When my dad and brother died, I denied my grief the way we deny the climate crisis. But it didn’t go away
They had health warnings but focused on other things. Their deaths opened my eyes to the scale of the challenge ahead The kids bedtime had long since passed, and my frustration was beginning to show. As they faffed, I fretted about the list of chores still to do before I could collapse into bed myself. At last as I harriedly tucked in my daughter, she looked up at me with a concerned expression and said: Dad, does Poppy need surgery? What?! My brain lurched back into the present. My father-in-law, Bill, had recently had surgery to remove bladder cancers. I did not want to tell my nine-year-old this, though, for reasons I will explain. Certainly I didnt want to tell her right now. For a second, I completely froze, before bluffing my way out with talk of Poppy needing another hip replacement soon. This had the added benefit of being true and reassured my daughter enough for her to go to sleep. I, however, was left to confront reality. Scrolling through my phone, there was only one message about Bills surgery, which she must have stumbled upon. Clearly we would need to talk to the kids in the morning. Ive been thinking a lot lately about denial. About how much time we spend living in it. And about our desire to shield loved ones from uncomfortable truths. For us, Bills diagnosis came at the end of an already shitty 2023. My brother, Peter, died in March, in what likely would have been a minor medical incident if he werent driving a forklift at the time. Five months later, my dad died of a sudden, severe heart attack. A broken heart, I thought, having witnessed the depths of his grief for Pete. It was only after their deaths we learned theyd both been experiencing relatively minor health concerns that, in hindsight, were warning signs of what was to come. The only ones who knew were their partners, sworn to secrecy; both men didnt want to worry anyone. Even after Peters death, which was heart-related, Dad still didnt let on that he himself had had some abnormal heart test results six months earlier. This has been hard to make peace with. And yet only two months later, here I was, shielding my own kids from bad news. Being open with them the next morning, trying to explain why Id lied, I felt myself flooded with the emotion of the past year. I realised I too had been in denial about Bill for the preceding few days. Its not only our loved ones we deceive. Denial has its uses, admittedly. Many times last year I chose to ignore my griefs existence just to get through the day. The secret is to keep yourself busy. As a long-term strategy, however, its not particularly sustainable. Black summer came early to my part of Australia. Thick bushfire smoke had dulled the suns rays for days in early spring 2019 when I stumbled across an article by Jonathan Franzen . In it, the bestselling US novelist argued, convincingly, that the war on climate change was already lost. My sorrow was immediate. But we didnt even really try, I remember thinking. So began my first bout of climate anxiety. Almost overnight, global warming went from an important but abstract concept to something visceral and real. I was not good company for a while. A month later, an article in The Conversation shook me from apocalyptic visions. In it, the academics Iain Walker and Zoe Leviston laid out three types of climate change deniers : those who dont believe the world is warming; people who believe its warming but isnt human-induced; and the third group, the biggest, who are those practising what the authors called implicatory denial. The facts of climate change are not denied, nor are they interpreted to be something else, they write. What is denied or minimised are the psychological, political, and moral implications of the facts for us. We fail to accept responsibility for responding; we fail to act when the information says we should. Ignoring the moral imperative to act is as damning a form of denial as any other, and arguably is much worse. These words changed my familys life. And our lifestyles . Over the next 12 months we reduced our meat and dairy intakes. Turbocharged our composting. Changed our relationship to stuff, including new clothes, cleaning products, breakfast cereals with palm oil. Im not going to say it was easy (Covid-19 helped). But Ive done far harder things, too. The biggest barriers were entirely psychological, as we leaned into the discomfort of learning more about our impact on the world, and tried to let go of preconceptions about how life was meant to be. A year later, wed reduced our emissions by an estimated 47% (83% if you counted the extra solar energy wed fed back into the grid). We felt good, for a while. The thing is, the 20 or so tonnes of carbon my family has stopped pumping into the atmosphere each year is essentially meaningless. But multiply it by 800 million nearly half the worlds emissions are caused by the worlds richest 10% of people and you start to have a noticeable impact. My initial plan, after getting our own house in order, had been to become an evangelist for climate action. To try to puncture very gently some of the implicatory denial I saw around me. But if I found curbing our emissions easier than Id feared, talking about it has been far harder. Partly this is a fear of appearing judgmental; partly, its not wanting to infect social interactions with a burdensome and joyless truth. With my children its about shielding them from an anxiety that is unfortunately completely rational. This seems to me the ultimate climate catch-22. We avoid talking about climate change socially because we dont want to upset others, but unless we all confront the climate reality, things will only worsen which will be far more upsetting in the long run. The psychologist Ive been talking to about my grief this past year has a mathematical formula for suffering: Suffering = Pain x Resistance. His point is that, whatever pain you are going through, resisting only makes it worse. Hes advised me to set aside time to consciously grieve. When I have done this, its helped. Yet despite recognising its benefits, there are plenty of times my brain has resisted being dragged down that path. Its amazing how tempting it is to keep yourself busy in the face of difficult emotions. Observing this in myself has helped me better understand how my dad and brother ignored their own inconvenient truths. Both had been told, at the point of diagnosis, they werent in immediate danger. Neither pursued in time the further tests recommended by doctors. For two smart men, it sounds so foolish in hindsight. But the spectre of an existential threat evidently proved too difficult to contemplate; easier to focus on their many short-term responsibilities amid busy lives. Their deaths have opened my eyes to the true scale of the challenge in combating climate change. Facts are irrelevant if you cant get folks to look above the horizon and consider the unfathomable. Ill never know if there was anything I might have said to make my dad and brother take the doctors words more seriously. To everyone else I say: heed the lesson of their demise. Ignoring a problem, however tempting, wont make it go away. Its more likely to leave an aftermath of what ifs. We all have a to-do list were trying to work through, but a truth denied be that through fear, love or just preoccupation is still true. Climate change is going to change the way we live one way or another. Are we really doing ourselves or our kids any favours by continuing to pretend otherwise?