Natural Grief

What is Natural Grieving?

Of the “Natural”, in 1869 John Muir wrote: “One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature—inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.”
– John Muir, My First Summer In the Sierra

Of Grief, John Muir wrote: “The Earth has no sorrow that earth cannot heal.”
– from John of the Mountains, 1872

The trailer below is from the documentary “In the Parlor” written and directed by Heidi Boucher, and is available for purchase at her website www.intheparlordoc.com. It shows how three families move through their grief more naturally with home funerals and time to move through the grief process:

What Is Natural Grieving?
As a practitioner of homeopathic medicine for over twenty years, I listened to many patients who had unresolved grief.  In classical Homeopathy, a form of medicine practiced in Europe for several centuries and which has its roots in Ancient India, there are numerous natural medicines for unresolved grief, depression, shock, and complicated grief. I also observed that those who were able to move through grief in their own time and in their own way did so through empathetic family and friends or through supportive grief counseling.

Clearly, the grief process is not meant to be done alone, and those who move easily through the process will learn skills such as identifying what emotion you are feeling, where that emotion fits into the whole grief process, and an understanding that there is a beginning and “culmination” of the process. So, “Natural Grief” is a way of processing one’s own grief in an un-pressured, safe experience or a shared cultural setting.

This can be seen historically in the three-day vigil, for example, in which family has a home funeral and home burial. This allows time to view the body and accept the death, to move through sorrow and accompany the death of a loved one and acceptance of their end, knowing that others close to you are also moving through the process toward an understanding and to a place of joy. Ultimately, grief calls for a greater understanding of death, which usually follows a complete emotional release with someone who fully understands and supports you, who knows empathetically what you have been through.

Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Stephen and Ondrea Levine, and others popularized the grief process related specifically to terminal illness, and many others have observed special aspects of grief relating to suicide loss, trauma, sudden accidents, loss of a child or baby, etc. There are now many books and personal biographies of those who have healed what feels like unbearable grief and very specific kinds of loss, one of the most unbearable being the loss of an unfulfilled life in a baby. Chie Sasaki wrote about her experience in her book and CD, “My Little Angel, Yasuhiro”, in which her baby is born with a genetic illness and lived only five years with difficult disabilities only to die very suddenly. Over some years Chie was able to not only move through her terrible loss after years of caregiving a totally dependent being but also came to a healed place within herself from the gifts that death, dying, and “staying connected” taught her. Her feeling is that her child’s spirit has stayed close to her to bring her deep comfort and spiritual lessons from the other side.

What I noticed in my own process of grief regarding my mother’s death (from long-term dementia) and my father (a suicide loss) is that I wanted more than just to move through stages of Shock-Denial-Anger-Bereavement-Acceptance.  I also wanted to find Understanding, Hope, Love and perhaps even Joy.

I found empathetic understanding from a counselor and through deep sharing in a mentoring group at SharedHeart.org with 10 other women and Dr. Barry and Joyce Vissell.  We all processed our griefs together, and this got me thinking about how co-mentoring each other’s grief was natural, sustaining, and very empowering for each of us.  I also publicly shared my shame around feeling different and isolated as a child growing up in a culture that shames those who die from suicide and their family survivors.

I then spoke at a conference with the AFSP, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and was very aware of how suppressed grief from suicide loss can take on a life of its own. This grief can “snowball” the more it gets suppressed, especially from cultural and religious shame.  I completed a personal Grief Timeline and found that I had experienced a major or minor grief or loss every 3 years since the age of four, beginning with my parent’s divorce in 1965, a time when divorce was rare and even shamed in America. With 50 years of suppressed and complicated grief, it was time for me to get some skills and find healing.

At the end of my process, I created a piece of art to help express and document my grief.  It is an artistic expression of what I came to understand about the greater shared grief process, and also it became a memorial to my father, who never received a memorial, or proper burial, or even a sharing of his pain as a highly sensitive man.  He was an art teacher and artist who was never recognized or allowed to have strong emotions as a man growing up in Great Depression America.  The painting became my memorial to him, to personify my “reaching out” to him and also my receiving his love and healing from the new “life” he had found on the “Other Side”:

Natural Grief is a process that is indigenous and traditional to all cultures in history.  Ancient religions developed as a “balm” for the shock of death and loss. These ancient religious impulses were totally integrated into the culture and provided a safe and public circle in which to wail, cry, scream and find emotional and spiritual support for grief. With the modern individualization of people, with so many separate beliefs and expressions around death, there is a freedom to choose one’s beliefs–but also isolation that makes it difficult to share and heal grief.

The hospice movement has helped with counseling sessions but has a limited number of them, and often the depth of one’s religious or spiritual openings remains untapped. Over the last 150 years the funeral industry has, perhaps in a compassionate gesture, taken the dead out of our hands, but we have lost the privacy and safety of a home vigil in which to feel and share our inner experience with family, friends, and even the spirit of our dead. Thus, unresolved grief has become the norm and is often unnatural, complicated and shamed if it goes on “too long”.

A new model for natural grief lies in reclaiming our newly deceased, giving ourselves and loved ones a home funeral or staying connected with a three-day vigil common in Europe and especially Ireland until the last century.  Even a century ago, the philosopher Rudolf Steiner lectured and wrote extensively about his perceptions of death, the afterlife, and how important it is for ourselves and our loved ones that we stay connected. He developed specific ways of laying out the body in a three-day vigil based on his research into ancient Egypt, grieving with family in the privacy of a home environment, and cultivating our intuition to experience the spirits of our loved ones.

What's the best way to face death?

What's the best way to face death? Author Kevin Toolis discusses the lessons we can learn from Ireland.

Posted by BBC on Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Steiner’s small book The Dead are With Us, speaks volumes. Another book, Staying Connected , is a series of lectures on how we can find understanding and healing with those on the other side, still deeply meaningful after a century.  “Staying connected” with a loved one was considered a sign of mature aging, as one’s friends and family begin to pass on.  The portal of death, he said, is universal and the same for everyone, regardless of religion or beliefs in life. It is our non-physical Consciousness that remains eternal and then passes through stages of healing and spiritual development. One could even say that this lifetime is really an act of preparation for the greatest inner work to be done on the other side.  If our inner work in this life is to learn to love and find compassion, Steiner said, the afterlife is an even greater process in which we have the opportunity to fully “walk in the shoes” of those with whom we shared a close connection in Life.  If death is not only a “final stage of growth” in which we birth ourselves, then what greater healing may be available in the Afterlife?

To find a shared grieving, an embracing of the deceased in a natural setting, and returning of our bodies to nature, is a benefit to all of us still living. How we process our grief, naturally or otherwise, is the healing that lies ahead for us in our capacity to receive and open the gifts of death and dying.

–Dr. Diana Cunningham co-leads a Threshold Group and is available as a support through John Muir Memorial Green Burial Sanctuary for those wishing to find healing as they move through the stages of grief to find empathy, understanding, hope and even joy for living with loss or for those preparing to cross the threshold to new life.