The role of nature to support grieving

An emerging body of science is discovering a link between nature and positive mental health – creating a powerful role for nature-based funerals to support the challenges of grief and bereavement.
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Disclaimer: We are not claiming any scientific recommendations here. We simply highlight what others smarter than ourselves have found, and connect the dots regarding the role of nature in supporting positive mental health and grief. However, in time when we have the scale, we can hopefully fund and investigate further scientific investigation in this emerging field.

Supporting mental health is a key mission of Return To Nature, and we believe that nature has a powerful role to play in doing that.

Before delving into how Return To Nature plans to do this, it is worth exploring the positive correlation between nature and mental health.

The compelling links between nature and mental health

It is undeniable that nature is good for a positive state of mind. Not only does this make intuitive sense but there is a growing body of scientific research into the correlation between our relationship to nature and our mental health. We can see this in the physical experience of being in nature, the psychological effects and even a deeper sense of personal identity. Anything that positively supports mental health is surely beneficial during the emotional hardship of facing your own mortality or losing someone you love.

The benefits of physical exercise is probably the most obvious positive effect of spending time in nature. Counteracting our sedentary lives through walks and other physical exercise in nature is good for our physical and mental health. Physical exercise releases endorphines and serotonin that are important in managing depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the role of nature is supporting positive mental health.

A contemplative view of a beautiful birch wood. Photo by Ennio Brehm on Unsplash

Simply spending time in nature is enough to create positive effects. A study from University of Edinburgh found that people living in deprived neighbourhoods with more green spaces had lower levels of stress than those with less. In Japan, Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, is a form of eco-therapy where you immerse yourself in nature in a mindful way. This has been a practice encouraged since the 1980s to counteract the urban and tech-driven work culture. As a result, much research has been conducted in Japan to explore the positive physiological effects of simply spending time in nature. There are many theories why this might be the case, from Attention Restoration Theory, to getting more vitamin D, to even the role of our skin being in contact with soil. Most likely it is all of these factors contributing to a positive mental outcome.

The nurturing role of nature in supporting health care is being recognised here in Scotland. The Green Health Partnership has been set up as a collaboration between NHS Scotland, Forestry and Land Scotland, and NatureScot. The aim of this partnership is to introduce nature-based activities to health rehabilitation and care. The idea is that mental health recovery, for example, can be supported by the nurturing act of tending to an allotment.

A new story of restoration

Yet there could be something larger at play that makes nature not only well suited to supporting mental health, but directly assisting us in moments of grief: connecting to a new human story of restoration. Admittedly, this is where the papers are lacking, yet feels full of potential as an area of further research.

The story that we tell ourselves that helps frame how humans see themselves is beginning to feel uneasy. This story placed humanity as separate from nature. Growth of human-made systems was believed to be infinite, consuming resources endlessly from the infinite bounty of our planet. However, we know there are limits to growth, so the fundamental principle of this story is flawed – and is causing damage not only to our planet but also ourselves. Solastalgia, is a relatively new word that describes the emotional distress of environmental change – a form of homesickness for the state of the natural world as we know it.

However, there is an emerging story, underpinned by the latest science in systems thinking and ecology, that humanity is an intrinsic part of nature. Therefore, the damage we do to the world we are doing to ourselves. Creating human systems that are in harmony with the natural systems that sustain us may free us from the cognitive dissonance of everyday actions that we know to cause environmental harm yet are difficult to avoid.

The nature-based burial that supports mental health

Return To Nature is an expression of that new story in everything it sets out to achieve. We hope that people who join us in this journey mentally benefit from feeling connected to the story of restoration. Will a death ceremony that actively heals the planet positively support the mental health of those facing their own mortality and those suffering from the loss of a loved one? We hope the answer may be yes.

These insights surrounding the role of nature in mental health will be integral to all parts of Return To Nature, yet particularly in the facilitation of the burial ceremony. We hope that a burial ceremony that engages with the nature and landscape that the deceased has been instrumental in restoring will be a healing experience. Imagine a burial ceremony that more resembles a nature retreat; offering the time and space to truly confront mortality and grief in the wilds of Scotland.

Continue the conversation

We aim to explore and evolve to find different ways that suits everyone as there is no single ‘right’ way to have a funeral. Therefore, this is an ongoing conversation where we invite everyone who is interested in shaping the future of funerals to get in touch. To spark that conversation, here are some questions to get you started:

  • Would you like your loved ones to spend time at a form of ‘nature retreat’ after your death? What would you like this experience to look like?
  • Are you researching the role of nature in supporting grief and would like to collaborate?
  • Do you have a personal story that you feel that we should learn from when building Return To Nature?
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