“Grief does not change you … it reveals you.”
- John Green
We are in a moment of collective mourning. The cries of mothers, fathers, and hundreds of thousands of others around the world can be heard and felt so deeply—even more so for empaths—as the climate of our planet and our humanity is being rocked by unspeakable traumas and terrors. Regardless of who or what, or even if, we worship and hold sacred, or where we find our sense of belonging or purpose, it’s impossible to deny the magnitude of suffering gripping our psyches, our bodies, our siblings, our ancestral lands, and our world. If you’ve been feeling the “poison” of this pain gripping you more intensely lately, you certainly are not alone. Grief, loss, and death are complex terrains that require support, love, and a variety of tools to navigate. Surely this is not something to face alone, so we hope this week’s message reaches you in the spirit of seeking gentle guides to walk beside you on the road to healing, compassion, and alchemy. We’re right here with you.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), practitioners examine the stage of grief the patient is currently moving through. The five stages of grief are: (1) denial; (2) anger; (3); bargaining; (4) depression; and (5) acceptance. Some add a sixth to the list: hope. Acupuncturist and herbalist Donna R. Hernández says that in order to address the root of a patient’s grief, “[TCM practitioners] consider the seasons, the pulse, the tongue, the overall constitution of the patient, and any pre-existing conditions while trying to prevent disharmony in the patient’s overall presentation.” Wellness writer Sarah Vanbuskirk explains further: “The lungs bring oxygen into the body and remove carbon dioxide. In TCM, this organ is believed to be connected to grief.”
The late Ayurvedic health practitioner Vaidya Ramakant Mishra, born into a family of Raj Vaidyas with a 5,000-year history of healing, told his students that the main cause of depression, one of many symptoms of complex grief, is “the lack of ability to process emotions.” In the Ayurvedic health system, it is believed that each person’s individual experience of grief varies based on their mind-body type; therefore, the ways of treating the root cause can vary widely. Herbal formulas, soothing teas, essential oils, marma (energy point therapy) and panchakarma (Ayurvedic detoxification therapy) are among them, harnessing positive vibrations aimed to restore balance in the emotional, physical, and psychological realms for a long-lasting healing effect.
Complex grief (CG) is believed to impact 10% of individuals who have been bereaved, affecting people all around the world, with cultural factors playing a large role in the process of dealing with grief and loss. Professor and physician Laurence J. Kirmayer argues that “one can understand the course of healing by examining metaphorical concepts.” In Kirmayer’s hierarchy of metaphors, “there are multiple modes of healing and meditating processes interacting with many levels, such as society and the environment, the community, family, and biological factors” (Source: NIH). Taking into consideration these nuanced approaches, we may understand that though we all grieve, we can also see that people don’t necessarily approach the management and moving through these emotions the same across cultures. Even the language people use to describe the different realms of existence—the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth—shape the way they think of them.
How Can Transmuting Poison Lead to Profound Healing?
Pain can be a sort of poison, and grief is one type of suffering that can wound deeply and last for quite some time, depending on the type of loss felt by the griever. But grief is also a natural expression of feelings for something or someone we once loved, a bond or attachment that formed and became significant to us. Honoring the impact and meaning of that person or that attachment (such as to a job, or an object of value to us) is also a type of gateway to many life-affirming experiences. Processing difficult feelings, catharsis, and finding closeness with others in the form of our support systems are just a few potential healing outcomes.
Transmuting the powerful poison of grief transforms the ache of loss into growth, a healing process that requires time and patience, but can lead to positive forces that propel you into new ways of thinking and being.
Questions to ask (excerpted from Integral Tarot: Decoding the Essence):
- How can I allow this death to be a type of surrender to a new life?
- Where am I holding a false sense of hope?
- What is the worst that could happen if I did something different?
- Who am I afraid to let down? Myself?
The rituals and everyday tools for coping with grief and loss shared below offer some additional plant medicines, practices, and tangible steps that you may find useful as you navigate through these turbulent waters. Francis Weller, a California-based psychotherapist and author of The Sacred Work of Grief and numerous other books, said, “Ritual is that frequency that enables what is most vulnerable in the human being to come forward.” The soft animal of the self often needs a safe container to “surrender to a new life”.
Grief As Sacred Rite + Initiation
Francis Weller said in an interview with Psychology Today: “Grief without gratitude can lead to cynicism and a sense of hopelessness. But gratitude without grief tends to lead towards a more saccharine thing. The heart needs grief and gratitude in constant conversation with one another, and since grief deepens the heart’s capacity to know what another person may be feeling, I’m holding onto both.”
Weller continued to explain that the act of engaging in grief and suffering can also break the heart open to receive joy and delight. If we refuse to walk the path of grief, we may be faced with small lives that are controlled by our emotions. Or as the Sir Henry Taylor poem goes, “He that lacks time to mourn, lacks time to mend For life’s worst ills, to have no time to feel them.” In a happiness-obsessed and fear-based culture, good and bad emotions are seen as a binary to be navigated with precise caution. Weller says we might be wise to instead “befriend them all” for a more saturated joy that is rooted in truth and hope.
Tarron Estes, Founder of the Conscious Dying Institute, says that death and birth are “bookends of life” and that “Grandmother Grief leads the way. She calls forth an initiation that renews, heals, and cleanses our souls.” Referring to the sacred passage of the inevitability of our transition into the death phase, both Estes and Weller emphasize the power of ritual to affirm, to release, to share the burden with others, and to transform us. As Estes explains, “the emotional family surrounding death calls us to these powerful rites of passage that no other time offers,” so in our grief, rage, fear, anger, and disappointment, we can also find hope and healing.
SMALL SACRED RITUALS FOR HEALING GRIEF
Studies have demonstrated that our perception of how much time we have left in this earthly dimension of our existence has a profound impact on how we choose to spend our precious time. As we become acutely attuned to our own mortality, we can often bypass our otherwise dominant feelings of irritation from zooming in on everyday hassles in favor of celebrating the magic of our remaining days. “Acknowledging our impermanence makes us more mindful of life’s small moments and our relationship with others,” according to an illuminating article in Scientific American about coping with death awareness and terror management theory.
The human expression of grief varies widely across cultures, but the importance of rituals to honor and reflect on life’s fragility is nearly universal in some form throughout history. Consider performing one of these rituals, or one of your own making, to help soothe your heart, to offer gratitude for your own breath and being as you remember “you are weeping for that which has been your delight” (as Kahlil Gibran put it), and to begin to let go as a means of gently easing your suffering. Remember, there is no standard timeline or need to rush things.
Favorite Meal - Gathering those close to the beloved departed to cook or share a dish that person enjoyed can be a cathartic form of remembrance. Offer a toast, a moment of silence, or a song to complement the meal with a simple ceremonial component to amplify your shared joy in the present.
Remembrance Altar - An altar is a sacred place to adolore (adore) or altare (create a podium/stage), physical places to worship, honor, or make offerings as ritual practices. Building an altar for a loved one can be a private place to channel the energy, frequencies, and messages of that person, and to call on ancestral spirits to help you heal and move on. Keep reading here for the essential altar elements.
Nature Therapy - Where was your loved one’s favorite place to ground and reconnect with the Earth? Go there (or to a similar place; e.g. if they loved the ocean, any body of water can represent that energy) with the intention of journaling alone, sharing stories and memories with friends and family aloud, or meditating to tap into the source of oneness that connects us all in life and in death.
Plant Trees + Flowers - Find a special place to grow something new. The cycle of death and rebirth can be seen in all living beings. Watching the progression of your seedling can be a daily reminder that you, too, will grow and bloom again; your loved one’s memory is also honored with this action.
Make An Herbal Amulet - Sometimes considered a “portable altar”, amulets are intended to have a very clear purpose, and they are meant to be carried. Think of your amulet as the womb of creativity, a sacred container that can provide you the gift of life at any moment. Whatever you desire to manifest as you grieve, your amulet can offer protection, purification, love, and more energetic benefits.
- Affirm Joy - It can be easy to ignore the things that made you happy prior to experiencing a devastating loss, but experts say that continuing to maintain routines and hobbies that bring joy are excellent healing allies. “To cope with anything that is highly emotional, particularly grief, it is essential you focus on basic self-care activities,” according to psychologist Dr. Kim Maertz.
EVERYDAY TOOLS FOR COPING WITH GRIEF + LOSS
Additionally, these herbs and tools approach managing grief from different perspectives. Here is a bit more about how you can mindfully incorporate them into your healing journey. Take a look at the list below, and if you’re still not sure what herbs are right for you, take advantage of our free herbalist chat here. Let us walk beside you on the road to transmuting pain into a revelation with compassion and grace.
- Bobinsana (Calliandra angustifolia) - It is said that the spirit of the Bobinsana plant can provide healing and comfort to those experiencing loss, heartbreak, or grief. The shamanic heart healer has also been used by curandero/as to assist the patient with dissolving the barriers of time, allowing them to travel mentally to the moment of the trauma, a practice also known as “soul retrieval”.
Mulungu (Erythrina mulungu) - In Brazil, Peru, and among other indigenous tribes of the Amazon, mulungu has long been used as a natural sedative, a tool for calming an overexcited nervous system, and a restful sleep aid. In both North and South American herbal medicine systems, mulungu is considered a powerful sedative to ease agitation, support mood disorders and chronic stress, and to treat other nervous system issues like insomnia, anxiety, and even epilepsy.
- Milky Oats (Avena sativa) - Deeply nourishing, milky oats is a tonic remedy that may restore the nervous system, relieve emotional instability, and help one find peace and tranquility, especially for over-stressed and chronically upset people. Oat is a staple in many herbalist formulas for grief.
- Albizia (Albizia julibrissin) - Traditionally used for hundreds of years as a mood elevator and calm-inducing treatment, both the bark and the flowers of this “tree of happiness” are believed to anchor the spirit. It acts as an antidepressant and anti-anxiety herb with no known side effects.
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) - A nervous system relaxant and mild sedative herb, this beautiful mandala-like flower is also a gentle anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory aid. One compound found in passionflower, quercetin, is very effective in ridding the body of damaging free radicals and toxins.
- Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) - A nervine known to uplift depressive moods, this immune protector makes for a delightful tea with an exquisite smell. Its power to gently calm anxiety combined with its ability to ease sleep troubles make it a loving plant companion throughout the grieving process.
- Rose (Rosa centifolia) - Revered for centuries for its spiritual healing benefits, particularly those around relieving the heart, rose may also benefit those suffering from depression, anxiety, psycho-spiritual imbalances, and mood disorders. It can also help to reduce inflammation in the body, a common symptom of trauma, grief, and other related circumstances with physical and emotional effects.
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) - Cooling, relaxing, and uplifting lavender has been cherished throughout the world for thousands of years. It is particularly revered in folk traditions for its profound ability to cool an overheated body. It may also help reduce feelings of anger, agitation, and insecurity, as well as relaxing a worried mind. Safe for people of all ages, this herb is universally beloved.
- Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) - Known as the “fragrance of the spiritual mind”, this noble fragrance is associated with inner peace, purity of consciousness, and an open heart. The grounding properties of sandalwood can help us center ourselves and build our spiritual fortitude as we heal from grief.
- Kava Kava (Piper methysticum) - One of the strongest known herbal muscle relaxants, kava kava’s demonstrated ability to greatly reduce emotional tension and anxiety disorders has been affirmed by numerous studies. It is capable of promoting relaxation without impairing cognition, helps us let down our social barriers, and causes no negative side effects or physiological dependency when appropriately dosed and administered. Warming, spicy, and stimulating, it is also believed to help boost our ability to concentrate, which can be especially tough to maintain in times of mourning.
BREAKING DOWN THE DEATH CARD
The Death Card*
Scorpio-Scorpio is the sign of inheritances and legacies Scorpio is the sign of fixed water and as such reminds us that below the surface there are emotions that we are afraid might someday get out of control. Scorpio is magnetic by nature and shows that as we live, death is magnetically drawing us into its clutches.
On the spiritual level, the Death card reminds you that your spiritual self is overriding your ego. Your spiritual self is desperate to grow and the ego has been desperate to maintain the status quo. Choose to let your spirit guide the path for a moment. You will feel more alive and vibrant. Give your soul a chance to prove that something different might just be what will work.
It takes a tremendous amount of your personal power and energy to constantly maintain and create an illusion for yourself and others. The path is to simplify your life by not allowing the ego to create power drains. When you know yourself and believe in yourself there is no need to bolster or exaggerate the truth of who you are. The path is the path of self-acceptance.
Body Aspect: The Lungs exhaling. When you are afraid you tend to not fully breathe. If you fully breathe, you become present in the moment. When you are present, you will have to make changes in the reality of your existence. (Note that this is aligned with the Traditional Chinese Medicine link between grief and the lungs).
*Death Card interpretation excerpted from Integral Tarot: Decoding the Essence by Suzanne Wagner.