Musings on Mortality: Feeling loss, grief and anxiety when our lives are threatened

In my medical humanities course for Excelsior College called, "I Feel Your Pain: Illness and Empathy in the Arts," my students and I spend a week discussing different types grief and how grief is manifested. One of the discussions that I felt was critical to include when designing the course is called "Grief as a Witness to Life." The course discussion hones in on global warming and the physical and psychological impacts on humans, as well as the need for a grief reaction in order to acknowledge what is going on to then to act accordingly.

For this column, I will include under the heading of "grief as a witness to life" the threats many of us are feeling to our freedoms, democracy, and future security in a land of spoken untruths coming from our leaders. My intent is not to be political, but to address subjects that are at the heart of thanatology, loss, grief, and anxiety experienced when we feel that our lives are threatened.

Grief is a reaction to loss. Mourning is not a reaction to loss but the process by which we integrate the loss into our lives. I am not writing about either of these in relationship to the death of a loved-one or the shocking news that we have an illness that is potentially fatal. I am writing about what the Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes calls the "Great Grief" when it comes to climate change. I extend this "Great Grief" to include the loss of a societal environment that once was.

Grief is manifested mentally or cognitively by " disbelief, confusion, anxiety, tension, pain, a pervasive sense of disorganization, and depression. Things and events may seem unreal " (DeSpelder, L. A. & Strickland, A. L., 2015, p.343). There are the emotions in grief such as sadness, despair, hopelessness, longing, loneliness, anger, etc. Physical manifestations of grief are shortness of breath, the need to sigh, stomach pain, loss of appetite, sleep issues, etc. Behaviorally, we can be irritable, hostile, or withdrawn. Spiritually, we can have "spiritual distress" and question our god and faith.

Are any of my readers experiencing these symptoms?

For those of us who have not been directly hit by global warming or the effects of new administrative policy, we are aware that some in our community have (deportation, displays of otherness, and hate). We are aware that parts of the country and the world are dealing with catastrophic weather events and human migration. We are bonded by our grief and mourning.

Experts in grief have defined different types of grief and I will describe two that I feel are applicable. There is "transitional grief" that is the result of tremendous changes to our status in the world and how we think we fit in. Collectively, we are transitioning from a sense of control and established order to one of powerlessness and possible chaos. The other defined grief experience is called "anticipatory grief" which is grieving in anticipation of a loss. This kind of grief is due to the potential loss of our home, planet earth, and for many, the loss of any semblance of civil discord in a new governmental paradigm. I recognize that for many of us, oppression and the fear of lost civil rights have been a constant in our lives. But now the threats are affecting everyone.

The articles that I put forth for my students in our discussion have to do with the necessity to grieve as a motivator for change. Stephen Jenkinson, author of "Die Wise," claims that grief is a skill to learn, not an affliction to bear. I agree.

De Spelder L. & Strickland, A. (2015) "The Last Dance, Encountering Death & Dying," 10th Edition; New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Publishing Companies.

Deborah Golden Alecson is a death, dying and bereavement educator and speaker who resides in Lenox. She is the author of three books that deal with her personal loss. Learn more at


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