Uncontainable Night: Herbs for Grief

by Janet Kent

Can herbs actually help mend a broken heart? How can anyone move through their grief when every day brings another chance to grieve?  How can we possibly heal from the constant bereavement we experience in this world?  Is healing even an appropriate goal? These are the questions that I hear most when I talk about grief and herbs that can support us with this process.

Let’s be clear right from the start.  Herbs do not get rid of grief, nor should they. When I was in my late teens I read a set of novels set in Alexandria, Egypt in the 1950’s. One of the books described the mourning traditions of the Coptic community there. Whenever a family member died, they would cover the mirrors for an entire year. They would also break every dish in the house to signify that all had changed and the loss would never be forgotten. Even then, long before I had become intimate with grief myself, I was struck by these commemorative actions. What did we do to mark our losses? Where were our gestures of inconsolable grief?  Less than a century ago in this country, it was customary among some parts of society to wear black for up to year after a death in the family. This showed others that you were in mourning and should not be held to the usual societal expectations. Even this small outward gesture of inner turmoil is no longer with us. Today, the dominant economic culture does not allow us even a moderate time to grieve. There are many who report having been prescribed antidepressants less than two months after the death of a partner or close family member. We are expected to miss only a day or two of work or school even when we lose a parent, child, sibling or partner. This is the sign of a culture that does not value life, only productivity. If we move from a framework that values all that is undervalued in the economy, we can do better. This means moving slowly, allowing time for all the phases of grief. It means working to ease and support the process rather than suppress grief as a symptom.

As we work with herbs for support during the various stages of grief, it is imperative that we do not rush the process. Herbs are vital supports through this transition, but they do not stop the pain. They can soften the sharp edges and strengthen us over time, but they do not numb us or suppress our emotions, which is for the best. Timing when we are choosing which herbs to work with and when is important. Using herbs for integration and moving forward when the loss is fresh can be disruptive. Likewise, after extended periods of grief, we need nourishing, building herbs rather than simply turning to the calming nervines we may reach for during acute phases of grief. Just as holistic herbalists seek to treat the person, not the disease, so it is when we work to ease mental states. Grief presents differently at different points of the process.  To best address the stage of grief someone is in, look at the pattern and pick the herbs to match. Keeping this in mind when you are not in extreme grief is definitely helpful, so you can remember which herbs to reach for when you need them, or when someone else needs them. Herbs are wonderful supports in times of grief, but they work best in addition to ritual, nourishment, time with our more-than-human kin, and talking to others about our loss. Ultimately time is what we need. Time to digest, time to relearn how to live, time to honor those who have passed, time for rest and time to integrate the loss. Ample time. Much more than two months. 

Peach Flower Elixir

HERBS FOR THE PHASES OF GRIEF

Here are some differential diagnostic tools for understanding which herbs are best-suited for the stage of grief we or those we are supporting are experiencing. Remember that grief is not linear, that phases of grief come and go over time.

Acute Grief – this is when our grief is hot and edgy. We are agitated and we can’t sleep. We feel restless, have trouble concentrating. There is often intermittent numbness as well. We experience acute grief soon after a loss for weeks to months or years. Anniversaries and reminders of those who have left this world can trigger acute episodes as well.

.Herbs that ease acute grief tend to be cooling and/or calming:  Peach leaf, Motherwort, Skullcap, Kava, Anemone, Lavender, Passionflower and Stachys are helpful for this phase. I like to add one or more of these herbs to a formula with Hawthorn as a base, as Hawthorn is helpful for many phases of grief and can work as a bridge as we move back and forth within our process. Here is a tried and true formula that has helped many, many grievers:

Acute Grief Formula: Hawthorn 4 parts, Peach leaf 3 parts, Motherwort 2 parts, Kava 2 parts, Anemone 1 part. Dosage:  1-2 dropperfuls as needed.

Shock/Difficulty Comprehending the Loss – this tends to be a phase we experience closer to the initial time of loss, but depending on the circumstances, can recur for a year or more.

Herbs that help us with our comprehension/assimilation of loss:  Chamomile, Catnip, Hops, Angelica and Calamus. Herbs that help us digest our food often help us digest our experiences as well. Loss must be assimilated incrementally over time. These aromatic bitter herbs can help with that process. For this category, I find tea, tincture or elixir helpful. A dropperful or two of any of these as tinctures in soda water can be a nice substitute for an alcoholic beverage as well.

Exhaustion from Ongoing Grief:  Sleep deprivation and long term sorrow are hard on the mind and body. We can become severely depleted which can lead to long term chronic health issues if we do not address this condition.

Herbs that ease exhaustion from grief tend to be restorative and nourishing:  Milky Oats, Shatavari, Ashwagandha, Licorice, Reishi, Hawthorn, Evening Primrose. Combining these with aromatic or bitter herbs can help support grievers in the moment while building and nourishing their systems over time.

Restorative Tonic #1: Milky Oats 3 parts, Shatavari 3 parts, Ashwagandha 2 parts, Licorice 2 parts. Dosage:  1-2 dropperfuls 2-3 x a day.

Restorative Tonic #2: Ashwagandha 3 parts, Milky Oats   4 parts, Motherwort 2 parts Dosage:  2-3 dropperfuls 2-3 x a day

Milky Oats Cordial: Take a pressed tincture of Milky Oats. Add ginger, cinnamon (and any other similar spices) to taste. Macerate for 1 month, shaking daily. Strain. Add honey to taste. Dosage: ½ to 1 tsp  2-3x a day.

Milky Oats Oxymel: Macerate Milky Oats in vinegar, 1:2. After a month strain and add honey to taste. Dosage: 1/2 to 1 tsp 2-3 x a day.

Lingering Long Term Grief – there is no correct time line for grief. However, we may come to a time when we want to integrate our loss and move forward honoring those who have passed without living in continuous debilitating sorrow. 

Herbs that help with the integration of loss tend to help us by brightening our perspectives, reminding us of joy and lifting our spirits:  Hawthorn, Rose, Tulsi and Silk Tree (Mimosa), Garden Sage.

Heart Heal: Crataegus 3 parts, Angelica 2 parts, Mimosa 2 parts, Rose 2 parts. Dosage:  1-2 dropperfuls 2-3 x a day

Heart Heal Tea Blend: Hawthorn berries 4 parts, Rose Petals 2 parts, Peach leaf 2 parts, Linden 2 parts If possible, decoct the Hawthorn berries for 30 minutes, then turn off the heat, add the other herbs and steep for 15 minutes. Drink 4-6 ounces 2-3 x a day.

Stuck in Despair – Sometimes we get stuck in our process. The loss feels raw and dominates our thoughts long after we have had some time to integrate our feelings. Years ago when I was in the depths of grief from multiple deaths, my somatic therapist explained the concept of stacked grief to me. Stacked grief is a state that emerges when one terrible event happens after another, when we do not have time to process one death or traumatic event before another occurs. These events can pile up and create a block that prevents us from moving through and assimilating our losses. Similarly, I have noticed that when we rely on substance use to dull the pain of our grief, we can create the conditions of stacked grief as well. Herbs can help us get unstuck from long term despair. They can help us move through our stacked grief.

Herbs for stuck grief tend to be moving:  Angelica, Calamus, Garden Sage, Rose, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Tulsi. These all work well as tinctures, teas, elixirs and cordials.

St. John’s Wort can be incredibly helpful for stuck grief as well. It is important to note that St. John’s Wort is contraindicated for use alongside many pharmaceuticals as it helps the liver work more efficiently. The very medicine that helps us get unstuck can also cause our livers to process medications more quickly.

Here is a formula from Herb Pharm that is helpful for both nourishing the nervous system and getting unstuck.

Nervous System Tonic: Skullcap 2.5 parts, Milky oats 2.5 parts, Hypericum 2 parts, Celery 1.5 parts, Lavender 1.5 parts. Dosage: 1-3 dropperfuls 2-3 x a day

This formula is one of my favorites for getting unstuck:

Invincible Summer: Saint John’s Wort 2 parts, Lemon Balm 1 part, Rose ½ part Dosage:  1-2 dropperfuls 2-3 x a day.

Reishi, Ganoderma tsugae harvested on dead Eastern Hemlocks

THE BIG GRIEF

But what about grief that is ongoing, that is not tied to one individual death, but the ongoing crisis we inhabit?  Time to talk about the pervasive underlying grief of this era, the grief we experience living on a planet with cascading extinctions and collapsing ecosystems, where more and more people are displaced and forced to flee to hostile countries that are currently less affected by the climate crisis. Deep sigh. To love and cherish our kin, both human and more-than human is a practice simultaneously deeply rewarding and devastating.

Here where we live, the mighty Ash trees fall under the pressure of the Emerald Ash Borer. In our short time here we will continue to see these large scale losses. Will all the birds we look forward to seeing every spring continue to return from winter migration with the increasing pressure of logging and development? How many box turtles are left? To love Earth and the impossibly rich web of life that currently inhabits it is to live with alternating tears of gratitude and sorrow.

How do I live with this awareness and appropriate grief? Reishi, both Ganoderma lucidum and Ganoderma tsugae, has been such a vital support through this ongoing process. They help ground me in the mind of the forest, reminding me that life is about connection, that life moves in cylces and that the greater process is more vast than I can fathom. Reishi is my compass, reminding me of my place in the larger web of life and of my responsibility to that web. They remind me of the large cycles of deep time, of death and rebirth. But their lesson is not one of blind acceptance and ecological bypassing. I do not get to opt out of my complicity in the life-eating system that dominates all of our lives. While providing a deep, foundational calm, Reishi still reminds me that each of us is important in the co-creation of what is to come. We have a response-ability to life. Grieve we must, but the fight is not over. Now more than ever it is time to heed the words of Mother Jones, “Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

Reishi Elixir: Reishi double extraction 5 parts. Add Cinnamon and Cacao powder and honey to taste. Dosage:  1/2/to 1 tsp 2-3 times a day.

Hawthorn Thorn, carried as a Talisman to ward off despair in the Middle Ages in Europe

GRIEF AS IDENTITY

There is an aspect of grief I rarely see mentioned, which is the act of identifying with our grief, moving from a process of grief to a state of being. Certain losses change us forever, but this identification reflects more than that change. It becomes all-encompassing, as we can struggle to see ourselves outside of our grief. Who are we outside this loss? 

Years ago, when I had spent a few years in the trenches of despair, my best friend said, “you have become your grief.” How l needed to hear this reflection, after so much time stuck in my process. So many beloved friends had died so young and here I was squandering whatever time I had left. I think I had become attached to my grief because to move forward felt like a betrayal. 

Now, with the weight of the Big Grief so many of us hold, I recognize this feeling in myself and others. We sometimes act as if to feel joy or pleasure is to betray all the plants and animals and peoples whose lives are devoured by the ever-expanding economy. We forget the responsibilities of the living. 

At one of the many funerals from the time I am referring to, a friend said “we have to live for the dead.” I would add to this that we also need to live for those who remain but need our help, which is most of life on Earth. To be laid low by grief is an appropriate response to the state of the world. But if we are incapacitated by grief, we cannot fight and we cannot shape the world to come.

We can hold our grief alongside our joy. We can nourish our hearts and spirits while honoring our dead and dying.

Bowlful of Hawthorn Berries

TIME – FOR – HAWTHORN

Another layer of feeling the sorrows of the world deeply, is when we begin to take pride in the depths of our despair. How can a thinking, feeling person look around and fail to be laid low by the ongoing pain and loss? Isn’t the absence of empathy foundational to the mess this civilization is making of the world? We may be heartbroken, but at least we are not numb or callous about the devastation around us. We see our grief as necessary work.

And yes, this work is important. This world needs people who see the ongoing pain and destruction and feel it personally. Those who do are charged with bearing witness. We are called to speak up, draw attention and inspire action. But sometimes, our grief is debilitating. It keeps us from speaking or acting. Our grief comes to define what is possible and all we see is loss and limitation. This level of despair does not help us or the plants, animals and cultures devoured by the ever-expanding economy. 

So what is to be done? Is to feel less to be even more complicit in the destruction of life on Earth? How do we feel less despair without feeling numb? 

This is when we call on Hawthorn. Hawthorn, that nourishing, protective medicine for those who feel deeply. Hawthorn strengthens the heart without toughening us. They thicken our skins without making us callous. Hawthorn is for the overwhelm of seeing just how bad things are, for holding the sorrows of the world. For feeling and seeing clearly while still having the capacity to work for change. 

There is a Hawthorn grove on the mountain top above my house. These trees are the descendants of trees who were here before humans climbed these mountains. They evolved with thorns to protect them from the megafauna who once roamed this land. Some say they are overbuilt, that their defenses are no longer necessary. I say they keep their thorns to remind us of their age, their wisdom and their medicine. And to be prepared for whatever comes next. 

Both Hawthorn berries and flowers are powerful medicines, as teas and as tinctures. Hawthorn cordials are delicious as they nourish the heart and sweeten the spirit.

Hawthorn Elixir: Fill a jar about half way full with dry or fresh Hawthorn berries. Add cinnamon or other mulling spices to taste. Fill the jar with brandy or bourbon. Let macerate for a month shaking daily.  Strain. Add honey to taste. Dosage: 1tsp 2-3 x a day.

Other Preparations: Tincture of fresh flowers 1:2 at 95%. Tincture of fresh berries 1:2 at 95%, 1:5 at 50%. Combination of the flowers and berries : all three forms at 30 – 90 drops up to 4x a day. The flowers don’t keep well, but the tea is nice, 2-4 oz to 3x a day. Standard decoction of dried berries is a stronger tea: 2-4 oz to 3x day, cold infusion 1-2 oz to 3x day.

Hawthorn Berry Syrup: Decoct berries for at least an hour. Strain. To make a shelf stable syrup, add 2 pound of sugar to every pint of liquid. Yes it is a lot sugar. You will have to add another preservative, either tincture or brandy to preserve the syrup if you want to use less sugar. You can use only 1 1/4 pounds of sugar if you add 10-15% alcohol to the syrup. Dosage is the same as the tincture.

Evening Primrose, Oenethera biennis, in flower with a Rosy Maple Moth inside.

RELATIONSHIP IS KEY

Having spent a long time as a student of grief, one truth that emerges over and over is that the connection to others, all the many kinds of kin, is key to moving through the various phases of the process. Again, grief is not linear, especially when the causes of our grief are ever-present and multiplying. When I feel the pain and loss of these times most greatly, I go to ground. I lie on the forest floor or the grass of a park or lawn and feel the Earth hold me. I look up through the dappled light coming through the trees and feel the Air surround me as I contemplate the wonder of the exchange of gases between me and the plants. We feed each other. Some of that medicine, the literally grounding influence that is direct contact with the Earth and the medicine of connection we receive when we connect with our plant kin comes to us when we work with the herbs who support us through our phases of grief. And no, they do not make us feel numb or care less about the world. They help us know we are not alone, that we are connected to a vast and rich web of other beings, and that they need us as well. We who feel the loss strongly know intimately what is at stake. They open us to a deeper understanding while charging us with action. Supporting ourselves through our grief is essential if we are to participate in the co-creation of the world to come.

Quiet friend who has come so far,

feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

From Ranier Maria Rilke

Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29

Reishi, Ganoderma tsugae growing on a dead Eastern Hemlock

All the content here emerged from collaboration with Jen Stovall and Dave Meesters at our herb school, the Terra Sylva School of Botanical Medicine. If you would like to check out our 2022 program, read the details on our website. Sign up for our newsletter to learn of other upcoming classes.

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