At Good Grief Festival, the talk on ‘how nature teaches us to grieve’ reminded me of the importance of being in tune with our internal world as well as external world.

Often people say how therapeutic being with nature can be when going through loss or challenging times.  In the past, clients have told me that they often walk somewhere in nature where they cannot be seen, just to be able to cry without anyone making them feel bad about tears.  Then, as soon as they come back to a road or a public place, the tears would quickly get wiped away and the pain made invisible and putting on their ‘I am okay’ face again. 

The importance of our connection with nature became very apparent to me whilst I was in Australia for a palliative care conference and the first nation people told us about their connection with their lands.  They described how in tune they are with their natural surroundings.  It helps when it comes to living life and also experiencing loss, knowing that you are part of something bigger, especially when the world inside feels very lonely and dark.

The talk allowed me to reflect on what happens in the brain when we forget what can help us; when grief makes us feel helpless.

Feel good neurochemicals such as Dopamine, Serotonin and Noradrenaline are released in our brains when we are in deep loving relationships.  Separation from those relationships due to loss triggers separation distress and the release of strong stress hormones like Adrenaline or Cortisol. Our separation distress ‘circuit’ is linked to a primitive part of the brain that plays a primary role in processing emotional reactions.

We cannot say to anyone, ‘try not to feel like this’ because the brain is producing these feelings for us. We can rationalise, modify, push away and contextualise them but not stop them from existing.

So why does walking in the woods or seaside help sometimes?

Imagine three balloons in your head. One is the blue drive system, one the green soothing system and the other is the red threat system. There is limited space and so these systems compete for space. Normally, they should be fairly equal in size.

Now imagine when something happens to us like the death of someone. The threat system is responsible for keeping us safe, it moves us away from threat and danger or discomfort. Our brains make decisions without thinking, for example, for us to duck when something is thrown at us or makes us jump when we hear a sudden noise.  It’s our brains automatic reaction and we produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin.

When we care for someone who is dying our threat system begins to work.  It makes us alert so that we wake up when they call for us in the night or we detect small changes in breathing from another room.  The threat system keeps us vigilant – and our red balloon is big. 

As a result, the other balloons have to shrink.  This means that we are less likely to feel driven or focussed on things we like to pursue like academic success, work projects, looking nice and keeping fit. We feel our usual soothing strategies will not work because we don’t have time or room for them. The world feels like a scary, stressful and unenjoyable place.

What helps us achieve balance is to encourage the threat bubble to shrink back to normal size again and increase size of the other two. We don’t want any of them to get too big though, as that would mean working ourselves into the ground by being too driven and then burn out or we become too soothed and stay in bed all day. Here, the balance is key.

So, it’s important that when you are grieving, you consider what helps or used to help you to relax and what have you wanted to do and achieve for a while?  Maybe it’s time to try something new?

The session on nature and grief inspired me to make my own list, which I often forget about about when we just try and deal with life as it happens. Lockdown put a lot of things on hold, especially our ability to get out into nature if we live in big cities and the constant stream of news can make it hard to find space for self-care.

Why don’t you try your own list? Consider the following and write down what helps you feel that way and refer back to it during challenging times.

By Bianca Neumann, Head of Bereavement, Sue Ryder

You can watch ‘How Nature Teaches us to Heal’ on the Grief Channel. Subscriptions cost 20GBP per year and give you access to 100hrs+ of content from Good Grief Festivals and events.