While self-isolating in my house with my husband and three cats, I have been drinking a lot of herbal tea, and thinking a lot about the 7 Stages of Grief. It feels as though, on an individual and a collective level, we are all working through these stages as we learn to navigate our “new normal”. We are in uncharted waters, there is no doubt about that.
If you feel you are falling somewhere on this spectrum of grief, there are herbs and natural remedies that can help support you and your loved ones through this process. Not everyone experiences these stages in the same way because grief looks different for all of us. And, there is no timeline on grief. Healing is not linear, so you may experience some of these stages intensely, and some not at all. I hope this guide gives you some ideas to help support you no matter where you are at.
Stage 1: Shock
Shock is the initial reaction where the body knows something is wrong, but doesn’t yet have an immediate solution. It is when the body moves from the parasympathetic to the sympathetic nervous system. When we move into this state, our eyes dilate, our heartbeat races, and digestion comes to a halt. The body is preparing to run from immediate danger, but what happens when the body is trapped in this state for a long period of time? Well, needless to say, it can do a lot of damage. But, there are ways we can help the body work through this.
Herbal Support for Shock
Lemon Balm would work really well here. It is a trophorestorative for the nervous system, which means that it can help calm and repair the nervous system, especially when taken over time. It is supportive to the system by helping the body return to the rest and digest mode, and it assists the body in self-regulating. Drinking a daily infusion by steeping 2 tsp’s in 1 cup boiling water for ten minutes, or taking a few drops of the tincture when you feel your heart begin to race can be especially helpful. You can take this at any time of day, and it can also be a great ally if you wake in the middle of the night with anxious thoughts.
Natural Support for Shock
Breath-work would also be extremely helpful. Calming the breath can help us move back to the parasympathetic nervous system. Try a simple 4-7-8 breath. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and breathe out for 8 seconds. Do this for 4-5 rounds. Dr. Andrew Weil has a great video on his website to walk you through it.
Stage 2: Denial
When thinking about denial, I imagine a wall going up around the heart to help protect it from a truth that it isn’t yet ready to face. In the short term, the wall can be necessary, to give time and space to process the difficult changes being presented. But, in order to heal, we have to open ourselves back up to see things as they really are.
Herbal Support for Denial
To assist with this, I turn to herbs to help open the heart. Hawthorn, the quintessential heart herb, can help ease emotional pain and open the spiritual heart. It is also believed to help strengthen the heart, which is much needed as you step through these phases of grief. Taking it early in the grief journey can help fortify you for the road ahead. To use, decoct the berries by simmering 2 tsp’s in one cup of water on the stovetop for 20 minutes.
Natural Support for Denial
Self care is especially helpful when you (or your loved ones) are going through periods of denial. In essence, when you are in denial, you are so deep in grief that you can’t see the truth for what it is. This is a time to go to bed early, to ask for help from family members if you need it, and take extra special care of yourself. If you are helping a family member who is in denial, see if there is a way you can help them, from assisting with daily chores to cooking meals.
Stage 3: Anger
It is extremely normal to be angry when your life is turned completely upside down. I think it’s important to allow yourself to feel anger, and as they say “feel your feelings”. We have gone from being a totally free society, to being in total lockdown, to strict rules regarding a potential future reopening. This is a transition for all of us, and you have the right to feel anger. Allow yourself space for this phase.
Herbal Support for Anger
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the liver is where anger is stored. So, I look to herbs to help support the liver. My favorite is Milk Thistle. It is detoxifying, nourishing, and restorative to the liver. My preferred way to take this is by tincture, but you can also purchase Milk Thistle Seeds. You can put a tablespoon of these in a smoothie or make a tea, or use the powdered herb in oatmeal or other recipes.
Natural Support for Anger
I find that body movement can help to move anger through the body. If you can, get outside in nature. Take some deep breaths, go for a walk around the block, or go running if that’s your thing. If you can’t get out, consider taking a free yoga or qi-jong class on Youtube.
Stage 4: Bargaining
When you are bargaining, you aren’t yet seeing the reality of the situation. You are looking for a way to control what is happening around you. For this, I see the need to ground into the present moment. Herbs to help support the root chakra are indicated here.
Herbal Support for Bargaining
Ashwaganda, a powerful adaptogen, helps support the nervous system and can help how the body responds to stress. As a root chakra herb, it can help to balance, ground, and nourish. It also helps with the sleep/wake cycle, which can need special attention during times of grief. This herb doesn’t taste the best, so you might not enjoy it on it’s own as a tea. You can take ashwaganda capsules or add the powder to a smoothie, or work it into a granola bar recipe.
Natural Support for Bargaining
Meditation can also be helpful here. I really like this Tibetan Singing Bowl Meditation for the root chakra when I need help stabilizing my emotions and need help returning to the present moment. Physical grounding is also a great idea. Get in contact with the earth by walking barefoot outside. It doesn’t need to be complicated, just a few minutes outside on a patch of grass will do!
Stage 5: Guilt
Guilt is when you have feelings of sadness around what you could have done differently leading up to the cause of the grief. You get a case of the “If Only’s”. When we are talking about a pandemic, let me just say, there’s nothing you could have done differently. None of us saw this coming, but you may have a voice in the back of your head saying that YOU could have been better prepared. Maybe with more toilet paper, a better food stockpile, or the foresight to buy hand sanitizer before it became a hot commodity.
Herbal Support for Guilt
Holy Basil would be a great choice to help cope with these feelings. It is an adaptogen that helps the body adapt to stress and it can help in moving through stuck emotions, which we tend to have in periods of guilt. Holy Basil tastes lovely, and a daily infusion is preferred here. To make, steep 1-2 tsp’s of the leaf in 1 cup of just boiling water for 10-15 minutes.
Natural Support for Guilt
You may consider a stream of thought journaling routine while going through periods of guilt. Get all of your emotions out on paper, without judgement. Stream of thought journaling is very simple. Sit quietly with a blank sheet of paper and a pen, or if you prefer typing, open up a clean Word document. Begin with whatever you’re feeling in this moment. The point is not to be perfect or even to make sense, its just to get all of your current feelings out. When you are finished, you can choose to save it or throw it out (or delete it) if you’d like.
Stage 6: Depression
Quite understandably, extreme sadness and even depression can manifest when going through grief. This is not to be taken lightly, and sometimes this requires working with a professional. Now might be a good time to seek out a medical healthcare professional that is able to do distance appointments. If this feels like mild depression that you can work through, read on.
Herbal Support for Depression
St. Johns Wort is an extremely well known herb to help with mild depression. This is an herb I love to help support individuals with SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and, I see some similarities between SAD and the current pandemic. It may not feel like it, but this is a season we are working through, and it will pass. As a nervine, St. Johns Wort can help reduce anxiety and uplift the mood. My favorite way to work with St. Johns Wort is just by growing it in my yard. You don’t have to consume herbs to feel their effects. You can choose to form a relationship with this herb in a physical way. It grows well in most environments and you can start it from seed. If you do want to take this herb internally, I recommend enjoying it as a tea, and working with a botanically knowledgable practitioner that can help you with any potential herb/drug interactions.
Natural Support for Mild Depression
Movement, again, is another helpful ally. Sometimes what we really need is to get outside and get some sun on our skin. Being in nature can help uplift the spirits. Taking a walk, sitting in the yard with view of a bird feeder, or taking a bike ride might prove very helpful. Another one of my go-to remedies when I am feeling really down is a long hot salt bath, and a good cry. Crying can help move us through these emotions to the other side. Water itself is purifying, so the combination of a bath and a good cry makes a lot of sense to me.
Stage 7: Acceptance
The final stage. I want to be clear, this doesn’t mean you are especially happy to be trapped in your house with your husband and three cats, but it does mean you have reached a state where grief is no longer running the show. You accept your current reality as it is, and are ready to live life once more with hopes, dreams, and goals.
Herbal Support for Acceptance
I had a tricky time coming up with the best herb for ushering in this phase, but the one I keep returning to is Rosemary. Rosemary, also known as the “herb of remembrance”, helps us return to ourselves. It reminds us of the things we value and and brings us back to who we are inherently. There are a lot of ways to bring Rosemary into your daily life. Cook with it, make a tea, diffuse the essential oil, add the essential oil to bath salts, use the flower essence, or all of the above!
After Acceptance, and Beyond
Now that you’ve made it through, connect with loved ones and help them on their journey. Physical distance does not have to mean lack of connection. Technology is amazing, and I am seeing new ways that people are navigating these waters everyday (my nephew had a virtual birthday party instead of a family gathering, right on!). Schedule a weekly call with your besties, do a virtual happy hour, or write a letter to your grandparents who might be totally quarantined and struggling with loneliness.
I just want to say, I hope you all are hanging in there and being kind to yourselves. No matter where you land in the stages, as best you can, prioritize rest and self care. Remember that all of your feelings are valid, and what looks right for you right now might not be what is right for someone else. Trust your inner knowing, and allow the herbs that speak to you to help you process and move through these extremely trying times. And, if you just need a feel good moment, check out this video of a lovely lady training her dog to deliver groceries to her neighbor with underlying health conditions.
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