Grieving California

Part 1: Losing home

Madigan Traversi, 17, gives the property tour in Northern California’s wine country like a seasoned real estate agent. We’re standing on top of a hill in Santa Rosa, overlooking a sweep of golden ridges and green oaks. The two-story home is surrounded by redwoods, fruit trees and a carefully maintained vegetable garden. Traversi, in oversized sunglasses and brown leather boots, leads me to an outdoor pool with a panoramic view of the hills, and then to one of her favorite spots on the plot of land, a majestic old oak tree. As a little girl, she used to spend whole afternoons beneath its branches. They were so large she could duck under them and play make-believe for hours, lost in her own world. “I just turned it into this little haven,” she told me. “When I was there, it was my happy place.”

The Big Idea: Age of nostalgia

Infatuation with a mythologized history has overtaken communities, cultures, entire regions, sending society and identity into a fun-house mirror of nostalgic reflections. This special issue brings you stories of people finding solace in pasts imagined and grieving for futures foreclosed in a time of existential threats.

Nostalgia has both been harnessed for political ends and become its own political force, electrifying powerful currents of populism, jingoism, and longing for dynastic rule. It also reaches deep into the crevices of human feeling — in kitchen table conversations and on TikTok alike — leading to a thickening of anger, loss, and sadness.

Traversi and I are standing in front of where the tree once stood, staring at the open air. Nothing we are looking at is actually there, not now anyway. The massive oak tree, the garden, the living room with the big glass windows — it was all lost in October 2017, when the Tubbs Fire devoured 36,807 acres of Sonoma and Napa counties, destroying thousands of homes and businesses and killing 22 people. It was the second-most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, and for many people living here, the marker of a new chapter in California’s story: an era bound by flames.

Traversi’s home was among those lost in the blaze, burning down in less than 30 minutes after she evacuated with her mom on the evening of Sunday, October 8. Traversi, who was 12 years old at the time, was still awake when the landline rang just before midnight. A recorded message explained that three homes were on fire eight miles away and urged them to leave. Traversi and her mom evacuated shortly after, taking their dog, Traversi’s school backpack and the bare necessities. They waited it out in a nearby hotel, assuming they would be able to go back home the next day. But the blaze grew bigger, Traversi’s school closed, and they relocated with some friends to a place just outside San Francisco. A few days later, they learned that their home burned down shortly after they fled. Gone was Traversi’s bedroom and the photos, art projects, journals and family heirlooms that anchored so many of her childhood memories.

Even the cherished oak tree did not survive. All of it was gone, engulfed in a roar of flames propelled by 50 miles per hour winds.

Five years later, Traversi walks around the property and can picture everything just as it was, straddling a split screen between the present and the past. Through her eyes, the open air in front of us flashes into a kitchen, a bedroom, a living room with a wall of glass windows. 

She can still see it all, vividly, in color and texture. A home that no longer exists.

The road leading up to the house was transformed, too. The street is now lined with rebuilt  homes. Traversi pointed out the changes as she drove me to the property on a scorching late summer afternoon. “The houses look so different than they did before,” she observed, as we passed an immaculate two-story home with gleaming windows. “You can see how new everything looks.”

Outside our windows, the sky is a bright blue and the vegetation is achingly dry — so parched that it’s hard not to think about when the next spark might ignite. This is what it’s like to live in California in 2022, a golden state blazing red. Fire is omnipresent, and the last seven years have accounted for 15 of the 20 most destructive wildfires in the state’s history. They have left their imprint on the land and our minds. 

A building that burns can be rebuilt. But if fire incinerates a state of mind, can that be put back together? After neighbors move, new homes rise from the ones that burned, and the landscape is marked by the fingerprints of flames – the time before can feel like a past life. It’s the kind of rupture that transcends space and time, shaping our memories, our goals for the future and even our understanding of where we belong. Part of living here now means grappling with apocalyptic scenes and with whether this version of California can still be called home. 

But this is not just a California story. These emotions will spread as the climate crisis intensifies, as biblical floods, hurricanes, heatwaves and drought displace communities from Puerto Rico to Pakistan. 

We are just beginning to contend with these phenomena and how they are shaping our collective well-being. “These losses are enormous,” said Robin Cooper, a San Francisco psychotherapist and the co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, a group of psychotherapists focused on the mental health impacts of climate change. It’s “really important to know that climate distress is not a pathology.”

Cooper’s organization is part of a broader movement of people — activists, artists, psychologists, young people and residents — centering emotions in conversations about climate change. Experts are developing resources, therapeutic treatments and even new language to help people process the psychological impact of climate change. ​​Universities in California and Washington are offering courses for students about navigating the emotional landscape of climate change, including anxiety, hope and grief. The Climate Psychiatry Alliance offers resources and training about the psychological effects of climate change and curates a list of climate-aware therapists. There are also online forums where strangers from all over the world can gather and discuss the emotional toll of climate change and natural disasters, and dozens of virtual and in-person groups across the U.S. focus on processing the grief of the climate crisis.

The Finnish academic Panu Pihkala, whose research focuses on the emotions surrounding climate change, has created a detailed database of peoples’ responses to the climate crisis in what he calls a “taxonomy of climate emotions.” In Finnish, Pihkala has also developed a detailed vocabulary of climate emotions as specific as “winter grief,” mourning the loss of traditional winters, or “snow anxiety,” related to uncertainty about whether it will snow.

lumiahdistus: snow anxiety

talvisuru: winter grief

talvi-ilo: winter joy

lumihelpotus: snow relief

longing for snow: lumikaipaus / lumikaipuu

The Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht came up with a word in 2003 to describe a concept he believed language hadn’t yet captured: the psychological distress caused by environmental changes. Albrecht’s term, solastalgia, drew on the meanings of solace, desolation and nostalgia, but deviated from the latter in one crucial way. Rather than describing the melancholia experienced by people away from their home and yearning for it — nostalgia — it referred to the pain felt by those who stayed put.

Solastalgia, Albrecht wrote, “is not about looking back to some golden past, nor is it about seeking another place as ‘home.’ It is the ‘lived experience’ of the loss of the present as manifest in a feeling of dislocation; of being undermined by forces that destroy the potential for solace to be derived from the present. In short, solastalgia is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home.”

Solastalgia: Solastalgia has its origins in the concepts of nostalgia, solace and desolation. Nostalgia, from the Greek nostos — return to home or native land — and the New Latin suffix algia - pain or sickness, and solace from the Latin verb solari with meanings connected to the alleviation or relief of distress or to the provision of comfort or consolation in the face of distressing events.

I relate to this, intimately.

When I read about solastalgia for the first time, I felt unburdened, that particular flavor of psychological relief that comes from having someone else articulate a previously felt, but unidentified, emotional state. Yes, that’s precisely how I felt about living here: solastalgia. Finally, I felt like I had found a single word that embodied my complicated and often sad relationship with California, a place I couldn’t imagine leaving but also cannot bear watching burn year after year.

My journey through solastalgia would probably start in the fall of 2018, when I moved back to California after spending the better part of the decade living unhappily on the East Coast, where everything felt muted, cold and bland. I never felt like I fit in there: I hated the frigid air and prep school energy. Before going to college in Maryland, I went to a big, raucous public high school in downtown Berkeley. The student body numbered in the thousands, and it was diverse and eclectic, including everyone from the children of ‘70s radicals who staged Iraq war protests at lunch to kids immersed in the Bay Area hip-hop scene of the mid-2000s. My most vivid memory of those years is laughing.

In the spring of 2018, I decided to move back to California permanently. For weeks after I moved back, I wandered around with my cell phone camera propped open like a tourist, giddily snapping photos of the Pacific, the deep green forests and the lavish gardens blooming with succulents and fruit. I had arrived.

But shortly after I moved back, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, the Camp Fire, tore through Northern California’s Butte County, killing 85 people, torching the town of Paradise and choking the air with smoke. A friend in D.C. texted me a link to an article with the headline: “Is California becoming uninhabitable?” “I think they’re trolling you,” she joked. It didn’t help when I later drove past a bar throbbing with music, and two men wearing hazmat masks to protect themselves from wildfire smoke were in line. It all felt like a slow-motion existential crisis. Staring out my window at the scene in front of me, I had a dawning feeling that my home was changing — quickly, in front of my face — and may never be the same.

The fires have not abated. As I sat down to write this article, there were multiple fires burning at both ends of the state, including one in the Sierra Nevada foothills that, as of publication, burned more than 76,000 acres. Fueled by climate change, the traditional fire season is stretching further beyond its traditional lifespan of spring to fall.

Those who choose to stay must learn to inhabit this unsettling liminal space between our imagined apocalypse and the reality of hazmat masks and smoke-filled skies. To recognize that home can vanish even as we never leave.

After the fire, Traversi’s family decided not to rebuild their home on the hill. 

They moved to a new place about 10 minutes away. Eventually, the chaos unleashed by the fire receded, and life resumed. Traversi went back to school, played piano, hung out with her friends. Traversi didn’t seem too outwardly sad about the aftermath of the fire, and her mother worried about how — or if — she was processing it at all. She went to a therapist. But Traversi was 12 and wasn’t ready to unpack all of that trauma. 

Over time, though, the weight of Tubbs began to sink in. As a teenager, Traversi dealt with anxiety and depression, and as she started peeling back the layers of those struggles, she began to recognize the ongoing toll the fire had taken on her mental health.

Traversi was not alone in struggling with the painful aftershocks of Tubbs: a recent survey conducted by the Sonoma County Office of Education found that nearly 3,000 students in the county, and 400 school employees, are still showing “increased anxiety, stress, depression, behavioral problems, or decreased academic performance as a result of the 2017 wildfire.” One of the educators surveyed pointed to an increase in suicidal threats or attempts in the wake of the fire. “Teachers reported kindergarten children crying and running inside after seeing the smoke while on the playground.” Years after the fire, the county superintendent of education concluded, schools are still dealing with students and staff who have been traumatized.

For Traversi, the grief became acute. Processing the loss felt “very similar to how I felt when I’ve lost family members or close friends,” she told me. The home, the property and everything inside the house had been anchors of stability throughout her childhood. As she began grappling with the toll these losses had taken on her, she got her driver’s license and found solace in going back to the old property. Up on the hill at the site of the blaze, taking in all that had been destroyed and all that was still standing, Traversi’s sadness finally had space to breathe. “I found it really healing to go back and sit there and just ignore everything around me,” she said. “It was the first time that I was really able to objectively think, ‘wow, I went through something huge and I lost a really big part of me.’”

Living through Tubbs also helped lay the groundwork for Traversi’s path to climate activism. In high school, she joined a local climate action campaign run by students and educators. Like returning to the property, becoming involved in the effort helped her process the trauma of losing her home. As part of the campaign, she and another local youth climate activist worked with their congressman to help co-author a resolution introduced in the House last spring, which calls on lawmakers to incorporate mental health into disaster preparation and provide funding to schools for youth mental health support after climate-related disasters.

While working on the resolution, Traversi came across a piece of research that blew her away: a survey of 10,000 people aged 16-25 across ten countries about the mental health impacts of climate change. Nearly half of the youth surveyed said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives and functioning, and 75% described the future as “frightening.” More than half of the 10,000 youth surveyed — 5,566 — agreed with the prompt “humanity is doomed.”

For Traversi, the findings were revelatory. “It was the discovery that kids aren't stressed because they have this irrational fear that they need to work through with a therapist. They're stressed because there's a genuine threat to their futures,” she said.

Part two

The grievers

Over the last several years, as wildfires throughout California have threatened some of the state’s most cherished places, from its splendid redwood forests to its picturesque coastlines, they have unleashed an outpouring of collective anxiety and sadness. It’s the grief of lives lost and iconic landscapes altered and the awareness that the state will become even more unrecognizable.

As this grief becomes ubiquitous, so too are the grievers. They are part of a nascent movement of climate mourners, people who see grief as a central — and overlooked — human response to the climate crisis. They are meeting up in person and online over the climate’s great unraveling, absorbing darkness so that they ultimately may come blinking into the light.

An assured mother of three living in Northern California, Kristan Klingelhofer joined the mourners nearly three years ago. It was the beginning of the pandemic and she was searching for resources that might help her manage her emotions over parenting and climate change. Her children began asking her about mass species extinctions and reading United Nations reports about global warming when they were in elementary school, nearly a decade ago. Klingelhofer was torn on how to appropriately respond. “Do you shelter them?” she asked. “Empower them?” One day, she opened her computer to see if she could find anything that might help and stumbled across The Good Grief Network, a 10-step, peer support program to help people process their climate grief. The program, which was inspired by Adult Children of Alcoholics’ 10-step approach, runs a weekly support group designed for people grappling with climate distress. The organization doesn’t heavily market or advertise its groups on social media, “so if you found this, it’s because you needed it,” executive director Sarah Jornsay-Silverberg told me.

Step 1: Accept the severity of the predicament

Step 2: Be with uncertainty

Step 3: Honor my mortality and the mortality of all

Step 4: Do inner work

Step 5: Develop awareness of biases and perception

Step 6: Practice gratitude, witness beauty and create connections

Step 7: Take breaks and rest

Step 8: Grieve the harm I have caused

Step 9: Show up

Step 10: Reinvest in meaningful efforts

The first class focused on the program’s first step: “Accept the severity of the predicament.” Klingelhofer and her husband emerged from the meeting in tears. “It was like we took our masks off,” she explained. Ten weeks later, they finished the course, and Klingelhofer signed up to be a Good Grief facilitator.

“People come in feeling so isolated, and with such a bottled-up bunch of emotions,” Klingelhofer said. “Whether it's outrage or panic or numbness or depression or fear,” she said. “There's always grief at the bottom of it. And it just comes out.”

In 2021, The Lancet, a medical journal, published an investigation into young peoples’ attitudes towards climate change. As part of the landmark study, researchers surveyed thousands of young people globally and uncovered a persistent future-facing dread. From Nigeria to France, respondents expressed sadness, anger and despair. Two-thirds of youth in the 10 countries surveyed reported feeling afraid. More than half said they believe the things they value most will be destroyed, and nearly 60% felt their governments had betrayed them because of how they were responding to climate change.

The study’s authors posited that governments’ failure to address climate change may be contributing to “moral injury,” which they describe as “the distressing psychological aftermath experienced when one perpetrates or witnesses actions that violate moral or core beliefs.” This often manifests in feelings of not just betrayal but abandonment.

The findings underscore what may be a generational gap in expressions of climate grief. For many young people, the heartache of climate change is slanted toward the years ahead. As they contemplate carving out a life amid a series of cascading environmental crises, they wonder: Where will I be able to live? Work? Find community? And in the absence of any certainty, how can I plan ahead? One Washington-based student I talked to, who just graduated college, told me the threat of wildfires in California had thwarted her plans to apply to graduate school there — a decision her parents couldn’t comprehend and found “ridiculous.” She described the process of climate mourning for her generation as “grieving the potential futures we could have had.”

That includes a future with kids. Nearly 40% of the youth surveyed worldwide in The Lancet’s study said that concerns about climate change have made them hesitant to have children. Traversi, whose home burned in the Tubbs Fire, said the subject comes up regularly in her peer group. “Everyone is looking at what they're going to do after high school. There's such a huge conversation about, like, ‘I really wanted to have kids, but now I think I don't want to because of climate change,’” she said.

This is a different flavor of mourning than the nostalgic sadness that has punctuated my relationship with California. Solastalgia is rooted in the past and present, the feeling that your home environment is moving away from you and your relationship with that place has changed because it’s no longer what it was. The younger people I talked to, however, are grieving something different: children they may never get to meet, glaciers melted, species lost, life plans derailed. This is grieving for a future that may never come to be, as opposed to a past that was.

“I think we see that future orientation much more with young people,” Jennifer Atkinson, an associate professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington, said. “So many of them really are mourning the loss of the future, the children they will never have or the security from their parents’ generation that won't be available to them.”

Atkinson has been a professor at the University of Washington for more than a decade, but about five years ago, she told me, she began to notice a plunge in student morale. People were coming into class telling Atkinson they couldn’t sleep or focus because they were consumed with thoughts of climate breakdown. The future looked too dark. Atkinson observed that her students’ sense of despair was interfering with their ability to learn: they were feeling powerless and despondent, unable to process the material she was trying to teach. So Atkinson decided to create a seminar dedicated to helping students navigate the emotional landscape of climate change. The idea was partially inspired by Good Grief’s 10-step program.

In Atkinson’s class, students study the academic literature on climate emotions while also delving into their personal responses to ecological loss. Her seminar was the first time that 22-year-old Joe Lollo, who took the course last spring, began to explore and later articulate his climate-related feelings and anxieties. That included his sorrow and dread when he visited Mount Rainier, an active volcano looming above Washington’s Cascades, and saw that one of the glaciers draping the mountain was melting, part of a trend that has seen glaciers across the state shrink dramatically as the world warms. Lollo had learned about glacier loss in his high school environmental science class, but coming face-to-face with Mount Rainier’s receding ice mass was the first time he had seen anything like it firsthand. As Lollo absorbed the changes, he began to cry. “I remember this being overwhelming for me, but I kept it inside,” he told me. “I had a lot of emotions that I didn't know how to express.”

Much of Atkinson’s work in class is focused on making grief acceptable to students. She encourages them to think of grief not as a pathological feeling to run from or bury, but as an emotionally healthy response to climate change. “If we got rid of these feelings, we’d lose so much of the motivation to stay in this fight,” she explained. “The core of all of it is to emphasize that grief is an expression of love.”

Part three

The end of magical thinking

There is another character in this story, hovering over the page as I write. Frustratingly, I cannot interview her. Outside of my dreams, I cannot talk to her. She is gone. And mourning her death taught me how to recognize grief wherever it lurks, including the edges of flames.

When you lose someone prematurely, there is always a before and an after: a moment when life as you understood it disappears abruptly and you are tasked with creating a new one out of the absence that remains. Mine came in May 2018, just before midnight, with a call from my sister. “You need to sit down,” her voice taut on the other line. The next sentence came so quickly that I didn’t have time to process the instruction, or why her voice was cracking. A handful of words that changed it all. Your best friend, she told me, had ended her life.

I bolted up from my bed: What? Through the receiver I could hear my sister crying, my mom sobbing and my dad calmly telling me to buy a flight back to California because her funeral would be in a few days. I was in too much of a state of shock to cry, so I sat at the edge of my bed repeating the same question in disbelief: What? What? What? “But she just emailed me!” I wailed. Indeed, she had sent me a routine email the day before she died — “just saying hi” — and in my rush to meet a deadline I hadn’t responded. I fell forward, my palms smacked onto the ground, and I screamed. I don’t remember anything after that.

Four days later, I was in California, eulogizing my best friend at her funeral, in front of hundreds of people. Everybody was in black, weeping, in shock. I was inconsolable. My right hand wouldn’t stop trembling. Even though I was surrounded by friends, family and community, I had the sensation that the only person who could understand what I was feeling was the person we were all there mourning. I wanted to gossip with her about the people who unexpectedly showed up at her funeral and talk to her about how profoundly alone I felt without her. More than anyone else in my life, I knew she would see what I was feeling in its fullest, truest form. Nothing prepared me for the heartbreak of realizing that could never happen again and the anguishing mental exercise of training myself away from reflexively texting or calling her first when something happened to me.

I’ve never recovered from that call, and I know that I never will. If my phone rings after 11 p.m. my stomach drops and my palms sweat, bracing for the impending news that someone I love has died. She was my oldest friend, the closest person to me outside of my family and partner. We met when I was two years old. She was like an exaggerated version of myself. My hair was big, hers was enormous. I was a silly dog-obsessed kid, but she was way quirkier. She collected handmade tiny mouse figurines dressed up as British royalty from a specialty store 30 minutes away. I was extroverted, but she took it to a whole other level. She would talk to anyone, anywhere, and inevitably find a way to relate. She was also the funniest person I’ve ever known — so charismatic that friends I introduced to her once would ask me about her for years after they met. After she died, laughter was in short supply for a long time. I felt so out of sorts I wondered if my sense of humor had permanently vanished.

The year before she died, she visited me in North Carolina. One weekend, I took her to the local farmer’s market. She decided to wear a graphic t-shirt with a uterus above the expression “Don’t tread on me.” I wandered around the stands for a few minutes and found her deep in conversation with an elderly pig farmer in overalls working at a stand selling meat, talking about the complexities of adult female friendships. He gave her earnest advice about how to handle a conflict with a friend. I was amused, but not surprised. It was so completely her, charming her way into the hearts of the pig farmers of the world in a uterus shirt.

While this recollection makes me smile, it also makes me confused. Lots of my memories with her are that way. I think back to different moments of our friendship, like the afternoon at the farmer’s market, and I wonder if she was unhappy and I had missed it. I wonder how, or if, her missed unhappiness should change how I remember our past. This confusion makes many of my memories with her strangely inaccessible, like childhood photos engulfed in flames.

This is the part of the story I’ve been avoiding writing. Reliving the call is agonizing; the funeral, gutting; the death, nearly impossible to talk about. My ability to mourn was blocked by the way she died. I didn’t see it coming and couldn’t understand it, poring over the last text she sent me (a close-up of a pug’s face with no context), searching for clues about what I missed, what I could have caught and prevented if only I had seen it first. 

In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion’s classic book about grieving, she writes about her obsession with her husband’s shoes after he passed away. She was unable to get rid of them, because, Didion reasoned, he might need them in case he came home. Although she knew perfectly well that her husband was gone, she clung to the illusion that he might still stroll through the front door as a psychological salve for her grief. The behavior became an example of what she describes in the book as magical thinking: “thinking as small children think,” she writes, “as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.”

I am very familiar with this chaotic line of reasoning.

My best friend died a few months before my birthday, and a few months after her own. We were planning to celebrate both when I moved back to California permanently, in the fall of 2018. Two months before I was scheduled to drive across the country, she passed away. I couldn’t hit pause on my decision to move home: I had already quit my job and given up my lease, and my partner had enrolled in graduate school in California. I was moving home — back to the place I had grown up with my best friend, where she was living when she died — whether I was ready or not.

My return to our hometown plunged me into a grief deeper than what I had felt when I was living on the other side of the country. To make myself feel better, I came up with an illogical psychological salve. My friend had a habit of sending me eclectic handmade cards on my birthday, and so I convinced myself that a birthday letter would arrive from her posthumously, explaining everything with her characteristic humor and observations. Although this imagined letter would not bring her back, it would at least give me a semblance of closure about why she took her life and leave me with words to revisit when I missed her. I would finally have answers to the questions that kept me up at night.

Of course, a note like this would never arrive. But I felt confident that it would appear in my mailbox before my birthday, this letter-turned-death-Rosetta Stone, giving me a coherent narrative to understand her death. When my birthday came and went without a letter, it marked the end of my magical thinking and the beginning of my painful descent into reality. I recognized that I had to accept that she was gone, and that I would never get the answers I wanted. Sometimes things just don’t make sense. My future wouldn’t include her in the ways I had always imagined, and my childhood memories would now always be imprinted with her loss.

Death, like fire, had upended my past, present and future, as well as my relationship with home — a place that no longer included her. In order to exist in the world as it was, the one that I reluctantly saw in front of me, I finally needed to grieve.

In retrospect, when I moved back to California, I was actually mourning two things at once: the loss of my friend and the loss of my sense of home. It took me years to identify the latter because the former was so all-consuming.

But after I acknowledged my solastalgia and began working on this story, I started to recognize the familiar shape of my California fire heartache. The homesickness, the urge to stay rooted in the California of my past, the despair lurking beneath my nostalgia — that all began to feel like my entry point into mourning. I started to see solastalgia as the first stage of my climate grief.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in the book “On Death and Dying,” laid out the process of grieving the loss of a loved one in five separate stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This doesn’t necessarily describe a linear process, and plenty of people don’t relate to this framework, but I found acceptance to be a transformative stage of my grieving, a process that has left me much more attentive to the quiet pain of so many people moving through the world. While imagining a reality that included my best friend provided me with great nostalgic comfort, it also kept me locked in denial and magical thinking. It left me unable to process and exist in the present, like wearing a jacket of despair lined with silk sleeves. Eventually, I had to accept that she was permanently gone. The world I thought I knew had changed, the ground had hollowed out beneath me, and I needed to figure out a way to find my footing over the fragments that remained.

I’ve been wondering if a similar process is needed to confront the realities of climate change. Maybe our collective fear of descending into grief is sabotaging our ability to emotionally process the depths of the crisis. Grief is generally regarded in our society as a scary and unpleasant emotional state to avoid at all costs, or, if we must, to push through quickly and overcome, not voluntarily submit to. But my process of grieving my best friend was essential. It forced me to digest the depth and pain of my loss. It taught me that some losses are just too big to ignore.

Professor Jennifer Atkinson. Photo by Jovelle Tamayo.

“Every wisdom tradition and psychologist will tell you that sitting with grief is a necessary part of recognizing and internalizing a new reality in the face of a loss,” Jennifer Atkinson, the University of Washington professor who teaches the climate grief seminar, told me. “And one of the things that I've encountered in a lot of the research and work and interviews that I've done is how valuable and productive grief is in finally shaking us out of this collective denial or disavowal. You don't have to really be a climate denier, deny the science, to sort of deny the fact or disavow the fact that our lives are truly unraveling and will not be what we thought they were.” Grief, Atkinson argued, “is the opposite of indifference.”

What would it look like to let go of our denial and magical thinking, and instead open ourselves to climate mourning? For people who take part in the Good Grief Network’s course, it means beginning with what, for some, is an emotionally overwhelming task. The program’s first step is to “accept the severity of the predicament.” Acceptance is not the last step of the process, but the first.

Part 4

Ritual

One summer night, I descended down the mountains for a concert in the city of Santa Cruz. I wound down the redwood-dotted hills, watched the surfers bobbing on the deep blue waves of the Pacific, and then made my way to the final stop of my day, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.

The evening’s headliner was “The End of Rain,” a multimedia performance reflecting on Californians’ emotional responses to fire and drought. The composer, Scott Ordway, spent more than a year traveling across the state, collecting firsthand accounts of wildfire and drought from more than 200 Californians. He used their words to create a text and a musical score, which was performed by a chorus and accompanied by his own videos and photos taken from visits to different sites of wildfires.

Ordway, a Santa Cruz native who now lives on the East Coast, followed the 2020 Santa Cruz wildfire from his home in Philadelphia. He watched the fire, which was sparked by lightning, descend on his hometown, evacuating his parents’ town and bearing down on places he knew vividly from his childhood. “I knew immediately that I wanted to respond artistically,” he said. So he hit the road, asking people throughout the state about how the wildfires are reshaping their relationship to land, community and self.

That night was Ordway’s composition’s world premiere. The theater was packed, and he stepped onto the stage. “When the lightning struck, I never felt so far from home,” he told the crowd. The lights dimmed and the chorus began to sing the words culled from dozens of Californians, as photos of fire-scarred landscapes flashed on a projector behind the performers. For the next 45 minutes, the audience listened in rapt silence. It felt like a mourning ritual, a public space where a community razed by fire could hear the words of others who had gone through the same thing.

Ordway told me that when he began working on the composition, he thought he would end up writing “a funeral piece for my beloved landscape, for my home, for California.” But in the process of traveling across the state and collecting peoples’ stories, it went in a different direction. Ordway explained that the people he spoke to did not want him to write “a requiem — a sad, somber piece about what was going on” but wanted something that left open even a sliver of room for a salvageable future. He recalled an elderly woman who grabbed him by the shoulders during an interview. “Young man,” she ordered, “don’t you dare put a sad ending on this piece.”

Ordway tried to encapsulate those feelings in the composition’s last two lines of text:

We must change now.

Things will grow back.

Maybe this is where grieving leaves us, suspended between heartache and hope. Staring at an unrecognizable home, with so much left to save.

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Erica Hellerstein

Erica Hellerstein is a Senior Reporter at Coda

@E_Hellerstein

The Big Idea

Age of Nostalgia

Infatuation with a mythologized history has overtaken communities, cultures, entire regions, sending society and identity into a fun-house mirror of nostalgic reflections. This special issue brings you stories of people finding solace in pasts imagined and grieving for futures foreclosed in a time of existential threats.
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