Green Grieving: Mist over green forests in the mountains

Green Grieving: Eco-Therapy, Coping with Loss and Finding Solace in Nature

By: Team Earth

Feb 17, 2024 | Grief Resources

5 min read

Have you ever gone outside to clear your head?

Then you already understand, to some extent, the healing power of eco-therapy. Whether you’re hiking on a dirt trail or sitting on a park bench, time spent outdoors can be a powerful treatment for all kinds of mental health hurdles, from work anxiety to grief.

Ecopsychology is a growing field that examines our connection to nature as not only nice but necessary in supporting our emotional and physical well-being. Eco-therapy refers to a variety of nature-based healing practices, rooted in ecopsychology.

When it comes to mental health, eco-therapy is an increasingly popular form of treatment. In coping with grief specifically, eco-therapy can offer profound relief.

What is Eco-Therapy

Also known as nature therapy, eco-therapy refers to a variety of healing methods based in nature. Whether self-led or guided by a therapist, in a forest or on a beach, eco-therapy asks participants to reconnect to the bigness of the natural world and embrace our role in a greater ecosystem. It can offer calm in times of stress and comfort in times of sadness, like after the loss of a loved one.

Eco-therapy reminds us that we are all important parts of the natural world. We are connected to nature and we are a part of nature. Just as a flower needs sunshine, water, and nutrition from the soil, humans rely on the natural world, too.

Types of Eco-Therapy

There are many ways to enjoy the benefits of nature, and there are many methods for harnessing its healing power. But if you’re experiencing grief, it can feel hard—impossible, even—to find the motivation to get outside.

Many people who have grappled with grief find it helpful to speak to a therapist, and an increasing number of therapists are now using ecotherapy in their practices. If you’ve enjoyed outdoor activities in the past, or think you might, then simply learning about eco-therapy can be a step in the right direction.

The following are just a handful of the different types of eco-therapy. As this field continues to grow, the methods and styles are branching out, too. But you can also speak to your therapist about getting outside in whatever fashion feels most supportive in what you’re going through.

Man and woman go hiking toward snowy mountain in a wilderness therapy hike

Wilderness therapy

Often geared towards young adults and teens, participants in wilderness therapy hike and learn wilderness survival skills as a group. It is often used to treat behavioral issues and substance abuse. Wilderness therapy encourages teamwork while developing coping mechanisms and problem-solving techniques.

Forest bathing

The practice emerged in Japan in the 1980’s as a response to the widening disconnect between humans and nature. Forest bathing involves moving through a forest and connecting to your surroundings, paying close attention to the details like the sound of birds singing or the smell of wet moss. It can be done solo or with a guide who may offer meditation exercises for a more structured experience.

Outdoor meditation

Meditating outside looks a lot like forest bathing, but relies more specifically on meditative practices like focusing one’s attention on one thing, which could be your breath or a repeated mantra. This guided outdoor meditation from the New York Times asks you to scan your body for any pain or tension and think of three things you’re grateful for.

Gardening therapy

The mental health benefits of gardening were first documented by Dr. Benjamin Rush, known as the father of American psychiatry. Gardening therapy, or horticulture therapy, embraces the calming practice of tending to plants and is used to help patients learn new skills, regain lost ones, and improve memory and socialization.

Animal-assisted therapy

In animal-assisted therapy, people interact with animals, typically horses or dogs. Petting and playing with animals promotes the release of serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin, which all help reduce anxiety, loneliness, and stress. Animals may also act as an ice breaker for talk therapy, allowing someone to relax and maybe laugh at a dog’s playful antics before digging into a conversation.

Conservation therapy

Similar to gardening therapy but on a bigger scale, conservation therapy invites patients to care for a piece of protected land. This combination of hard work, fresh air, and doing something good for the planet can have a positive effect on one’s mood and broader outlook.

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Why Eco-Therapy?

For many generations, humans have been drifting further and further from the natural world. As the conveniences of technology have developed at a dizzying pace, the barriers between ourselves and the sources that sustain us seem to be spinning out of control, too.

We still need food that grows from the earth and water that comes from the sky to survive, but the way we access these things (big box stores, faucets, fridge filters) rob us of our connection to the source. Very few people touch the ground from which their food grows. Often, it comes from thousands of miles away.

This disconnect between humans and nature has serious health implications. And a disconnect from nature isn’t the only modern reality to blame. We’re also stuck to gadgets that can seriously harm our mental health. The average screen time in America is now 7 hours a day—hours that increase stress, overload our sensory system, and deplete mental energy. The glow of our scrolling at bedtime is disrupting our sleep patterns by suppressing melatonin production and reducing REM sleep, which makes us more irritable and less focused during the day.

Studies show that “heavy users” of technology like computers and cell phones are twice as likely as “light users,” to experience depression. In 2023, depression rates reached an all-time high in the U.S. at 29% of the population being diagnosed with depression at some point in their lifetime.

Simply going outside can have the opposite effect of our ever-present screens.

Lady finding solace in nature by practicing outdoor meditation in the wilderness to cope with loss

One study of 20,000 people found those who spent at least two hours a week in green spaces reported significantly better mental and physical health. Other studies show evidence that spending time outside can lower stress hormone levels, reduce nervous system arousal, strengthen the immune system, increase self-esteem, and reduce anxiety.

There have always been people who intrinsically understand the positive effects of being surrounded by nature. But in just the last decade, scientists and doctors have collected a wealth of data on the connection between our health and nature. The evidence is so strong that doctors are now treating patients with prescriptions for park visits and outdoor activity.

One defining feature of depression and grief is a sense of hopelessness. If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, you might experience a sense of hopelessness in their absence—like you’ll never escape the sadness of this loss.

Contrary to what you see while doomscrolling, hope exists all around us—in ways that are hard to ignore when you go outside. Seasons change. Trees lose their leaves and then grow new ones. Certain trees only release seeds after the intense heat of wildfires. In nature, there is always growth and something to be hopeful for. Eco-therapy can lead the way towards recognizing that hope.

Grief and Green Funerals

We all know that death is part of nature. While so many natural systems have been altered and interrupted by humans’ impact on the planet, dying is a natural process we can’t escape.

Eco-therapy encourages us to intentionally incorporate nature into how we care for our mental health. Now that we’ve examined the benefits of strengthening that connection for the living, let’s consider how death, too, can be more intentionally braided with the natural world.

Green funerals, like eco-therapy, are growing in popularity. They both reconsider human life as not adjacent to nature, but an important part of a healthy ecosystem. This belonging to nature is a great comfort to many, in living and in death.

Green funerals, including natural burial and human composting, allow the body to return to the earth, to reintegrate into an ecosystem by nourishing the soil that plants and animals depend on.

For those who feel strongly about their role in the natural world, green funerals and eco-therapy can go hand-in-hand as helpful ways to prepare for and grapple with the enormity of death.

To learn more about eco-therapy, talk to your doctor or therapist about your options. If you’re not already seeing a therapist, many primary care providers can help you find one who specializes in eco-therapy.

To learn more about green funerals and human composting, give us a call at Earth Funeral. We’re here to help you navigate the planning and details of embracing our natural connection to the earth and returning to nature after death.

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