How Nature Helps Us Heal After Loss

Author: Erin Jacobson

My senses were in overdrive. My ears filled with the sounds of my feet plodding on dirt and the swish of my arms against my backpack. I heard birds singing and the wind moving through the trees. My nostrils filled with the sharp scent of pine trees. The sun toasted my skin. All around me I could see the breathtaking beauty of Eastern Montana, but the sensation of burning muscles consumed me. 

I had moved to Montana after Jason’s death. I didn’t know what to do, but knew I needed to change my life in some way because I felt completely lost without the man I loved. I had spent almost a decade building a life with Jason. Now, I didn’t know what to build alone. The bedrock I had based my life on shattered, and I was left standing in the darkness and ruins. Not only had I lost Jason, but I had also lost myself. Who was I in this world without him? 

I knew that I needed to get away from the life we shared together, and moving to another state to be with our friends seemed like a good idea. So there I was, trying to reach the top of a mountain. 

A mountaintop with flowersPhoto: Peder Anderson

My internal monologue said, “One more step, Erin. Just think about one step at a time. One more step, and then the next step.”

My thighs and calves screamed from climbing. My back ached from my large pack, and a recent horsefly bite left a sharp pain. My friends, Jess and Peder, disappeared ahead of me, so they could set up camp before darkness settled in. They were avid mountaineers and had climbed extensively for years. Peder even carried his 3-year-old son up the mountain with us, and easily bypassed me. Although I grew up hiking, this was my first time climbing anything to this scale. And, it was hard. 

Over my heaving, I heard the rhythm of jogging feet above me. “Do you want me to carry your pack for you, Erin?” Peder asked. I smiled tiredly up at him, “Thank you so much, but no. I want to finish what I started.” 

He smiled back at me, gave me some words of encouragement, and headed back up to camp. In the distance, I could see a ridge with newly raised tents. I was almost there. 

It was a struggle, but I completed the last push up the mountain. When I arrived at camp, I paused. Aside from my friends, not a soul was in sight. I began to notice small things: the green of some moss growing on a fallen log, tiny insects crawling on a nearby leaf, and the vast, blue sky — so deep and unending. It was a strange dichotomy of feeling tiny, and yet completely at peace. The surrounding nature was wild, but I felt safer than I had in a long time. 

In the 15 years since Jason died, the memory of that day has revisited me time and again. That climb and what I witnessed there has been my teacher. During that incredibly dark period of my life, when I didn’t know what to trust or believe in anymore, I could look to nature to help me make sense of it all. 

Although my friends couldn’t make the climb for me, they could walk with me. Similarly on the grief journey, even though I have to carry my own burden of loss, others offering to hold it for a while gives me the strength to keep going. Knowing I don’t have to go through it alone, strengthens me. 

On the trail when I focused on the bright spots of the flowers and the sweet song of the birds, I climbed faster. When I spent time in conversation with my friends while climbing the mountain, we laughed and connected with one another. When my focus was on the pain and discomfort while walking alone, the climb was so much harder.  

On the trail the small hurt of the horsefly bite and scratches from branches weren’t extreme, but on top of exhaustion and the pain in my muscles they bothered me more than expected. It was at that moment, I realized I have a choice in what I devote my energy to. 

Over the years I have experienced moments of needling pain, like going to dinner parties and being the only one without a partner. Or, “oohing” and “aahing” over a friend’s new baby or tales from a vacation with their spouse, while fighting the complex emotions of jealousy and otherness. 

So often in grief, the lives we find ourselves in have little to do with our choices. We didn’t choose for our loved ones to die. We didn’t choose to suddenly be a childless parent or a single mother or a sister without a brother. We question, “How can this be my life?” But, what I have found is that within these circumstances, we still have the opportunity to choose how we respond. Similar to what I discovered on the trail, we can choose where we devote our energy, time and thoughts. 

When the grief waves hit I now know going outside is not a miracle cure, but it is something that will bring me back to my center. Nature helps me make some sense of what I cannot understand. Because even in times of apparent chaos, in nature there is an order to everything. Even during my darkest moments, it’s been in nature where I always find affirmations of hope. Walking and seeing a bird’s nest or a bit of grass growing through a crack in some concrete, teaches me a lesson about my own resilience and the power of life.

Erin Jacobson, Director, TAPS Women's Empowerment is the surviving partner of U.S. Army Ranger Corporal Jason Kessler.

This post was first published in the TAPS Magazine Spring 2014, Issue 24, Volume 1, and is republished here with an updated postscript.