Eco Grief

Acts of love to help kids mourn what is being lost

Mom, who cries for the orca?” asked my six-year-old son asked.

It was 2018, orca J35, Tahlequah, carried her dead baby across 1,600 km of the Pacific Ocean for 17 days.

“We can,” I answered and we both wept. It was a relief to share my tears with someone.

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I felt unsure how to lead a meaningful and age-appropriate way to mark this sorrow end. We chose to kayak in “our” cove near Haro Strait to offer a prayer and gratitude. We also created a piece of impermanent Earth art on the beach with shells, sea glass, stones, and leaves.

Nature is important to acknowledge. It reminds us of our lasting connection to the living world and each other. But have we allowed ourselves to mourn these kinds of losses? What are the rituals for losing a baby orca, or an entire species?

Our culture feels broken. Society tells us idolize work ethic, make money, and serve the economy. Yet, it’s obvious we are witnessing and contributing to ecological collapse. Can we reconcile the life we meant to create with reality—a disconnect from the living world, ourselves and one another?

We can skill-up to mark sorrow endings and we must.

Let’s offer more reverence for the death of a songbird after hitting the kitchen window and the loss of old-growth forests. What if we knew how to tend to these moments with the same energy we give to celebrations like the tooth fairy and birthday parties?

Eco grief is the pain or physiological response to the loss of non-human kin. It also requires healthy grief expression because we can mourn for nature.

Benefits of making grief your friend

• It invites us to be more intimate with the Earth

• It’s a wise and healing force within each of us

• Processing it can help counteract violence against the Earth

• Processing grief expands us

• Emotional tears excrete toxins and stimulate the production of endorphins, a chemical in the body to relieve stress and pain.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld a developmental psychologist and best-selling author, ensures us happiness is on the other side of tears, it builds our strength, and tears signal a turning point.

Shauna Janz of Sacred Grief speaks to the costs of grief avoidance and having our losses accumulate:

• They go unfelt, unacknowledged, and unresolved

• It compromises our aliveness (grief expression = vitality and joy)

• We deny our birthright to grieve

Grief needs a container, to be witnessed and shared. There’s so much in our lives we can’t change. Children and adults need rest from trying to change it. Yet, to be fully human we need to feel. Grief can rearrange our insides, and we will be forever changed. A container—ritual, ceremony, activity—can prevent feelings of overwhelm or closing down.

Eight kid-friendly ways to grieve for our living world:

Try these ideas to support a child with the loss of a tree cut at school, finding a dead fledgling after a storm, or help with the loss of a beloved pet. Hint: You may choose to avoid the word grief when speaking with young children. You can name feelings of sadness or honour a goodbye.

1. Energy can’t die or be destroyed. A mink once killed our rented pair of chickens. My then 6- and 2-year-old cried. We chose to keep a feather from each in a jar, and I helped them reflect on how Cream Puff and Fig left their mark. For weeks they had torn up my garden and pooped everywhere! We remember them each time we pluck a juicy raspberry, strawberry, or carrot. Their energy doesn’t disappear.

2. Create a shrine or altar. There is no wrong way to do this. Let the child’s heart lead to create this container for their grief. It’s a tangible way to honour, remember and reflect on what’s alive in their hearts and spirit. Simple tips are:

• It should comfort and nurture them

• It can be inside or outside

• Choose a box, a tin, or special spot in the garden

• Add items from nature like leaves, branches, shells, even a found bird nest

• Add photos, fabric (or other textures like clay), a chime or bell

The purpose is to offer a sanctuary or refuge. Children may choose to visit often or at the same time each week or month. You can sit in silence, close your eyes or journal here.

Alan Wolfelt, a leading death educator and author says “Personal times of stillness are a spiritual necessity. Grief is only transformed when you honor the quiet forces of stillness.”

3. Create impermanent Earth art. An Earth altar, land art or nature mandala is a simple way to acknowledge sorrow and joy. Need inspiration? My family took a workshop by Day Schildkret of Morning Altars. See the beauty he creates @MorningAltars, read his book, get a calendar, or consider an online workshop. It’s a heartfelt way to acknowledge a loss, or life in a humble way. Don’t forget to pay gratitude to items from nature (leaves, flowers, shells, seeds, etc.) you collect. Practice consent-based harvesting.

4. Walking meditation. Walk a labyrinth (we have two in our neighbourhood and you might discover a local one, too!) or choose a favourite trail. Invite kids to ask a question, or set an intention then walk in silence (even a couple minutes counts).

5. Journal. A child who feels heavy with sorrow for the world may want to share more. Writing can be a release, an emotional playground. Need prompts? Try “my sadness for the dead baby bird or clearcut forest…”

• Feels like…

• Sounds like…

• Is shaped like…

• Smells like…

• Is coloured like…

• Has energy like…

6. Write a letter or poem to Mother Nature (drawings are great). Help a child express their gratitude. What you love about her: her smell, sounds, colours or how she makes you feel, etc. You can choose to hang the letter, drawings and notes in a favourite tree. (Psst, this is how neighbourhood gratitude trees start!)

7. Restore a local green space. My family is a volunteer steward for woods near our home. Check with your city for work parties to remove invasive species, or a beach clean-up. Be part of a team or lead one to make beauty where ugliness has set in. We all can restore a world dying and in disrepair. Experiences in nature promote a deep sense of well-being and puts us in touch with spirit.

8. Sing, listen to music or watch a film. To feel emotions sometimes it’s easier to be one step removed from them. Watching a sad movie or listening to a sad song might help when grief is too hard to touch directly.

Sometimes there’s nothing to do but cry. These acts of love can help little hearts find a little rest.

Nurture wonder. Find magic. Seek beauty and experience more awe. To mark loss and love is work for us all and helps us restore respect and connection with Mother Earth.

Lindsay Coulter
Lindsay Coulter
Lindsay Coulter is a writer, educator, facilitator, naturalist, creator of culture, soul activist, and mother of two. She’s the co-founder of EPIC Learning Community a forest and nature school in Victoria, B.C., Program Coordinator at Victoria Nature School and in the process of attaining her certification in Equine Facilitated Wellness.