Burning it down: ambiguous loss, divorce, and climate change

Sarah E. Myhre, Ph.D.

One year ago I burned my life down to the ground. I asked my husband for a divorce.

Since it was 2015, I announced our divorce on Facebook. So easy — everyone knew the same story at the same time. What followed, along with the physical separation of households and legal mediation, was the grieving process: a physiological transformation backlit by incandescent rage and the liquid, analgesic effect of mania.

I sat with Death. Death and I rode the bus together. Death was with me in my morning coffee and cream. I rode waves of dysmorphia and couldn’t recognize myself. I lost my appetite and dropped 25 lbs. I stopped sleeping; if I did sleep I would wake soaked with cold-sweats. I was cold for months and I couldn’t feel it. I was mostly self-aware of the mania, the recklessness. My toes were edged up to some vast, black ocean of death and loss.

Sitting next to that dark sea of pain, I recognized the feelings as familiar. The ambiguity, the lack of clarity, the taste of death even when death was not there. Divorce is death without a corpse — the death of a marriage, a family, a dream, a future.

In the same way, understanding climate change science is death without the dying. It is the coming-to-grips with the ambiguity of losing things that are still right in front of you (oysters, snowpack, salmon) — yet knowing they are not long in this world. It is the holding of space for the warm wash of pain, the loss of the future, the death of dreams.

Grief and climate

I am an ocean and climate scientist. It’s my day job to think about our planet in a future of abrupt climate warming. The scale of loss that is coming — it’s beyond anything I was ever prepared for. Catastrophic coral bleaching, sea level rise, the loss of Arctic sea ice, the acidification of the global ocean, deadly heat waves — shit. They don’t tell you you’re in for an existential crisis when you sign up for graduate school.

So, I’ve been practicing the letting-go for a while now.

Yet, we are all holding on to, and identifying with, the pain of knowing our planet is forever changing by the onslaught climate warming. It’s the kind of pain you can’t talk about at cocktail parties. Sure, make a witty joke about your ex-husband, that’s acceptable. But whatever you do, don’t talk about how you suffer on empty car rides. Don’t talk about the loss you feel when the rains don’t come, when the cherry trees bloom in January. When you cannot dig the clams or fish the crab or afford the salmon in the store.

I am here to tell you — goddammit — that we need to stop identifying with that pain and start learning from it. We need to take a minute, put down the cell phone, go outside, and come to terms with the planetary scale of environmental death and human suffering that is coming with climate change.

The true acceptance of loss requires a brave integration across that deep, black ocean of pain. To get to the other shore, you have to let Death sweep in and burn down what must go. You are stripped outright of things you can never get back. That’s what Death does. Put beautifully by Bréne Brown, “Grief requires us to reorient ourselves to every part of our physical, emotional, and social world.” Yep. There isn’t a short-cut for that scale of change. However, grief is an open door. It’s a space that you can commit yourself towards walking through.

It hurts, and it is scary, and I feel it, too. But I am here standing with you, too. We share this loss, you and I.

Crossing to the other side

One Sunday in January, after months of pain and physical exhaustion, I had a realization come upon me: I am starving myself of everything that nourishes me. I texted a friend of mine: ‘I think I’ve hit rock bottom’. She replied, ‘that’s great you stopped digging’. Cue in the self-care: dental work, casual sex, massages, counseling, skiing, running, New Orleans, dancing, tattooing, whiskey, kale smoothies. Whatever it took to claw myself out of the grave.

In crossing to the other side after my divorce, I have come to understand what I cannot lose. Similarly, we who are mourning the balance of life on this blue, beautiful planet must remember, too, that there are things we cannot lose. In the future, regardless of the trajectory of emissions and ensuing climate chaos, the world will still be beautiful. We will still make art and sing songs. We will still love one other. We will still be family. Those are the things that death cannot touch.

Getting traction after the loss was like walking through the looking glass — things are different over here. When you burn your life down, you think everything will be ashes, ashes, ashes. But, as Pablo Neruda wrote, “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.” While this is not true in a future of abrupt warming, it is certainly true of the human heart. The return of life in the wake of death is startling. Profound.

In a similar way, I see the climate crisis clearly. Our world has become simple and I have been parsed like a carrot or a stone. I see how human lives and voices, when united and brave, transcend and heal the world. And, I see how I might use my voice for a short while, until Death inevitably welcomes me back into the warm waters of that black ocean.

Join me on the other side and let us love one another through this darkness.

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