My sister and I reclined listlessly on the hot concrete in our driveway, our summer afternoons punctuated by retreats indoors only to watch Billy Madison. We moved to suburban Colorado the summer after my freshman year of high school. It was both profoundly isolating and terrifying, I told my parents every day they had ruined my life. In retrospect I know that my heartache and angst was actually grieving for the life I left in Michigan. Shortly after I moved, I was on the phone with my best friend in Michigan who told me she read in one of her father’s medical books that when people move, we process in the same way as if they died. I’m not sure where she read this, but other studies point to the same inference. What did that mean for the one who had ‘passed on’? For me it meant a hot, dry summer alone with Adam Sandler.
I’ve moved dozens of times since then, each time further from my friend. We’ve been friends for 25 years and lived apart for 20 of them. February feels difficult, not because the gloom of winter has made itself at home, or other people’s feelings about Valentine’s day, or even having to pay a full months rent for a meager 28 days, but because it is her birthday month. Other people I love have February birthdays, most notably my sister who lives on the other side of the country. In a way, this month is a bummer reminder of how far I am from people I love and the moments that established our distance. I feel the pang of their absence not on the date that the physical distance between us grew, but at the anniversary of their birth.
Anniversaries can be marked by almost anything or a combination of things, showing up when we’ve forgotten, lingering when we are desperate to forget.Though present circumstances have changed, anniversaries of loss can trick us into feeling old emotions again. In these moments there are plants that can alleviate our feelings of grief, isolation, and ungroundedness. Making alliances with different plants as we move through loss over days, weeks, months, and years can offer moments in our grief where we may find relief, comfort, and even strength. They can help transform anniversaries into opportunities to renew our commitment to healing.
Below is a plant program for grief, appropriate for many kinds of loss. This is not a replacement for forms of therapy or ceremony, but an “in addition to” type thing. Since the human body and mind reacts in similar ways to the loss of a person despite the circumstances, you might find these plants helpful following a break-up, the loss of a loved one, or a move across town or country.
Note to readers who are pregnant or nursing: consult your physician before starting a new program involving plants.
Wood betony + Skullcap
These two both come from the mint family: mints, in general, have a soothing effect on the nervous system. Since it’s hard to concentrate in the immediate aftermath of a loss it’s common to feel frenzied and ungrounded. These feelings often play out in difficulty concentrating and tending toward a compulsion to run away, float off, or crawl out of our skin (Matt Wood). A simple tea of wood betony and skullcap delivers feelings of safety and calm, can help us find groundedness,and alleviates a traumatized mind’s tendency to overthink and forego rest. The combination is safe enough to drink everyday multiple times a day for as long as these feelings persist.
A couple of weeks into grieving it’s common to feel pulled to skip past discomfort: seeking distraction from the loud voice that says “I can’t do this.”As reality settles in, motherwort can help us stay, remind us that we can, and give us strength. It can remedy the restlessness that persists and its tonic and nutritive properties work to to strengthen our hearts and our stomachs, building up the systems that help us sustain.
Motherwort is pretty acrid, unlike other mints, which makes it a good ally when we’re working to develop a taste for bitter experiences. Since it is so strong, I like to pair it with cinnamon and cardamom. You can make a simple decoction by simmering 1 teaspoon cinnamon bark chips and 5 cardamom pods in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes. Take your pot off the heat, add 2 teaspoons of dried motherwort and steep all together for 5-7 minutes. This makes two cups that taste nice with a spoonful of honey. Motherwort’s affinity for the heart is present in its latin name Leonurus cardiaca, which roughly translates to lion hearted.
Elderflower + Rose + Hawthorn
Mythology around the elder tree identifies it as a symbol of sorrow and death. It grows on the edge of the wild and the cultivated, occupying a liminal space. It can be helpful as an ally when we are teetering on the brink of acceptance.Combined with the protection of rose and hawthorn, working with elder can help us find the strength to surrender. Rose and hawthorn are uplifting medicines armed with thorns, offering protection while we make space for true healing to begin. A simple way to take elder medicine is to make a trip to the liquor store for Elderflower liqueur. I’m not suggesting you get wasted on St. Germaine, but a make a decoction by simmering 1 tablespoon hawthorn berries in 2 cups of water for 15 minutes. Take your pot off the heat, add 2 teaspoons rose petals and steep for 7 minutes. Strain off the plant material and stir in 1 tablespoon elderflower liqueur. This tea can move our broken, yet strengthened hearts into repair.
Linden + Lemon balm
In the summer, usually June, linden flowers bloom in my neighborhood. Their sweet scent is barely detectable unless you’re looking for it, up above your head. It tastes as good as it smells. The same is true for lemon balm, who is part of the mint family but smells more like lemons. The two grow abundantly in places populated with people, they both happen to be excellent medicines for exhaustion, especially when feeling “fried.”
The cumulative effects of loss can leave us feeling parched, an uplifting cup of linden and lemon balm can help shed the subtle remains of loss and restore vitality to our bodies. The moistening, cooling, and calming actions of linden and lemon balm can help quell the emotions ignited by an unexpected reminder of the loss. Prepare a simple tea by boiling a cup of water and pouring it over 1 teaspoon each of dried linden (flowers and leaves) and lemon balm. Steep for 7 minutes and breathe dip to receive the soothing aromatic qualities.