Specters of Sorrow: Eco-Grief, Ambiguous Loss, and Religious Creativity

By Jacob J. Erickson

To live in the wake of a global pandemic is to be haunted by complex uncertainties. In planetary diversity, we navigate our relationships both within ongoing tangles of loss unknown as well as after, slowly making sense of a world familiar, made strange. In feedback loops and relational rhythms, climate change and biodiversity loss works with similar effect, with aggregating impacts and shifting speed. The ecological losses we perceive to bear dizzy our orientations, ask some to re-feel the earthly kin we are anew, and urge us to follow the lead of those who have long cried for justice.

In the midst of these planetary crises that exacerbate injustice, an unexpected face recently re-surfaced from the watery depths of an Argentinian river. A giant river otter, thought locally extinct, actually reared its head and emerged in news sites across the globe. I might take this face to be an ancestral spectre, a living icon of the messy space of the oddity of ecological loss. I might see this face, dripping water as bearing witness to extinctions, known and unknown, staring back. It might evoke how little many of us, variously privileged, know about what has gone extinct, what is going extinct, what wounds proliferate, and how eco-social landscapes change with what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.” We see this watery face that reminds us that at least some loss swims in streams of uncertainty. What is being lost in cascades of biodiversity? To what extent are we aware of the changes climate now rends in our bones? How might we respond with these creatures?

On one hand, asking these questions should be a question of discerning vulnerability and privilege. Environmental and climate injustice builds in many communities and peoples a keen awareness of how loss and bearing witness now becomes a vital part of the art of local ecological living. Still, in planetary ways, losses also always exceed the knowledge of any one certain person or community. Extinctions, known and unknown, proliferate. Ghostly otters playing and hunting in rivers, disappear, re-surface, and disappear again. To what extent can one speak and actively grieve these losses and hauntings? To what extent do we have the right to do so? Is this spectral yet alive otter a sign of hope, a portent, or just a creature to leave alone? What larger eco-social contexts are implicated? The questions, not only the answers, may break our hearts.

In the midst of this pandemic time, my researching and thinking turned personally and professionally to the study of climate, ecological, and environmental grief in its various intersectional contexts. Emergent from their research with the Inuit Nunangat, grief researchers Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville Ellis define ecological grief as, “The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.” The loss of species and meaningful landscapes cascades within trophic time, in slow and quick shifts of tempo. Grief—felt, diverse, and anticipated—wells through manifold formations of power, with contextual relations and relational textures.

The grief-texture of this particular otterly relation might point us toward the experience of what psychologist Pauline Boss calls “ambiguous loss,” where closure or clarity is elusive and rare. Ordinary ambiguous loss ranges from the mysterious unraveling of a relationship, being ghosted by a friend, to a felt sense that something is lost but an inability to articulate what exactly that loss is. More catastrophic ambiguous losses include putting together pieces in the wake of natural disasters, disappearances at war, and more. Such loss flows in a number of experiential forms that of psychical and psychological absence and presence, and they cannot necessarily be resolved or understood or fully named.

Though she herself doesn’t reflect extensively on extinction or climate in relation to ambiguous loss, Boss’ psychological concept rings true to me and others working in ecological studies. Meehan Crist speculates in the London Review of Books, for instance, about ambiguous loss in the experience of climate refugees, and the literature on eco-grief is growing. Because of the scale of ecological loss, geographically and temporally, I might venture that much of the perceived and anticipated relational loss inflicted by climate change, extinction, or biodiversity cascades qualify as “ambiguous” losses. Places leave us, even while we still inhabit them (Glenn Albrecht’s “solastalgia”). Crises exceed local imagining, ‘freeze’ grief-responses, arrest us, police and disempower our creativity.

I recognize frozen grief-responses in the litanies of environmental devastation. Impassioned activists, environmental humanists, scholars of religion and ecology, and others recite with a terrifying fury the litany of environmental devastations in the language of scientific fact. The litany, the imminent doom in the speaking, is meant to convey urgency and urge action, but rarely does such a presentation evoke new imagination. The apocalyptic doomer-narrative further freezes possibilities for collective action and active grieving. Climate researcher Per Espen Stoknes calls this phenomenon “apocalypse fatigue.”

Counterintuitively, scholars like Nicole Seymour have suggested that instead of morose approaches to our work, some of us might seek a kind of “irreverent ecocriticism” that bears grief and environmental affect differently—through irony, absurdity, or what she calls “bad environmentalism” that works with humor for the sake of subversion. She points to the creativity of climate activists, unexpected media, and other creative arts.

The poetics and lived ritual of religion, too, have long borne technologies for navigating human ambiguity. Religious myths, poetics, rituals, and practices often hold together prismatic meanings, coincidences of opposites, paradoxes of joy and sorrow. While those religious possibilities do not remain unproblematic, their creativity and willingness to utter unutterable things, to practice unpracticable things, to grieve changing worlds, to creatively collaborate art and mystery, Divinity, or cosmology—these apparently absurd technologies might be precisely realities to pay attention to in the wake of planetary loss, as a planetary play of grief. I’ve been calling this the religious poetics of planetary feeling.

As Susan J. White writes, “These attributes of religious ritual—its ability to hold together multiple and often mutually contradictory meanings, to express what is essentially inexpressible, and to place the ‘local’ and ‘interior’ onto a wider context—give ritual its persistence and power in the human experience of grieving.”

Scholars of the environmental humanities and scholars of religion and ecology, I’m convinced, must approach their writing with an attention to a more complex poetics of affect. Environmental justice leaders and activists often do this much better, with imagination. But academia needs to learn how to write public scholarship with a performative planetary feeling toward creative grief-work. We must wrestle with ambiguous losses and frozen grief-responses in the frames they give to environmental loss and environmental injustice. Introductory textbooks to our ecological crises need to find new frames beyond the doom and gloom.

In the wake of these ambiguous losses that surface and dive in our news, in our lives, and in our relations, how might we bear forth differently? My own writing has been far too serious here. In some myths and stories told, otters were known to be specters of sorrow, of drowning and loss. Perhaps the otter is a queer icon itself, too, known in various stories for drying the feet of weary saints, for freeing the sun, for playing in the chaos, for curiosity that might hold contradictions, losses, ambiguities, and the rest together. Perhaps that’s an all-too-human imaginary; perhaps that tries to learn from the wisdom of too many stories. But one must be willing to risk the play of feeling, be willing to hold the spectral and prismatic together, just as we collectively learn to interrogate power and seek justice across new lines of solidarity. We might learn to listen to the grief and resilience of those on the front lines of climate change. We might be willing to create relationships in and beyond grieving. We never know what might surface.


Jacob J. Erickson is Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Trinity College Dublin. Erickson serves as Director of Undergraduate Teaching and Learning for the School of Religion at Trinity. His forthcoming book with Fortress Press is On the Floodtide of History: Climate Grief and the Theopoetics of Planetary Feeling.

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