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Turn to Nature With Your Grief

Getty/maroznc

Nature has the capacity to hold all of our grief and sorrow. Being in nature reminds us that cycles of renewal are part of our reality.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

—Wendell Berry

We live in a paradox. Humans have an instinct to bond and affiliate with other life forms. This is what renowned evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson writes about in Biophilia: “From infancy, we concentrate happily on ourselves and other organisms. We learn to distinguish life from the inanimate and move toward it like moths to a porch light ... our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.”

And yet, elements of our fast-moving culture undeniably weaken our connection with the natural world. The immediacy and intensity of technology distract us, as Richard Louv writes in The Nature Principle. We witness parents struggling to limit their young children’s screen time and to persuade their kids to go outdoors. We see kids who don’t know what to do when they’re asked to put their hands in the soil and plant a garden.

As adults, we tie ourselves to computers and mostly work indoors. Even when we’re outside, we’re tethered to cell phones and handheld devices. Navigating traffic; making split-second decisions; meeting deadlines; responding to emails, tweets, and texts—all these activities bombard us and highjack our attention.

When we experience loss, when we are grieving, it is more important than ever to find ways back to the garden, to spend time in the healing power of nature. Psychologists Rachel and Steven Kaplan research and write about the benefits of “restorative environments”: outdoor places that are accessible, quiet, and relatively small, such as your yard or a pocket park in a city. And if there is no safe outdoor space where you live, if you are confined indoors, even in a hospital bed, you can rest in nature just looking out a window to a patch of sky or gazing at a plant indoors.

When we spend time in restorative places, it becomes effortless to watch leaves floating down from trees, to notice a reflection of the sky in a puddle, or to hear a bird call. These environments draw us in without asking us to focus on anything special. There’s nothing to do. When we return to focused cognitive tasks (like writing a report or solving a problem), we feel refreshed.

We all enjoy nature for our own reasons. Some of us love solitude. Instead of feeling lonely, being in nature lets us find ourselves. Some of us feel connected when we are in an environment larger than ourselves. Some adventure into wild realms, while others sit on benches by meadows not far from home or rest on the seat of their walker.

Restoring in Nature

Sorrow is part of the Earth’s great cycles, flowing into the night like cool air sinking down a river course. To feel sorrow is to float on the pulse of the Earth, the surge from living to dying, from coming into being to ceasing to exist. Maybe this is why the Earth has the power over time to wash sorrow into a deeper pool, cold and shadowed. And maybe this is why, even though sorrow never disappears, it can make a deeper connection to the currents of life and so connect, somehow, to sources of wonder and solace.

—Kathleen Dean Moore

Across Canada, people have formed walking groups to help with grief. They gather, stand together, and share memories. Some cry. No one tries to fix anything. They just meet and listen to each other. And then they walk together, one step at a time.

Could you commit to sitting outdoors ten minutes a day, as the weather permits? Paying attention with all your senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, smell—what do you begin to notice? Can you feel the breeze blowing across your face right now, just now? Watch a cloud moving, just now? Feel your breath, in and out, each breath different and fresh, just now?

If you can’t get outside into nature today, can you remember experiences in childhood when you lost yourself outdoors—when you first learned to row a boat or build a shelter in the woods, or when you first saw fireflies on a humid summer evening? Do you have a photograph of yourself as a toddler sitting on a beach, running through a sprinkler, or learning to ride a bike?

Does your day include walks with your dog? Are you passionate about biking, birding, hiking, or fishing? Do you like to visit a gravesite or drive to a beautiful spot for a picnic?

Meditation

Sit quietly for a few moments, resting in the feeling and flow of your breathing, in and out. Say slowly, to yourself, the following phrases:

May I allow nature to restore my spirit.

May I find comfort in the presence of animals.

May I notice rhythms of death and renewal all around me.

A Few Suggestions

Spend some time in nature:

  • Using all your senses, notice what’s around you.
  • Listen to whatever sounds arise and fade, feel the breeze on your skin, or smell fresh grass or decaying leaves.
  • Dwell on these sensations for a few minutes.
  • Look for something in the natural world that seems to reflect your grief.
  • Consider nature’s cycle: life, death, decay, rebirth, restoration, and rejuvenation.
  • Can you sense nature’s transforming power?

(Also read "Six Ways Nature Can Help You Now.")

Spend some time with animals:

  • Go for a walk with a dog or volunteer at an animal shelter.
  • Watch and play with your cat.
  • Sit outside and watch birds flying or squirrels burying acorns.

Excerpted from Opening to Grief: Finding Your Way from Loss to Peace, by Claire B. Willis and Marnie Crawford Samuelson (Dharma Spring, 2020). Reprinted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser. All rights reserved.


About the Author

Claire B. Willis and Marnie Crawford Samuelson are co-authors of Opening to Grief: Finding Your Way from Loss to Peace.


Claire B. Willis
is a clinical social worker who has worked in the fields of oncology and bereavement for more than 20 years. As a lay Buddhist chaplain ordained by Joan Halifax, she focuses on contemplative practices for end-of-life care. A co-founder of the Boston nonprofit Facing Cancer Together, Claire leads bereavement, end-of-life, support, and therapeutic writing groups. An experienced yoga teacher, she is the author of two books, Lasting Words: A Guide to Finding Meaning Toward the Close of Life and her newest book, Opening to Grief: Finding Your Way from Loss to Peace, co-authored with Marnie Crawford Samuelson.

Marnie Crawford Samuelson is a documentary photographer, filmmaker, and storyteller. She is the principal photographer of two books—The Wild Braid, a collaboration with poet laureate Stanley Kunitz and poet Genine Lentine, published by W.W. Norton, and Lasting Words with Claire Willis. Her photos have appeared in national and international magazines including Newsweek, People, U.S. News & World Report, and Smithsonian. She has shot and codirected several award-winning short films. Marnie has a BA in political theory from Stanford and an MSc in business from the Sloan School at MIT. She lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, and Berkeley, California. BostonPictureGroup.com

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