What I Learned From Facilitating My First Climate Grief Support Group

1. No politicians.

2. Breathe.

3. Lots of people need this.

4. No, really. I mean it about the politicians.


I first heard about the Good Grief Network on a podcast. The group offers a 10-step program designed to help:

“build personal resilience and empowerment while strengthening community ties to combat despair, inaction, and eco-anxiety on the collective level.”

When I heard about it, I knew I wanted to do something like that where I live in northwest Indiana (NWI). Whenever I mentioned it to activist friends, they all seemed excited about the idea. So I joined an online Good Grief group and did the facilitator training. I’ve only facilitated two groups so far. What follows is a description of how I proceeded to create a local climate grief support group.

Inner Work

First, I had to do some inner work. When I came up with this idea, I was in the depths of depression myself, and eco-grief was definitely a part of it. I think it’s a mistake to think we need to fix ourselves before we can help others–that’s part of the hyper-individualistic mentality which is the source of so many of our problems–but I definitely needed to get beyond the point where all I could see was my own pain. I think a certain amount of emotional equilibrium is needed to facilitate a support group, and I didn’t have it for a while. Then I started work on adapting the Good Grief framework for the place and people where I live.

Location and Time

The county where I live is divided geographically between the underprivileged, industrialized, urban, and racially diverse communities in the north and the over-privileged, suburban, and mostly White communities in the south. I wanted to make the group accessible to both communities, so I decided to hold two different groups, one in the northern part of the county and one in the southern part. I planned on having the meetings roughly monthly and each group would last an hour and a half to two hours.

In Real Life

I wanted this to be an in-person group, not something online. While the internet has done amazing things to connect people who would never be connected otherwise (I probably would not have heard of the Good Grief Network, for instance), it also alienates us from each other in many ways. There is no substitute for face to face contact, for a handshake or a hug. So I’ve scheduled the meetings to take place in meeting rooms in public libraries.

Purpose

It took me a while to articulate the purpose of the groups. This is what I came up with:

“The Climate Grief Groups of NWI are for those living with an awareness of loss–present and future–due to climate change and the collapse of our environmental and social systems. The groups are intended to create safe space to share and process complex feelings which are harder to share in other activist spaces–feelings like grief, despair, fear, and guilt.

“This is not a space for talking about proposed solutions or action items, as there are many other spaces for that. This is NOT the group for you if want to tell everyone what they need to do or think. This is NOT the group for you if want someone else to tell you what to do or think.

“It is one ironies of climate activism that, in fighting for a more sustainable way of life, we often pursue our activism in a totally unsustainable way. Grief therapist Holly Truhlar writes that the environmental movement has failed to offer spaces where we can talk about our sense of loss and grief, and until we do we are never going to be in right relationship with nature, with ourselves, or with each other. The purpose of this group is to create such a space, with the belief that facing these feelings honestly will lead to more appropriate and effective action elsewhere. Here we strive to follow the ironic advice of Bayo Akomolafe who writes, ‘The times are urgent—Let’s slow down.’

Format

To accomplish the purpose above, I decided on the following format:

Small groups: Initially, I had planned to limit the groups to 5 people each. The idea being that 5 or 6 is about the maximum number of people for a truly intimate conversation. When more than 5 people showed up for the second group, I decided that, rather than turning people away, I would just break them up up into smaller groups that I could move back and forth between. (Maybe I can get someone to volunteer to facilitate one group while I do the other.)

Pauses to breathe: We took deliberate pauses between each person’s share. It’s a space to breathe and center ourselves. This is hard for people at first, but I have found, in facilitating other groups, that this helps people listen to each other and communicate better. I also asked the participants to try to respond to one another, rather than just taking turns talking.

No solutions talk: As stated above, this is intended to be a solutions-free zone, a place where we can talk about our feelings without a rush to action. This can be hard for many activists (including myself).

Not therapy: I explained that support groups are not a substitute for therapy. My wife is a therapist who facilitates other support groups, and she always tells the participants that, even though she is a therapist, the group is not therapy. I also felt it was important to share the suicide hotline number–something I noticed many Deep Adaptation groups online are doing.

No commitment: Lastly, I explained that the group is not a commitment. No one should feel obligated to come. It’s okay to miss meetings and come back when ready. But I asked participants to share the group with others.

Agenda

The agenda for the meeting went like this:

I explained the purpose of the group, the format, the agenda, and the agreements (below). We then did a brief check-in. (I like to have everyone describe a “high” and a “low” from the past week or month.)

I then read something to start the discussion off. For the first group, I started by reading an excerpt from Dahr Jamail’s essay, “Dancing With Grief”, which helped me explain the purpose of the group. We then used the discussion prompts below.

After the discussion, I assigned “homework”, which was to share something–an article, video, or something else which has helped them recently. (One person shared a beautiful recording he had made of sandhill cranes.)

We then went round the room and each person offered some positive and some constructively negative critique about the group structure. And we ended with everyone saying something they are grateful for.

Agreements

I created a list of agreements for the group, ground rules for the discssion that we should all agree to before proceeding. I left #10 blank so participants could add more. (We added a #10 after the politician issue, described below.)

  1. Raise hands to be called on before speaking.
  2. When responding to others, speak from a place that is calm, curious, and compassionate.
  3. Respect the moderator’s efforts to maintain order.
  4. If you experience a strong offense, say “Ouch!” and we will address it together.
  5. Appreciate the difference between intent and impact. (For the offending person, know that an innocent intent does not excuse a harmful impact. For the offended person, do not assume that a harmful impact means there was an intent to harm.)
  6. Speak from your personal experience. Don’t prescribe behavior for others.
  7. Step Up-Step Back. If you tend to speak easily or often, step back. If you tend to remain quiet, step up.
  8. Privacy: The identity and conversation of participants is confidential.
  9. No sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or transphobic language.
  10. No political campaigning. (We added this.)

No Politicians!

During the first group (which took place in the southern part of the county), I was surprised when, half way through our 2-hour scheduled time, our Indiana state representative and her union boss husband walked in. I was thrown off a bit by their tardiness, but went on to explain again the purpose of the group, the format, and the agreements. The state rep then dismissed all that and went on to explain that she had come to justify her recent vote in favor of a controversial environmental bill that would make it harder for utility companies to close their coal-fired power plants. (Our state rep was one of only two Democrats in the state who voted in favor of the bill. I had criticized her on Facebook and she wanted a forum to defend herself.)

I explained that it was not the appropriate forum for her to defend her vote, but invited her to stay if she wanted to actually participate in the group. She asked again what the purpose of the group was. I explained again, and she proposed talking about her “feelings” about why she voted the way she did. I told her again that wasn’t the purpose of the group. So she decided to leave with her husband.

We then spent a good portion of the remaining time processing that interaction. After reflecting on it, I felt it was disrespectful of the state rep (and her husband) to try to hijack the meeting for their political purposes, and it showed poor judgment (again) on her part.

The next week, during the second meeting (this time in the northern part of the county), another (self-described) politician showed up. He was not one of the people who had RSVP’d and I had not met him before. He also showed up late. But he agreed to the group’s agreements and did not seem intent on hijacking the group, so I let him stay. Nevertheless, he didn’t understand the purpose of the group and some of the other participants were bothered by his presence.

Two things came from all this. First, we decided that I would screen all participants in advance. So, I posted a notice that, while the groups are open to the public, we want to provide a safe space for participants, so if someone wants to participate, they must first contact the facilitator (me) and receive an invitation. Second, we agreed to add a no political campaigning rule (#10 above).

Discussion Prompts

Here’s the list I’m using:

  1. Accept the severity of our predicament.
  2. Acknowledge that you (and all of us) are part of the problem.
  3. Practice sitting with uncertainty.
  4. Honor your own mortality and the mortality of all.
  5. Let yourself feel your feelings.
  6. Do you inner work, healing past wounds, to avoid projecting onto others.
  7. Develop awareness of brain patterns (drawing on insights from cognitive science).
  8. Take breaks and rest.
  9. Practice gratitude.
  10. Show up.
  11. Reinvest in meaningful efforts.
  12. Do all this with others, i.e., in community. (This is my addition.)

So, after talking about what brought us to the group, we started with the first step (“Accept the severity of our predicament”) and these questions:

  1. What was a moment when your awareness of the climate crisis deepened?
  2. How do you (or don’t you) manage your complex feelings about this crisis?

I’ll use different questions for each step obviously.

Final Thoughts

Both groups went really well (aside from the interruptions by politicians). All of the above is a work in progress. But I am sharing it here for the benefit of those interested in starting their own groups. Feel free to take what you need and leave the rest.

One of my takeaways–after “No Politicians” and “Breathe”–was how much people really needed the group. More than one person said they came to the group dubious about whether they needed it, but left it convinced that they did and glad that they had come. I’m really looking forward to the next group.

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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