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What Climate Grief Taught Me About the Coronavirus

How to find humanity amid an ever-present dread

Victor J. Blue/Getty Images

I’ve been crying a lot. So much I worry that my neighbors can hear me through the plaster walls of my apartment building in the South Bronx.

The hardest part of every day is when my eyes first open and I am reacquainted with my new surreality: I am confined to my apartment unless absolutely necessary. If I leave, I must arm myself with hand sanitizer, stay six feet from another person, and keep my own hands off my own face. Humans weren’t meant to live like this. What makes it worse is that no one seems to know when it will end.

Sleep is becoming more elusive and less reliable as the pandemic—its uncertainty, its isolation, its possible death toll, its mass layoffs—turns my dreams into nightmares. I wake up at 2:00, 3:00, and 4:00 in the morning to watch shows I’ve seen over and over on Netflix. It brings a sense of normalcy, a reminder of a world that now seems to be free-falling through my fingers.

Like many New Yorkers, I’d seen the handwriting on the wall before our governor officially put the state “on pause.” I rushed out in the rain to stock my refrigerator and my pantry as full as I could. I did well, but now I don’t even know what to do with it. I used to be a good cook—as my mother put it, I had “the touch”—but now I cook badly. I can’t focus. I burn things. I use too much salt, or forget it altogether. It’s just as well. I’m not hungry anyway.

I feel like I’m floating on an ominous cloud of dull terror, or flailing through molasses. There’s a lump in my throat. Everything is heavy. Everything is hard. Even as I type this, my fingers are shaking, and I have to take long pauses to do something, literally anything, else. Often, I just stare at the wall. 

I’ve felt this before. 

In 2014, I decided it was time to stop running away from the headlines and finally look climate change in the face. I didn’t know what I could do about it, but I didn’t think I could, in good conscience, look away any longer. I’ve written before about my journey through climate grief: the shock, the bargaining, the despair, depression, the anger, and my refusal to accept it. 

Every “climate person,” as meteorologist and columnist Eric Holthaus has termed this class of people, can tell you about the moment the enormity of the crisis broke their heart. The experience is as common as it is unique. We didn’t all go through the same steps in the same order, but we’ve all been through some version of it. In the past few years, more and more of us have gotten comfortable talking about it in public. It’s a cycle that never ends because it’s a crisis that never ends. 

My climate grief and my grief about the coronavirus pandemic feel devastatingly similar. Both crises represent tectonic shifts in the way the world works. Both bring a sense of finality, that “nothing will ever be the same again.” Both force me to accept the end of something big and precious and irreplaceable. And I don’t know what comes next.  

There’s also the maddening, infuriating parallel of watching the Powers That Be ignore the science and neglect their duty to protect the public, leaving us all to fend for ourselves—to fight this overwhelming and overpowering menace through our own “individual actions.” We wouldn’t need to yell at bar-hoppers and Spring Breakers today if our government had acted on the information it had in due time and nipped this thing in the bud.

On social media—which has now become our almost literal town square—there seems to be more ire toward “social distance” deniers and delayers than for the powerful people who let this infection become a pandemic. “Wash your hands” and “stay the f*ck home” have become the new “reduce, reuse, recycle.” As with climate—which for far too long was understood strictly as a scientific issue, nothing to do with emotion, or justice—we are attempting to change human behavior with facts and stats and shaming instead of compassion and understanding. 

Not to mention that there are real and deadly health risks related to staying indoors indefinitely. Think of the people who were barely holding on before this, who were already feeling isolated and alone and who depended on that one interaction at the gym or the coffee shop to get them through the day. Think of the people with mental health challenges and addictions who desperately needed their routines to keep them afloat. Human beings are, after all, social animals. Asking people to socially isolate themselves is effectively asking them to abandon not just their freedom, but their humanity. Even if it is for the best, even if it is necessary, the least we could do is adopt a more humane bedside manner.

The parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis have their limits. For one thing, while personal actions are important in the fight against climate change, they are not, by any means, the only option. Collective action will be much more effective in accomplishing the big, systemic change we truly need. But when it comes to the coronavirus, personal actions are all we have. For fear of spreading the disease, we quite literally cannot come together for collective action. Sure, we can and should call our representatives, but we must do that from the isolation of our own homes.

Perhaps the most difficult and dizzying discrepancy is time. It took me about four years to fully process my climate grief (as much as one can), whereas my coronavirus grief has had to adhere to a cruelly compressed timescale of just a few weeks. Also, my climate grief was so difficult to process because not everyone saw what I saw. I felt like I could see the near future, so close I could touch it—but to the people around me it remained invisible. They saw a world that was still safe, still stable. Try as I might, I couldn’t pull the scales from their eyes. That’s not the case with the coronavirus, at least not anymore. Everybody sees it.

Cruelly and ironically, when I grieved the climate crisis, I mourned the coming onslaught of pandemics. I knew that warming temperatures would allow dangerous diseases to travel farther. I knew that intensifying storms and fires would devastate our medical infrastructure and force people to live in conditions that were veritable playgrounds for contagion. I knew that melting permafrost would unleash diseases that were literally prehistoric, and that no one knew how all of that would play out. All of that remains true, and it only serves to compound my grief over a pandemic that, so far, appears not to have originated in any of the scenarios that haunted my dreams.

This is painful. It’s supposed to be. We are suffering through a collective trauma. We’re watching our world change, and it feels like it’s falling apart. That’s not supposed to feel OK: It’s not OK. 

As hard as it is, as painful as it is, we have to accept the reality of our crisis. Denial, often a critical step in the grieving process, is not an option. There will be no return to the “normal.” That was always an illusion anyway. Now, in the face of a highly contagious virus, returning to our regular lives with work commutes and gym visits and large gatherings is a death sentence for many.

I believe that we have it in us to face the great unknown that’s on the other side of this collective trauma. But only if we allow ourselves to mourn our losses—be they temporary or permanent. If you’re putting pressure on yourself to hold it together, that very well may be what breaks you apart. If I’ve learned anything working on climate, it’s that broken hearts, much like broken bones, don’t mend until you tend them. I’ve learned that broken people don’t fix things, they break them beyond repair. I’ve learned that you can’t create a new world until you’ve mourned the old one. I’ve learned that you have to heal your own wounds before you can heal anyone, or anything else.

No matter what comes next, we will need each other to face it. That means that even though we have to hold each other at a distance right now, we have to hold each other nonetheless. This loss of intimacy cannot mean a loss of empathy. That is our most valuable natural resource and, right now, we need to cultivate it as if our lives depend on it. Because they do. If the world falls apart, it will be up to us to hold each other together, to hold each other up. 

Both the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis reveal that our world is inextricably interconnected, and it’s as strong or as fragile as those connections. We have to strengthen those connections. It is our only choice. The sun is going to rise again. And I’ll be right there with you. It may not feel like it, but whether we are miles apart or just six feet, we are all in this together.