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January 5, 2020

What to do when Life, Grief & the World become too much to Bear.

It has been a jarring, searing drop into 2020.

January 1st, I spent weeping at home after receiving news that Australia’s apocalyptic bushfires finally reached one of the wildlife rescues I have followed for several years: a kangaroo rescue in New South Wales. The humans barely evacuated, but the animals had to be left behind to face the fires on their own.

January 2nd, Trump committed an unauthorized act of war against Iran, setting us and the Middle East up for imminent, escalating conflict.

January 3rd, the fires passed through the same areas they ravaged on New Year’s Eve.

My stomach feels in a permanent state of nauseated horror. I struggle to sleep at night. I dread going on social media and seeing updates that tell of further loss. 

And from the depths of this grief, I share with my online community—the sorrow and the hope. The process of trying to navigate the heavy reality of ecological grief with intention and care. 

I’ve been told, gently, by several people to look for the positive around me. People wanting to remind me that there is still good in the world. The reminders are welcome, and at the same time, make me feel I need to explain myself. 

As an activist, an empath, and a global citizen, I have ample reason for deeply grieving our present crises. The fires in Australia, though far removed from me geographically, might as well be in my own backyard in terms of the space they have been given in my heart. These are not all nameless, faceless strangers who are dying in the fires, losing everything, stranded on beaches and boats. They are Rae and Simon, Kanku and JoJo, Jake and Cooper, Lily and Yogi, Pocket and Zak, Penny and Jude, and so many others. 

When people tell me, “Don’t be sad,” or “You can’t let it get you down,” or “Just be positive,” I understand where it’s coming from. They are concerned I’ll be consumed. They want me to find a balance between grieving and living. But I confess, it also makes me angry.

How the hell can I not be devastated over these losses?

How can I look at the raw, red flesh of the legs of kangaroos that managed to escape and not weep? How can I not worry about the fires still roaring through like a monster out of hell, and all the ones in their path? The 500 million animals feared dead, wiped out in these fires? The ones that may have tipped over into extinction or are on the brink? The ones who remain, without food, water, or habitat? The thousands of people forced to sleep on a beach, praying they don’t have to jump in the water to survive? The firefighters sacrificing themselves without pay or reinforcement or rest? The Australian government doing virtually nothing

I understand that grieving is only one thing I can offer. At the end of the day, it helps no one unless it makes someone else feel less alone. Unless it acts as a witness to the suffering of another. Unless it invites others into a state of awareness and urgency, creating a ripple effect of sharing. Unless it empowers others to channel their grief into action, into giving, in whatever ways we can.

I grieve with my whole heart, my whole body, this is true. I understand that it’s not sustainable to live in the thick of this measure of grief, day in and day out. But don’t mistake my sadness for lack of hope. If right now I’m sharing more tears than smiles, don’t think that means I’m not walking through each day soaking up every ounce of beauty this world has to offer with a posture of gratitude. Yes, the sadness dominates right now, like a wave building and cresting in a storm-tossed sea. But I know, after the crashing, I will smooth out into gentler waves. I will find balance

Give me space for my grief to crash.

The evening before my loved ones in Australia prepared for round two of hellfire, I was a fidgety mass of dread. I can’t go through tomorrow like this, I told myself. I have to find a kinder way to navigate this agonized waiting.

So, I pulled out my new deck of Oracle cards, gifted to me by a lovely friend, and I drew a card with the hope of it offering me some bit of guidance to hold onto the next day.

And wouldn’t you know, I pulled “Dance,” with a picture of an indigenous woman dancing in celebration. 

“You’ve got to be effing kidding me,” I muttered aloud to myself. “Celebrate? That’s how I’m supposed to get through the day?”

But I sat with it, because as contrary as it seemed, I also knew there was something there. Something I needed. 

“Okay,” I sighed. “I’ll do my best to remain open to celebration tomorrow in the midst of the dread, in the midst of the heavy.”

At the very least, I knew this card was asking me to take a risk and plunge with more intention into the practice of gratitude, while in the throes of grief. And I knew, there is great power in gratitude.

“…appreciation begets abundance.” ~ Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

The next morning, I woke up and didn’t reach for my phone for the first 30 minutes. I stretched and looked out on the birds at our feeders and took deep, calming breaths. When I didn’t think I could put it off any longer, I pulled out my phone and searched for updates from the rescue. 

And I saw one of the faces I have loved, a beautiful male kangaroo, staring back at me as one of the identified survivors. The fire decimated whatever remained standing, but ran out of fuel at the edge of the rescue’s property. For now, they were spared further loss. The tears I wept this day were of gratitude. 

I went for a walk in the chilly gray afternoon and stopped to crane my neck, admiring a hawk circling above. A man passed me, wondering if everything was okay, and I pointed to the bird in the distance, and he Ooo’d and Aww’d with me. He told me the name for hawk in Russian, offered me his hand, and wished me all the best in this new year. We parted ways with warm smiles, this stranger and I, and I celebrated the existence of kindness like this among people who don’t know each other. 

Further down, I followed two more hawks in their spacious flight, a bald eagle twirling above, a flock of geese spread out in new grass, waddling in unison and celebrating their lives. 

I talked with the friend who gifted me the card deck and shared my initial belligerence with the “Dance” card, chuckled over how much I still have to learn, and celebrated the beautiful gift of sisterhood from afar with someone I’ve never met in person.  

Before the day had finished, I was shaking my head in bemusement and gratitude for the paradoxical wisdom of celebration in grief. Not as a way of stifling sadness or denying reality, but as a radical act of faith. 

This year, I know I’m going to be asked to root down deep into the care of the soul as our world navigates myriad crises. I’m going to continue sharing the process of grief with transparency, because I believe the power of this act. But you’d better believe I’m also going to be more intentional about sharing the small, daily celebrations of life. Life in the midst of death. Life that springs up from ash. Life that waves its flags of hope against despair.

If appreciation begets abundance, which I wholeheartedly believe, then celebration is the daily seed that makes grief a little more bearable. And friends, there is still so much to celebrate.


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