Tell me, which do you prefer?
- Ocean or mountain
- Trees or flowers
- Forest or wide open spaces
- Swimming or skiing
- Spring or fall
And if you close your eyes for a moment and think of your favourite place in nature, what comes to mind?
For me it’s the beach, feeling the sand under my feet, hearing the waves gently lap on the shore, the sun on my cheeks, and the wind in my hair.
And it turns out, there’s a word for our need to connect with nature. It’s called “biophilia” which translates directly as “love of life” but psychologists describe it as “the human drive to connect with nature and other living things.”
And now the research backs it up too (love it when science catches up to nature ;). Time in green spaces is associated with lowered stress, improved memory, and heightened creativity. Time in nature improves our attention span and decreases mental fatigue.
But did you know that nature can help us process grief too?
6 Ways Nature Helps Us Heal
Nature allows us to take a break from our to-do list, our devices, our swirling thoughts, and our ruminations. When we’re in nature, we can just BE, simply exist as we are in that moment without expectations or obligations. Nature doesn’t judge us or scold us for being unproductive – she welcomes us with open arms. In nature, we can slow down enough to notice the beauty all around us. We can let go of our worries and engage all our senses. Nature helps us reframe and remember what’s truly important.
When you step onto a vast landscape, like the bigness of Lake Ontario or the ocean. The scale of a mountain. The openness of the prairie plains or a starry night sky. It makes us feel small. It’s a comforting smallness though, a reminder that there are things bigger and more ancient than us that can help put our problems into perspective. It’s also a great place to express your emotions, to allow the intensity of them to move through you in a space that’s big enough to hold ALL of your grief. #ScreamIntoTheVoid
If you’re grieving a lost relationship through death or divorce or distance and are looking to feel connected to them – it can help to visit the wild places where you used to go together.
A favourite park or picnic spot, a favourite beach or boardwalk. Even something as simple as buying their favourite flowers can bring back beautiful memories and help keep your loved ones close.
Grief belongs to everyone and is experienced individually – just like nature. Grief can often feel isolating, and even if you venture out into the forests or the lake by yourself, everywhere you look you can see the people who have been here before you. In a well-worn footpath or the creaky old dock. It’s easy to imagine that others have also carried their grief and loss into these places to set them down for a while. There is a sense of community within the isolation.
Nature is also constantly teaching us about the life/death/rebirth cycle. From the plants that bud and bloom then drop their leaves in the fall to the bird swooping down to scoop a fish out of the water or the fox that catches the rabbit. Nature navigates this dance with such ease it makes us feel just a bit more capable of navigating it too.
There’s something about stopping to consider the many decades an old tree has weathered, the earthquakes that shook the foundations of the earth to create a lake or a mountain millennia ago, or the waves that have crashed upon the same beach for centuries. Nature doesn’t mock our mortality but shows us that it’s possible for us to endure too.
Nature is also resilient. The way tender green shoots push through burnt soil after a forest fire or the way a bird will simply set to work building a new nest after a windstorm. Perhaps, in her heart, she is grieving the eggs she lost even as she starts again. Nature shows us we can carry our grief, and remember what was…even as we keep moving forward.
Nature can trigger a sense of awe, wonder, and curiosity. And, when we’re feeling these things, it’s very hard to also be bogged down with sadness and anxiety. It kind of snaps us out of those mental loops that keep us stuck. Studies show it helps to reduce stress and help us feel more contented.
“Sorrow is part of the Earth’s cycles, flowing into the night like cool air sinking down a river course…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
7 Simple Ways to Connect with Nature
- FOREST BATHING
In 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries created the term “shinrinyoku” which translates as “forest bathing”. It’s simply walking through the trees mindfully, taking it in with all your senses, and being fully present. We’ve been studying the benefits for a while and researchers did a qualitative analysis of the research and discovered that it improves cardiovascular function (think lower blood pressure and heart rate), improves neuroendocrine function (think balancing hormones), improves metabolism, immunity, and inflammatory responses, anxiety and depression. So lots of great reasons to get out amongst the trees!
- JOIN A WALKING GROUP
We know how important having a support network is when we’re navigating loss. And there are walking groups specifically for those who are dealing with grief. Perhaps your town has one and if not perhaps you could start one.
Weather permitting you could commit to sitting in nature for 10 minutes a day. And just engage all your senses. Can you notice the pattern of clouds in the sky? Feel the breeze against your bare arms or the warmth of the sun on your face? Can you hear the birds chattering in the trees or a squirrel scolding the neighbour’s dog? Can you smell the BBQ from down the street or grass that has just been cut?
- WHEN YOU CAN’T GET OUTSIDE
If the weather is poor or perhaps you’re stuck in bed for whatever reason, could you recall a time when you were in nature? Conjure up a happy memory in as much vivid detail as possible. The exact shade of green on the oak leaves or the way the sun sparkled across the water. You could also look at pictures of when you were in nature and use the pictures as a kind of portal to your memories.
- SMALL BREAKS
Even if most of your day is spent inside or at a desk can you take your lunch break at a nearby park? Or notice the trees and flowers the next time you walk your dog?
If you find yourself still pulled back into your thoughts or lured by the glow of your phone, try repeating these to yourself.
May I notice the rhythm of death and renewal all around me.
May I allow nature to restore my spirit.
- IT DOESN’T TAKE MUCH
Remember that you don’t have to do this perfectly. Research tells us that we only need 2 hrs/ week in nature to start to notice the emotional and physical benefits. You can split that up in whatever way works with your schedule. You can go slowly and aim to work your way up to it. You can count the time you spend gardening or tending to the plants in your house. Small steps are just as important as big leaps – and often more sustainable.
I’m going to do something a bit different this time and leave you with a poem from Mary Oliver (one of my faves).
In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
Their own bodies
Are giving off the rich
Fragrance of cinnamon
The long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
The blue shoulders
Of the ponds,
And every pond
No matter what its name is, is
I have ever loved
In my lifetime
Leads back to this; the fires
And the black river of loss
Whose other side
. . .
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
You must be able
To do three things:
To love what is mortal
To hold it
Against your bones knowing
Your own life depends on it;
And, when the time comes to let it go
To let it go