Acknowledging the weight of the current moment: grief and the climate crisis

By: Namrata Chowdhary, Chief of Public Engagement @ 350.org

Image by Paperhand

Last week, I woke up on Monday morning feeling sad, anxious, and worst of all, utterly helpless.

I had spent a sombre weekend trying to process what felt like ‘secondhand grief’ — when your only contact with family and loved ones is over FaceTime, Zoom and WhatsApp, the distance from your own emotions can feel surreal. You hear the news of another death, you sigh, shed a tear or ten, and ask if there’s anything you can do, though there’s usually not. And then, you put aside your phone and go back to chopping vegetables; because right now, lunch needs making.

I find myself wondering: if a friend died in a ward far away with no one to put flowers at her feet, did she die at all? My macabre word-play is compartmentalising at its worst, but loss does feel unreal without the comforting rituals of shared grieving.

10:30 on Monday morning, my first meeting of the week, and I hesitate to share my feelings with my manager, Olivia. What can she do, after all? What can any of us do?

Eventually, as it happens, my compartments collapse when she simply asks how my weekend was. With gratitude for the human connection, I find myself sharing my news from India. Incidentally, this is not the first time my grief has boiled over into my work conversations: I had to excuse myself briefly from a Leadership Team call two weeks ago, because I had just read an all-too-familiar trail of texts in a whatsApp group made up of ex-classmates. Texts flew fast and furious as the group mobilised across continents, desperately searching for doctors, then hospitals, then oxygen supplies, before our 45-year old friend died, quietly, in a car. And yes, I do mean ‘briefly’, because I gathered my thoughts, forced myself to composure, and went back to complete the call. Because what else was I going to do, sitting here in London by myself?

In that question, I find the real source of my distress: my utter lack of agency over the situation causing me grief. What can I do? It turns out, what I have been belittling as compartmentalisation is — quite literally — a useful exercise to alter my brain-state and deal with depressive thoughts. As I recently read in ‘The Art of Taking it Easy’, by turning my attention to problem-solving — whether it be deciding which vegetables would balance my weekend meals, or reviewing a restructure proposal at work — I am redirecting neural energy from my amygdala to my prefrontal cortex. I am actively shifting from a state of worry, grief and panic, into a state of decision-making and action.

The book handily suggests two questions to ask oneself when confronted by a sense of threat:

  1. What, really, is the threat? What’s the worst that can happen?

Answering those questions will always help put things in perspective, and usually show you some way forward. And if there’s nothing you can do about the situation, it will at least have redirected your attention.

So what could I do? The beautiful thing about the work we do at 350.org, and in the sector more generally, is the gratifying answer: the systemic problems that have worsened the impacts of this pandemic are the very same that we are tackling today in our fight for social and climate justice: extractive capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchal systems of oppression and power. If that sounds like a stretch at first, really think about it. I did.

Pouring my energy towards these, therefore, restores my sense of agency and gives me a degree of hope. I’m reminded of my Ikigai. My work keeps me, as always, at the intersection of four circles: what I’m good at, what I love, what I can be paid for, and what the world needs. So I look again at my priorities for this week, now with my Ikigai lenses on.

This week, I am helping 350 strengthen its contribution to the climate movement by supporting our internal evolution:

  • Becoming a truly global organisation, firmly rooted in regional realities, by setting ourselves up to challenge the narrative of ‘normal’ in multiple languages and forms of expression.

This grand flow of positive thoughts is interrupted by further bad news from home… I’ve lost yet another person in my ‘first circle’. That’s seven people now, that I knew personally; had met in real life, spent time with, enjoyed a connection with, who have been taken abruptly in just the last two weeks.

As my eyes brim, my thoughts swim, and the spreadsheet I am looking at makes no sense whatsoever. Why am I even looking at it?

I do the best thing I can think of: I ask my colleague, Rob, for help. I candidly tell him I am finding that spreadsheet incomprehensible right now, and ask him to explain not just what I need to do with it, but also why I need to do it. He doesn’t miss a beat before stepping up to help me make sense of it all again, and working through it with someone is just the support I need.

So if there is any wisdom I can share through this telling of my story, it boils down to this advice:

  • Acknowledge your emotions, all of them. Examining emotions helps, but also try to move the energy to that prefrontal cortex!

Just as we say about the climate crisis… We can only get through this together.

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350 is a global org that's inspiring the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis. This blog is a look behind the scenes at how we do that.