Grief and rage: The emotional impact of a nation on fire

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During times of great tragedy and duress such as our bushfire crisis, we need to find a way to turn our grief into a determination to take action, writes Lyn Bender.

SPRING, traditionally the time of renewal and rebirth, has brought death and destruction to much of Australia. People have died, native animals have been incinerated, habitat has been lost, while homes, hopes and dreams have been annihilated.

Toxic smoke envelops Sydney and it’s only December. Welcome to a hellfire climate-changed summer.

Meanwhile, Scott Morrison jets out in the big smoke to have drinks with the Murdochs. How will they spin this climate crisis now that the smoke has reached their den of iniquity?

It is indeed a crisis for the Government. Having chosen the tactic of denying/ignoring climate change, the Government now finds that Mother Earth has risen like an enraged super being and erupted in unquenchable conflagrations. Scott Morrison has taken on the role of a conductor orchestrating the populace. The voters are to be played slowly and softly with the volume kept low.

The Greens and the tree-huggers and so-called “inner-city lefties” are to be played hard and loudly, to carry the blame, rage and indifference. Another tone of slow menace is to be directed by Border Protection. The Australian Federal police are to be armed with heavily-conspicuous heavy assault rifles at airports over Christmas.

But still, the fires burn as the people choke on the toxic fumes. ‘Taste the ash, see our pink sun,’ screams one headline.

Esteemed author Charlotte Wood writes:

There’s nothing like going to sleep with the taste of ash in your throat to give you an actual, physiological understanding of real fear.


I feel as though I’ve lost my ability to taste or smell anything but smoke. And oddly it doesn’t even seem to smell like smoke anymore; just an acrid, chemical, horrible odour in my clothes, my hair, the sofa, the pillows.

Perhaps the most moving account of the grief associated with our current climate has been written by Jeff Sparrow in an article titled ‘We cannot cut our losses and accept the ruination of the planet’.

As someone who has worked with grief and trauma, I now find the age-old concepts of grief management hopelessly puny and inadequate. The enormity of the growing evidence of environmental destruction is now unfolding worldwide.

Sparrow writes:

‘...no ironic distance will normalise the ruination of a planet: a disaster that cannot – must not! – be borne.’

No cognitive behavioural therapy, no meditation of acceptance, no mindful coping, no narrative therapy or psychoanalytic analysis is up to the task.

The human race is engaged in a murder-suicide pact of gigantic proportions. Some are sleepwalking, some are blinded by greed and the lust for power. Some are simply following the propaganda trail to their doom.

The ghastly fire catastrophe before us could be an inspiration for a dystopian catastrophic movie, but it is a reality. We cannot exit from this horror show into an unchanged world as we would like it to be. Sydneysiders complain that the smoke is in their houses, on the beaches and setting off smoke alarms. Sirens roar to attend the false alarms.

The fires would need a deluge to quench them, but Australia is in drought.

Scott Morrison, like a mad Emperor, declares that the firefighters are there because they want to be. No added assistance will be offered. No money or assistance from our Government.


Meanwhile, in my local café, an older couple is complaining about a burst of rain. “What sort of summer is this?” the grumpy man complains petulantly. He is complaining as though to a waiter in the sky. The calendar has declared the start of summer and here in Melbourne, it’s cold and showery. 

“We need the rain,” I exclaim, trying to lower the volume of my rage. I am attached to this local café and wish to retain my status of welcome, good-natured regular. But the man is pushing his luck. “But we don't need it here,” he retorts sulkily, “it’s falling in the wrong place”.

“We do need it everywhere and we are lucky that the cold and wet is protecting us from the fires raging in Queensland and New South Wales.” My tone is impatient and brusque, but I avoid the temptation to say “yes, Boomer”. In case this appears ageist, I am a 72-year-old grandmother and I have lost patience with those swimming in a sea of quiet wilful climate change blindness.

I am a psychologist (semi-retired) and half my task can be working to access the truth behind veils of harmful denial used to maintain behaviours. The other half of my work is supporting people through the grief of the recognition of reality. Denial can get us through shock and has survival value, but eventually, most denial must be relinquished. Otherwise, we will fail to deal with health or life-threatening situations.

Remember how the Titanic was believed to be unsinkable? There were only enough lifeboats for half the passengers. Few of the poorer passengers survived. There was no emergency drill. It was deemed too big to fail.

The Titanic is an apt metaphor for our disastrous journey towards climate catastrophe. Hubris, folly denial and big money interests played their part in the disaster. The suppression of the science and promotion of denial are well documented.

Exxon Mobil knew about the warming impact of burning fossil fuels almost 40 years ago. Naturally, they prized profit over the future of the Earth and actively hid the truth. Naomi Oreskes, in her book, Merchants of Doubt, has shown how the seeds of doubt about climate scientific predictions were sown using the same tactics as those promoted by big tobacco.

Denial taps into most peoples’ desire and yearning to believe what seems more palatable until the disaster impacts them. Who wants to believe that humans are relentlessly making the Earth inhospitable to most life?

Now that clear disaster is upon us, another defence is to move from denial to nihilism. It’s all too late. There is nothing we can do. We are too small to count. Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow is screwed.

But inaction is not an option. Anyone who is not grieving is not paying attention. The kids know what the adults try to hide. The activists know what the politicians deny. The time has come to awaken. It is time for strong protest.

The climate beast is roaring. So must we and demand. No more coal. Support and resources for our firefighters and those impacted by fires.

Declare an immediate moratorium on logging. Super challenge the politicians. Convene an emergency team of scientists and experts.

Lyn Bender is a professional psychologist. You can follow Lyn on Twitter @Lynestel.

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