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On the Frontlines of Loss: Climate Change, Chronic Illness, and the Spiritual Practice of Honoring Grief

Elliot Kukla in Conversation with Julia Watts Belser

March 13, 2023
Elliot, a fat, non-binary white person is holding a wooden cane and wearing a yellow t-shirt and a linen button-down shirt, and olive colored-rectangular glasses. They are smiling and standing in front of big, green leafy trees in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
Rabbi Elliot Kukla (he/they) is a rabbi, author, artist, and activist whose practice of radical spiritual care braids his commitment to social justice with his expertise in tending to the experience of grief, dying, and the realities of being and becoming ill or disabled.  Elliot is a faculty member at Svara: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, a learning community that empowers queer and trans people through the spiritual study of traditional Jewish texts.  He directs the Communal Loss and Adaptation Project (CLAP), a program that provides spiritual care for communal loss by centering the adaptive wisdom of frontline queer, disabled, and BIPOC communities.  For more than decade, Elliot served as a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, where he co-directed an award-winning volunteer spiritual care hospice program.  His essays have been featured numerous times in The New York Times, as well as many other anthologies and magazines.  In 2006, Elliot was the first openly transgender rabbi to be ordained by a mainstream denomination, at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.

Julia:  Elliot, you’ve spent decades helping individuals and communities grapple with loss, both as a rabbi offering spiritual care to people who were dying and bereaved and through your social justice work with queer, trans, and disability movements.  These days, you’re bringing that expertise to the climate crisis, helping communities name and reckon with climate grief.  Would you tell us more about that work and the way you approach it?

Elliot:  When people talk about climate grief, they often use that term to imagine future losses.  They’re framing grief in an anticipatory way, thinking about a crisis that’s still to come.  But I want to reclaim that term for the present moment. I want us to acknowledge the losses that we’re already experiencing now.

Maybe you go camping in a place where your family has gone for years, but now the river has gone dry. Or you used to stop at a coffee shop every morning on your commute to work and have this wonderful human interaction, but now you work from home.  You don’t have that beautiful walk anymore. The coffee shop has closed its doors. And these little things are the things that make life sweet.

At the time, these losses may not seem that huge. But taken together, you realize the entire fabric of your life has changed. 

Julia:  What you’re saying really resonates with me.  As a high-risk disabled person, I think about my own experience during the COVID-19 pandemic – the way these past years have brought so many changes and so many losses.  Especially now, when so many nondisabled folks have been able to “return to normal,” those of us who are still profoundly affected are having to grapple with the fact that our lives have changed in a lasting way.

I’d like to talk more about the connection you’re drawing between the losses of the pandemic and our experience of climate change.  How do you understand the relationship between COVID and climate disruption?

Elliot:  I see COVID as a manifestation of climate collapse. I don’t see these two things as separate. Climate change is a symptom. It’s a symptom of deeper toxicity. It’s a symptom of globalization and capitalism and extractive greed. COVID wouldn’t be impacting us this way if it weren’t for the very same problems that are causing climate collapse.

Our systems are falling apart right now.  And the people who are experiencing the most losses are disabled people, people of color, queer people, those of us who are already the most marginalized.  We are on the frontlines of loss.

Of course, everyone is vulnerable.  But we are the most vulnerable, and that means we’re also the most able to name the problem.  It’s like a crip superpower, this ability to deal with loss.  It’s very natural for humans to be loss adverse.  But those of us who are disabled often end up developing the skills to face loss, to adapt to a new reality.

Julia:  In your work as a hospice chaplain, I imagine that capacity to be present in the face of loss is something you find yourself drawing on often.  Can you say more about that?

Elliot:  In my experience as a hospice rabbi, I’m often at the bedside of a person who is clearly coming to the end of their life.  Sometimes they’re surrounded by family who say things like, “Oh, she’s going to get better.” Part of my work is to hold space for a different kind of acknowledgement, to recognize that loss requires its own honoring.

It is a rare gift to be with someone who accepts that they are dying.  When someone is able to look at loss like that—it’s a luminous thing.  Everyone wants to be around them.  Even if they’re angry, even if they’re pushing back against death, even if they want to live life fully to the last minute, when someone is really able to look at death, I find that we’re really attracted to that.  We want to be in the room with them.

Julia:  So often, I think that dominant culture teaches us to repress loss, to try to hold grief at bay or deny its presence in our lives.  You approach grief in a very different way.

Elliot:  Grief is so integral to our being.  When I lead a funeral, I would never tell mourners not to grieve.  I would never say, “Don’t be sad.  He’s in a better place.”  When we deny loss, when we don’t allow ourselves time to grieve, we’re also cut off from joy. 

Part of why I love leading grief groups is that they’re filled with feeling.  In my grief groups, people aren’t just sitting with loss.  They’re being with memory.  They’re connected with what they love most about the person they’re mourning.  So the conversations are filled with stories and with laughter.

You know, grief is incredibly painful.  But if you don’t grieve, you lose so much.  When you’re not friends with grief, you’re not friends with feeling.   You lose life.  You lose joy.  

Grief is life.

Julia:  I’m thinking about how that insight could open up our collective conversations about climate change.  It can be so hard to actually allow ourselves space to talk together about our feelings, to give ourselves permission to acknowledge grief.

Elliot:  Climate loss feels so big.  It’s overwhelming.  Some people are able to connect to these far-reaching losses, to carry grief for polar bears they’ve never met.  But for many of us, it’s not concrete enough.  

People aren’t gonna feel that kind of global grief unless they’re given space to think about what that means in their own lives.  For me?  I used to see all these bees.  I used to watch them flourish.  And now they’ve become so rare.  

We need permission to honor these concrete losses in our own lives. 

Julia:  Instead of acknowledging those losses, we often push them away.  I’ve been thinking about what makes us so afraid to allow space for grief.  Is that we flinch from the feeling itself?  Or is it that we want to convince ourselves that it’s not so bad, that we still have some semblance of control?  

Elliot:  I’ve been in so many conversations about climate loss where as soon as we start to touch the truth of our pain, someone immediately tries to push grief out the door.  Instead of giving space for grief, they say, “There’s still time to fix it!”

But what does that even mean?  

You know, when you talk to your doctor and they say you’re depressed, it’s on you.  We read all these opinion pieces saying that kids today are depressed because they’re playing video games.  But maybe they’re depressed because the world is on fire and they have no future.  

It’s not an individual problem.  It’s the whole fabric of society that’s falling apart.

Julia:  That really resonates with me.  Mainstream culture often treats disability and mental health as personal matters.  It tells us that disability is a private problem, something that every individual has to solve on their own.  That way of thinking makes each of us responsible for “fixing” what is wrong with us.  But if we diagnose the problem differently, if we recognize that there’s something wrong with our culture, then it opens up a very different set of questions. 

Elliot:  As disabled people, we know that not everything can be fixed.  And we know the violence of trying to fix what’s not fixable.  As someone who’s chronically ill, I feel this so intensely.  So many voices tell me that if I just tried harder, I could push through.  

You know, I tried that.  I have lived with chronic fatigue since I was seven years old.  I used to try to push through it.  I’d push through fatigue flares until my body literally couldn’t move.  I couldn’t even pick up a cup.  Eventually, I was diagnosed with lupus.  I was really forced to stay in bed, to have people help with toileting and bathing and all those things, because my fatigue was so severe.

The first few years after my diagnosis was a time of thick mourning for me.  I had to let go of things, not by choice, but because my body demanded it.  There are so many important conversations happening today about the value of rest, the way that rest is a revolutionary practice.  But if you have no choice but to rest, if you’re forced to be slow?  That’s often missing from the conversation.

Julia:  You do a lot of public writing and teaching about the importance of honoring our need for rest.  I’m thinking about a wonderful piece you wrote for the New York Times, “The Most Valuable Thing I Can Teach My Kid Is How to Be Lazy,” where you talk about how moving it’s been to savor and sink into rest with your child.  Your practice of embracing rest really helps illuminate the importance of listening to our bodies – and how culturally subversive that can be.

Elliot:  For all of the talk I do about the value of rest, it’s still aspirational.  I often feel intense grief when I have a fatigue flare.  When I have to cancel plans, it’s not just mourning but also anger and shame.  I’m not at peace with it.

But I think rest is really crucial work. In our culture, there’s an enormous push to not feel, to not notice, to not take in loss.  We deny it.  We tell ourselves we can just move past it, you know, one shooting after another shooting.  There’s no time to grieve.

It’s rest that has literally allowed me to grapple with loss.  To grieve, we have to stop.  We have to really stop.  And that’s the hardest thing to do in a capitalist system: to do less.  But doing less matters, when we think in ecological terms.  Less CO2.  Less travel.  Less to all of those things.  Doing less allows us time to imagine something different.

Julia:  That’s making me think about the way that disability also allows us to imagine a different way of being in the world, to develop new ways of working and living and being together.   Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it forces us to do that work.  

Elliot:  It’s about adapting to a new reality.  You know, I’m never going to not be chronically ill.  I’m not getting over it.  Something has changed. Being disabled is an undeniable loss, not just the losses in my body and my mind, but also the fact that I don’t know what the future is going to look like.

But even though chronic illness means I live with pain and all sorts of exhaustion, my life is also rich with meaning and with beauty.  My chronically-ill life is fantastic in ways I could never have imagined.

It gives me hope for the world, that there is a future for our chronically ill planet, a future where we all come to adapt to this reality, as opposed to a false fix.

Julia:  There’s a way in which embracing disability opens a door to understanding the truth that we’re living with, a truth that our culture often wants to brush aside.  

Elliot:  When I first got really sick, I was in a fugue state because of my profound fatigue. During that period, I had an intense series of long-lasting dreams.

It was 2013, and I woke up in the middle of the night with the worst headache of my life.  It basically never got better.  Eventually I learned that I had a neurological lupus flare in my brain. My brain was on fire in a very literal way.  And night after night, I was dreaming about fire.  In my dreams, the streets of Oakland, California were filled with thick smoke.  I was in it for years: this intense toxic smell, this recognition of climate collapse.

In 2017, when the Northern California wildfires began burning, the city streets looked just like they had in my dreams.  Later, I started thinking about why I had that experience.  I think it was that long and deep period of rest that allowed me to grapple with the seriousness of our situation.  It forced me to slow down.  And when I did, I was able to take in the truth.

I was dreaming about climate fires before they came. 

Credits:

Elliot Kukla and Julia Watts Belser, “On the Frontlines of Loss: Climate Change, Chronic Illness, and the Spiritual Practice of Honoring Grief – Rabbi Elliot Kukla in conversation with Julia Watts Belser.” Disability and Climate Change: A Public Archive Project. March 13, 2023. 

Curated and edited by Madison Dwyer and Julia Watts Belser

Image Description: Elliot, a fat, non-binary white person is holding a wooden cane and wearing a yellow t-shirt and a linen button-down shirt, and olive colored-rectangular glasses. They are smiling and standing in front of big, green leafy trees in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

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