Death is a part of life.
It’s a cliché. But clichés exist for a reason.
The fact is we are surrounded by dying each and every day. Every time we step out in our yard, we are seeing an abundance of life. But we're also seeing the results of the death, decay and rebirth that is inherent in the cycles of life.
It makes intuitive sense, then, that a closer connection to nature may help us better come to terms with death and the grieving process.
That help may take many forms, and with debate still raging over whether grief should be treated as depression, any early restorative and healing interventions should be considered an important tool in preventing more severe problems from developing that may require medication.
Teaching us the facts of life (and death)
On one level, nature provides an intellectual frame of reference for death and dying — reminding us that death is a natural phenomenon that we can neither escape nor ignore. That context should not be underestimated, particularly in a culture that often seeks higher meaning in, or a reason for, a loved one’s passing. It’s no accident that many children’s books on grieving follow nature-based themes, such as "The Fall of Freddy the Leaf" by Leo Buscaglia Ph.D.:
“This story by Leo Buscaglia is a warm, wonderfully wise and strikingly simple story about a leaf named Freddie. How Freddie and his companion leaves change with the passing seasons, finally falling to the ground with winter's snow, is an inspiring allegory illustrating the delicate balance between life and death.”
The regenerative powers of nature
The allegorical role that the natural world plays in our grieving doesn’t just end in teaching us that death happens. Nature also provides undeniable physical evidence of another age-old cliché – life goes on.
In an article on nature awareness as a healing therapy, Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, explains this key healing quality of nature as it pertains to grief:
“Being in nature one becomes aware of the infinite circle of life. There is evidence of decay, destruction and death; there are also examples of rejuvenation, restoration, and renewal. The never-ending cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth can put life and death into perspective and impart a sense of constancy after experiencing a life changing loss or a death.”
On a purely emotional level, too, nature can provide solace in grief, which at its heart is a response to the loss of someone or something to which we’ve formed a bond. Such emotional support may take the form of new bonds with animals, plants or natural landscapes — or it may involve finding comfort by visiting sites or scenery that were dear to both the deceased and the grieving party.
Nature-based solutions for general health
It shouldn’t be forgotten that nature plays a supportive role in nurturing our overall well-being and health, a key factor in helping somebody move on from grief and avoid the risks of prolonged depression.
In an article on biophilia (a posh term for our natural affinity to nature), Neil Chambers describes the growing field of research into a nature-based approach to heath care, the benefits of which include better recovery times in hospitals, improved concentration and fewer behavioral disorders in school age children, and increased emotional and mental well-being:
“Our mental and physical health is directly connected to biophilia. As a species that exists within nature, we are incredibly affected by its absence and presence. Yet, we function in cities and buildings that largely lack a connection to the environment. Studies indicate that this disconnect has caused myriad issues that we now expect to be corrected with modern medicine and drug therapy. Since the early 1980s, studies have explored how biophilia affects our physical health, and the findings are eye-opening. The act of simply reconnecting people to the natural elements brings about faster recovery rates, reduced stress, and eased symptoms of physical and mental disorders.”
How, then, can we consciously use nature to aid in the healing process? Below are a few starting points for exploration.
Explore nature-based rituals
Flowers and plants have long been a symbolic part of our rituals surround death, but there is a growing movement that seeks to create more profoundly nature-based ceremonies and processes. From woodland burials to grief walking retreats, there are a myriad of options for incorporating nature into the rituals we adopt.
Get outside more
Simply setting a routine to get out more in nature can be a great way to keep moving after the loss of a loved one. That might take the form of a regular walk you take alone, walking with friends, or even seeking out a walking group that is specifically tailored to those who are grieving, as described in this Globe and Mail story. In the video below, Maureen Hunter, a former nurse who began writing and speaking about grief after the death of her son, reflects on the importance of one of her regular walking spots:
Dyer also reminds us that simply holding images of nature in our minds, and in particular images of nature’s healing and regenerative properties, can provide a powerful inspiration to keep going when it feels like our world has been destroyed:
“Nature’s healing forces can serve as powerful recuperative images for those who have experienced a death or other significant loss. Images of the rebirth in nature can be useful as symbols for the strong internal forces, bringing hope of surviving the loss. From monumental newsworthy events to ordinary insignificant occurrences, one can witness the incredible destructive power and the amazing healing capabilities of nature…”
Start a garden
From opportunities for exercise to providing healthy food, gardening has many potential therapeutic qualities. For those who are grieving, it can also be a great way to both get motivated and to form a direct, intimate connection with the kinds of healing processes we have discussed in nature. IdeaStream reports on one community in Ohio which took this concept to a logical next level, starting a Grieving Garden with the intentional purpose of coping with an unforeseen tragedy.
There is no “right” way to experience grief, and there is no “right” way to use nature to deal with it. Each of us has our own view of nature, our own opportunities to connect with it, and our own needs in terms of our emotional and physical well-being. If you are experiencing grief, or seeking to help someone who is experiencing grief, take some time to seek out ideas, activities and rituals that work for you.