Seeking solace in nature while we grieve: What to look for

When I walk the trail at my nearby forest preserve, it takes me back to the nature walks that my mother and I took as I grew up. We went to Dan Ryan Woods (named for a Chicago politician of course – this was Cook County), nestled not far from the busy 95th Street commercial district. Inside the woods, going from plant to plant, learning their names and habits, I might as well have been in Mom’s native environs, the Smoky Mountains.


As I learned to recognize the Jack-in-the-pulpit sheltered by an arching leaf, the May apples hiding their fruit under a canopy of leaves, bursts of goldenrod, and the mountain plants we would occasionally discover, I see now that she was finding solace in nature.


Widowed at 34 with a two-year-old to raise, in times when the role of a single mother did not yet exist, even though there were plenty of women living that life, she gathered comfort where she could. And turning back to nature was a rich source. I’m grateful that she passed that along to me.


What comfort does nature offer?


Nature offers hope—we see cycles that move from cold to warmth over the seasons, from barrenness to bounty, from dark to light


It also offers reality—as winter follows fall, and dark follows sunset, life contain both trials and rewards


Nature’s creatures demonstrate survival skills—and the ability to adapt to harsh conditions and stay alive, and ultimately thrive


Nature is all about growth—a small seed, given nourishment, can grow and provide greater nourishment to us in the form of beauty, food, and shelter


Nature’s reminders can be just what we need


As we grieve, isn’t that what we crave: hope, assurance about our ability to survive, the desire to grow beyond our loss? It is no surprise that you will find what are called healing gardens in some healthcare settings to provide a place for family members, for patients, for grievers, for anyone in need of comfort. Often benches are dedicated to the memory of a loved one, or offer a quote that speaks to healing. Art installations are often included, and a gate or entry that marks the border between the outside world and the sanctuary. Nature provides a safe space for us.


What natural places are you drawn to—both close by and far away?


I have different spots in different places – the forest preserve nearby, the creek close to my house; a hospital’s healing garden in Florida, Lake Michigan’s Dunes, the mountainside where my mother was born. Where are yours, close by and far away? How often do you visit them? How do those visits affect you?


Visiting your remembered places


If you can’t travel to visit your spots, either because of the pandemic or because they exist only in memory, your imagination can help. You can sit either in silence or with soothing wordless music, close your eyes, breathe, and conjure the picture of your place. Add the sounds you would hear there, the feel of the breeze on your skin, the look of the light, the long view you can see from there. Recall the feelings you remember from prior visits; notice what this place has to offer you.


Research shows that being in a natural environment has measurable benefits; more details on those in a future post. In the meantime, enjoy your exploration.


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