young Children Fellowship Exchange, Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children. vtaeyc.org/news/2023/01/what-is-climate-anxiety-a-post-on-our-planet-x-young-children-by-exchange-fellow-naomi-alfini/
VTAEYC Exchange: Our Planet x Young Children fellow Naomi Alfini interviews Good Grief Network. 2023. youtube.com/watch?v=XEBvWcMqVaU
Good Grief Network, website 2023, goodgriefnetwork.org
Rannard, G. “Climate change: One man’s fight to save a California tree”, article on Cody Petterson on BBC News. May 19, 2019.
Petterson, Cody. Facebook post. April 22, 2019. https://www.facebook.com/jcodyp/posts/10162848326420354
Bowler, K. (2018). Everything Happens for a Reason : and Other Lies I\’ve Loved. Random House.
“What to Do with Our Short, Precious Life with Kate Bowler,” episode on We Can Do Hard Things, by Glennon Doyle, Amanda Doyle & Abby Wambach). December 28, 2021.
Kessler, D. (2019). Finding Meaning, The Sixth Stage of Grief. Scribner.
Lee, M. R. (2023). Grief is Love: Living with Loss. Grand Central Publishing.
Kubler-Ross, D., & Kessler, E. (2014). On Grief and Grieving. Simon & Schuster.
“David Kessler and Brené on Grief and Finding Meaning,” episode on the podcast Unlocking Us by Brené Brown, https://brenebrown.com/podcast/david-kessler-and-brene-on-grief-and-finding-meaning/
“Why Grief – like Love – is Forever with Marisa Renee Lee,” episode on We Can Do Hard Things, by Glennon Doyle, Amanda Doyle & Abby Wambach). July 5, 2022. https://open.spotify.com/episode/22g1hEJ2o0a4AFuHMzTuXd
Brackett, M. (2019). Permission to Feel. Quercus Publishing.
“Permission to Feel with Dr. Marc Brackett,” episode on the podcast Unlocking Us by Brené Brown, April 14, 2020. brenebrown.com/podcast/dr-marc-brackett-and-brene-on-permission-to-feel/
“Parenting in Anxious Times, with Susan Stiffelman, MFT”, episode on the podcast Unruffled Parenting, by Janet Lansbury, March 2020.