When the Heart Aches: On Grief and Loss

Written by: Colleen Gerson

“Grief expressed out loud, whether in or out of character, un-choreographed and honest, for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”   -Martine Prechtel

Grief is something that we don’t like to talk about much, nor to take time for unless we’re in it, submerged and wading through a deep murky ocean of melancholy. Even now, perhaps the idea of confronting grief makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s almost like we’re afraid that we’ll catch grief or depression and never climb our way out of the dark abyss – or that we’ll enable it, be labeled by it, or be seen as weak or a burden. Yet this capacity of feeling is key to our humanity.  

We are collectively grieving now, in one form or another. We are all being faced with our mortality, the dissolution of the lives we had, and uneven steps on an unknown path to where we’ll ultimately find ourselves. Many pandemics – of viruses, fear, unemployment, and isolation – are the global trends of the moment, and they’re touching all of us. There is immense beauty surfacing as well, nature regenerating, humans coming together, new life blooming, and that can feel confusing too, to feel the slurry of joy and sorrow.

Unfortunately, in our fast-paced modern society we are not trained in how to grieve, nor how to be with grief in ourselves or others, and this lack of wisdom causes much distress throughout our culture. It’s not necessarily our fault; most of us haven’t been given the tools, nor the awareness to seek. Yet we all experience it throughout life and in varying degrees, the kind of sharp wailing grief of death, miscarriage, heart-break, or trauma, as well as the more subliminal aching melancholy of chronic physical or emotional pain, witnessing environmental devastation, political or social chaos, loss of resources or hope, and so forth. 

In our collective ignorance we don’t know how to easily honor and support the process, other than to suppress it into busy-ness, numbness, addiction, or disease. Yet in one way or another, the shades of grief are inescapable, and palpably tender with medicine and transformation, should we so choose. 

I’m no expert on grief. Over the years I have witnessed loved ones in deep mourning, and didn’t feel equipped to really support them – what to say, how to be the best support. I’ve had my share of personal traumas and pain, yet it wasn’t until a particular experience and learning that I really understood that it is okay – and actually necessary – to slow down to let grief move deeply through, in a full aching embrace. 

A couple years ago I lost someone very important to me, and it felt like losing half my soul. I felt the deepest pain I had yet experienced, poured tears until I became the ocean, and was taught the greatest lessons in that bold embrace. I dove in and got pummeled, but I let it move through me and steep its medicine into my bones… and I still get pulled under the waves sometimes, but with it carries a deeper treasure, the fullness of love. 

I’m sharing all this to touch the part of you that is grieving, as we all are, and to offer some plants and other resources that can help you or someone you love while wading through these waters now and again.

Naming the feeling: Culturally we spend a lot of time trying to avoid our feelings, or avoid portraying anything other than happiness or success, but this doesn’t make the other feelings go away, and often quite the opposite. Yet when we can step back enough to give a feeling a name, whether it’s grief, sadness, pain, confusion, we bring energy into our prefrontal cortex of higher processing, and help to strengthen our insight and ability to healthfully move through our feelings with less reactivity and grip. Grief becomes rich in heart and meaning, and a part of us to tend to as we would a friend or a child, all by creating the gentle space to acknowledge what it is. 

Community: There is a place for constructive solitude while experiencing grief, and also for being with a loving community – allowing friends or family to hold space for you to feel and process, or even to do something fun and laugh again. Don’t be shy or afraid to reach out and tell someone what you need and how they can support you, even if it’s just watching a cheesy movie or holding space for your tears. Perhaps, especially now, they’re going through something very similar, and being there for you is their medicine too. 

Professional support: It’s both courageous and humble to get support from a therapist, someone to whom you won’t feel like a burden, because they are there to hold space for you and help you process in a healthy way. These days teletherapy resources like Talkspace can be a huge help. If you’re having thoughts of self-harm, please call 1-800-273-8255 anytime, day or night.

Moving the energy: Movement, breath, and song are powerful and free tools for processing feelings. When we’re grieving, or “depressed”, we often want to just lie in bed, binge and cry. Yet moving our bodies is so powerful for shifting our mood, and vital for releasing contracted energy so that it’s not stored in the body! This is where it can be great to have someone help get you up and out the door. Together you can jog or flail it out, or swim and let your tears fall into the sea, dance and shake like crazy.  Pushing through the heaviness, and cry as you might – move, and breathe it out!

Time in nature: Dip in the ocean or river, take a grounding hike in nature, lie on the earth and let it absorb your tears, sit and lose yourself in the interconnectedness of living beings, of death composting into life composting into death, and this cyclical ever-flowing dance of creation. There are worlds of medicine here. One of my favorite reflections is that the densest, healthiest gardens are those with the greatest amount of biodiversity and death  – ie compost. Without the letting-go and falling-away, vibrant new beginnings can’t spring forth. 

Herbal allies: While there are a plethora of herbs that can support us through grief, sadness, pain, loss, or any emotional, physical, or energetic need, these are a few of my favorites. They’ve been the most potent allies for me in being present with and in moving through heavy or painful times. 

Cacao: We can’t not start with chocolate right? The cacao plant, from which we get cocoa and chocolate products, is beloved far and wide, and though it’s currently known as a food or treat, was historically considered ceremonial, medicinal, and nutritive. Cacao is the heart-opener, lover, and alchemist of pleasure. Bittersweet, rich in antioxidants and minerals, cacao fortifies the nervous system and cardiovascular system with vital nutrients.  It simply makes us feel good, boosting serotonin, endorphins, and anandamide (the cannabinoid neurochemical named for bliss), and is known as a euphoric and aphrodisiac.

Unfortunately the industry of cacao is fraught with corporate corruption, creating poor conditions, child slavery, and unfair pay, so please only buy and support organic and fair-trade cacao products.

If you didn’t catch our Herbal Chocolate Workshop on IGTV you can get your chocolat on here.

Rose: the heart nurturer, both physically and emotionally. Wonderful for wooing the heart to open and blossom with healthy boundaries. Rose is an aromatic nervine, calming the nervous system with her sweet inviting scent. Stop to smell the roses literally, buy yourself flowers, sip rose tea. I’m obsessed with this organic Bulgarian rose hydrosol and add a capful to matcha, hot cocoa, or use it as a spray, to lift the spirit and open the heart. 

Cannabis & Hemp: I found CBD to be SO helpful for calming the nerves and heartache, soothing tortured thought patterns, and especially with helping to relax tension or gripping in the chest and stomach. By releasing the intense internal tension, it also helped encourage my appetite which was often lost through active grief or stress. By now we know through experience and unfolding research that CBD seems helpful for dropping into a more parasympathetic state of calm and restoration, as well as improving our overall stress response, and further research shows it may be beneficial for PTSD

Kava kava: One of my absolute favorite nervous system and heart allies. Native to the western Pacific Islands, Kava has been used for hundreds of years as a ceremonial beverage, with her warming, connective qualities – even her leaves are giant hearts.  As a root and a powerful nervine, kava is incredible at helping the mind calm, relaxing the body, and moving grief and unprocessed emotions through in a supported and deeply heart-opened way.  I’ve found Kava Kava to be wonderful immediately after a trauma or experience when the nerves are tense or shaky and in need of a strong, safe, grounding hug. This isn’t a plant for daily use, but for when we need a stronger dose of support. 

Green tea: Particularly when we’re in a state of heightened stress, ideally we don’t want to further stress the body and nervous system by adding coffee or other strong stimulants, so green tea is a great alternative – with some caffeine, but a more balanced energy and clarity without the edge. Further, the amino acid L-theanine in green tea is found to boost mood by increasing the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. Research also shows that green tea may boost alpha brain waves, accessing more calm and clarity, as opposed to the highly alert and busy beta waves that coffee stimulates. 

Linden: Sweet, loving tree medicine. With her heart-shaped leaves again hinting at the physical and energetic heart space, linden supports the vasculature of the circulatory system, and lowers blood pressure. Linden helps soften tension and restlessness, and support sleep. She tastes and smells so deliciously honey sweet, that naturally uplifts the emotional body.  

Cedar: burning cedar or other sacred smoke such as white sage, sweetgrass, pinon, has long been used to clear away heavy energy, call in the light, and shift our mood. In particular I love tree medicine, so burning dried needles, bark, or resin of cedar or pine has a special kind of ancient and wise, rooted and uplifting power to shift my energetic state, by way of the olfactory sense and the spirit of the plant.

Adaptogens and nervines all the time, and especially during times of stress and grief, help nourish our adrenals (the little organs that handle our stress response) and our immunity, both of which can become depleted in times of great stress or trauma.  See Nervous System Support in Stressful Times. Again, lemon balm and oat straw are wonderful for calming the nervous system, feeling grounded and supported, while also uplifting the heart and mind. 

Patience and self-compassion: Continually inviting patience and self-compassion to the doorstep of your heart and mind is of tremendous value. Grief moves in its own time, and might move aside for a while, only to surprise-surface again with a special holiday, a smell or song that rekindles a memory. We can acknowledge it as a visiting friend and support ourselves as needed, and it will more easily, lovingly fade, leaving our health and heart even more whole. 

    Use these tips and tools for yourself and for your loved ones. We need more compassion in the world, more loving inquiry when a friend acts out, more honoring of grief as it comes, so that we can let it be acknowledged and loved dearly, and joy and peace can blossom through the watering of our tears. 

    With that compassionate and patient heart, allow yourself the time and space to let grief and sorrow move through with less resistance, and remember that this is how the heart honors what it misses. Then, in those moments where there’s a gentle glimmer of light, remember there is still so much love and beauty in the world, even within and around you, and even when it feels hidden or gone. 

    This life experience is an ever evolving dance of life-death-life, changing all the time, and when we resist, we become stuck and dis-eased. This too shall pass. If we can begin to again focus our attention on the simple beauties before us, a blooming flower, the resilient earth, the evolution of humanity, the endless expanses of our hearts, the layers of ourselves we’re only gifted to witness and know because of grief and loss – perhaps it’s not a total loss at all. 

    Further Teachings on Grief and Loss: 

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