To Grieve the World Like a Dying Friend

What does it mean to build toward a future on a planet in the midst of collapse?

Cynthia Friedman
August 3, 2023

The author’s fire escape herb garden.

Photo: Cynthia Friedman

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Last week, my birthday fell on Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning. I wouldn’t have registered this confluence, except that my rabbi had reminded us of the holiday’s approach at Shabbat services the weekend before. From the bima, she told us how the destruction of the Second Temple—which we mark each summer—led, in time, to the development of the diaspora Judaism we practice today. Prayers replaced sacrifices, and in the absence of a central address, small communities in the form of minyanim proliferated across geographies. Yet at the moment of the temple’s destruction, none of that was foreseen. It felt, for the people living then, like the end of the world.

I’d been feeling reflective as my 32nd birthday approached. Through therapy, two years prior, I had stumbled into a diagnosis—cyclothymia, a mood disorder that my cousin calls “junior varsity bipolar”—that gave me tools to better understand and manage my mental health. I made behavioral changes—prioritizing sleep, cutting out caffeine, limiting alcohol—and after some trial and error, I found a medication that was a good fit. No more buzzy, euphoric highs; no more isolating, catastrophizing lows. Being on solid ground meant that I could think about, and build toward, the future in a new way. I felt emboldened to take on more responsibility at work, open to the idea of dating—things that had previously seemed too risky, when I could never be sure what mood I’d wake up in.

But as my personal life approaches stability, the world around me is becoming increasingly unstable. This summer has felt like a threshold crossed—smoke filling the New York City skies; photographs of dead fish carpeting Texas shores, killed by the boiling water; stories of power outages caused by wires melting in the heat. The scale of the industries that are killing the earth feels vast beyond my comprehension. I think of the tens of thousands of empty planes that flew along international routes in those first quarantined months of pandemic—“ghost flights,” they called them—based on rigid rules governing competition between companies. If not even a deadly virus can slow the path of destruction, how can I? An old friend, in the final stages of wedding planning, muses on social media about the strangeness of getting married amid evidence of collapse. “It’s very hard to feel good about the future,” they write. Other friends are raising children, training for a marathon, going to school. What does it mean to build toward a future on a planet that is dying?

For now, I consider this question from the comfort of my home, with the things I love around me: an elegant but rickety lamp I found on the street, whose shade wobbles every time I reach to turn it on; the bookcase a friend helped me find when I wanted something made of real wood; the steamer trunk my aunt gave me ten years ago when I first moved to the city and had no belongings of my own. For now, every Thursday evening I pick up farm-fresh produce and one carton of fruit—some weeks blueberries, peaches, plums—from in front of an elementary school a few blocks away, and split the share with a friend who moved in across the street from me. I stand in my kitchen chopping vegetables for creative new recipes or familiar favorites, with music or a podcast playing in the background. These everyday things become precious to me as I consider that they will, at some unpredictable moment, end.

While I water my herb garden, while I refill ice cube trays for the freezer, I’ve been thinking about how I want to approach a dying planet like I would a dying friend. Being with them, enjoying their company. Reading stunning sentences, watching sunsets, goofing off, sitting in silence. Experiencing time slowly. Faced with signs of the earth’s demise, maybe I can focus on fiercely loving what I love now and holding the tragedy that the world, and everything I love in it, will be lost. Perhaps that’s all there is to do now, to love the dying world, and to continue to grieve and be kind, as the years inevitably bring suffering.

I worry, though, about a pronouncement like this. Who am I to declare that the planet is dying, rather than to declare that we can save it? I have not been in the trenches, organizing public resistance to fossil fuel companies, blocking construction on new pipelines—with my body or with the law. I haven’t lost loved ones in ships turned away from wealthy countries’ shores. I don’t have children, and I haven’t watched them starve. When the skies fill with smoke, I can close my windows, but the birds have no refuge. Does the idea of approaching a dying planet as I would a dying friend demand a level of peace, and grace, only available to me because I am the one at the bedside, not in the bed? I think back to what climate reporter Kate Aronoff said in these pages two years ago: “The reality . . . is that every 10th of a degree translates to tens of thousands of lives lost, so every little incremental step we can take to mitigate climate change matters a tremendous amount. There’s no point at which you can say that we might as well just give up. There’s plenty of suffering that can be prevented.”

So, to mourn does not mean that we shouldn’t organize, we shouldn’t fight. But I crave a fight guided more by love and grief than by an optimism that borders on denial. Perhaps then we can actually prepare for the world to come, rather than holding tight to a version of the world that has ended. There are “death doulas,” who mirror the work of birth doulas, providing support and advocacy as someone leaves the world, rather than enters it. These volunteers are trained for the role, and they gain practice and knowledge over time. Perhaps this, too, is a model for organizing: understanding how to alleviate pain and provide care in the face of forces—and a future—beyond our control.

On the evening of my birthday, nearly two millennia since the destruction of the temple, I had dinner with a handful of friends at an outdoor table of a nearby restaurant, splitting a bottle of sake and plates of raw fish. The conversation meandered through the mundane—enneagrams, travel—and into the reflective: What had I learned so far, in my three decades of being alive? After dessert, I walked down brownstone-lined streets to a synagogue, where I slipped in as the crowd was finishing ma’ariv—the evening prayers—and preparing to read Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. Chanted once a year, only on Tisha B’Av, the trope is melancholic, in a haunting minor key. We sat on the ground with the lights off, using flashlights to make out the text. Someone turned off the air conditioner, so we could hear the unmiked voice of each successive reader. As the temperature rose, the fragile voices cut through the darkness. I followed along with the Hebrew, understanding not a single word but connected by its sound, across time, to my younger self—all those summers I spent at camp, listening to the same lines—and to the past decades and centuries of Jews sitting in the dark, contemplating destruction. We cannot undo this loss. But we can witness it, together.

Cynthia Friedman is the managing director of Jewish Currents.