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May 27, 2020 Brigitte Ganger

The 7 Plants That Can Guide You Through the Stages of Grief

Using nature to move through grief and find death acceptance

The 7 Plants That Can Guide You Through the Stages of Grief
Taking care of houseplants during grief is a healthy way to process death, embrace life and move through the stages of grief. (Getty Images)

Taking care of plants taught me a lot about death acceptance years after I'd actively grieved. These are the plants I wish I'd had as I navigated the stages of grief. 

The stages of grief are different for everybody, but the Seven Stages of Grief model is a useful tool for identifying and understanding the complex and difficult emotions we face when someone we love has died. 

The Seven Stages of Grief

  1. Shock and denial

  2. Pain and Guilt

  3. Anger and Bargaining

  4. Depression, Reflection and Loneliness

  5. The Upward Turn

  6. Reconstruction and Working Through

  7. Acceptance and Hope

What if I kill my plants?

Although I hope you keep them alive, there's much to be learned about each of the grief stages by killing plants as well. It's the process of selecting, tending and managing the lifespan of a living thing that can bring new perspectives to the grief process. 

Houseplants can be beneficial to grievers

Home (and self) care

Plants can be an external reminder to take care of the home, and the self. Getting domestic affairs reduces inner clutter, as well as household clutter. A droopy plant can be a hint that you haven't been taking enough time to yourself during bereavement. 

Affirmation of life

In the darkest moments of grief, it's important to have living things around to keep us engaged with life. A plant, pet or or other source of vitality can be life-affirming when life nearly feels like it's not worth living. A newly unfurled leaf is a sign of fresh life — something that might be lacking in the aftermath of a loss.

Affirmation of death

Moving through grief is a fine balance of accepting both life and death. Plants die. You will not grieve them as you grieve your loved one, but being a part of a plant's life-death cycle offers perspective on aging, dying and decomposition.

Keeping busy

The time and energy it takes to maintain a small garden is ongoing, and continually rewarding for green thumbs. A positive outlet offers healthy refuge during bereavement. 

The Seven Stages of Grief, as plants

1. Shock and Disbelief: Orchid

Orchids are known as a difficult plant to keep alive, but plant death is part of the hobby. (Unsplash/Jess @ Harper Sunday)

The first stage of grief is nearly universal, as it is the psychological precursor to a fight, flight or freeze reaction. Shock and disbelief usually occur in the first moments, days and even weeks following a traumatic event. People in this stage may feel numbness that masks the full pain of the tragedy. 

A person in shock might not have the emotional wherewithal to know they're in a grief stage, nevermind run out to the garden store to buy an orchid. That's a shame though, because orchids are the perfect teacher in the aftermath of a death. 

Orchids are beautiful, flowering plants that require plenty of light, and limited watering. They grow atop trees in the wild, rising out of the bark and offering a glimpse of beauty amongst the branches. Though some claim orchids are among the easiest plants, most people tend to kill them. Whether yours lives or dies, an orchid is a sliver of beauty to appreciate during rough times. If it happens to die, compost the remains and don't take it to heart.

2. Pain and Guilt: Venus Flytrap

The Venus fly trap is a carnivorous plant, which means it gains most of its nutrients from insects. (Getty Images)

The Pain and Guilt stage is as miserable as it sounds, but that's a good reason to lean into this stage the most. Pain is inevitable, and moments of guilt can feel like emotional torture when the reason is the death of a loved one. A carnivorous plant can help with this. 

It's a chaotic phase that is best handled directly. Avoid ignoring or masking the pain (for example, with drugs or alcohol), and instead try to actively engage with the uncomfortable feelings — big and small — that arise. 

Venus flytraps need plenty of water, light and insects to live. There is no need for soil or fertilizer, a Venus flytrap will find its own prey, given the right conditions. Carnivorous plants offer a view of the life cycle that is interesting for some, and disturbing for others. It may not be for everyone, but seeing flytraps ensnare and digest prey can bring perspective on pain and guilt. Plants don't feel guilt or pain, even when they eat their visitors.

While pain and guilt are normal emotions to feel during grief, remember to practice self-compassion. If there are things to atone for, try to make them right. Most often, guilt in grief is unfounded. Be kind to yourself and others during this time. 

3. Anger and Bargaining: Cactus

A cactus a rewarding plant that requires little maintenance. (Unsplash/Lena Rose)

When you're in the Anger stage, nothing is more relatable than a prickly cactus. Why? Because when you're in this stage, you're more than likely a prickly cactus too. 

Anger is a common response to grief, and almost everyone will find a strange, irrational anger in the wake of a loss. This rage may be directed at other mourners, family members, strangers, yourself or even the deceased person. This is an unpleasant stage for many grievers, but that doesn't mean anger should be ignored or suppressed. 

Healthy outlets like exercise, hobbies and social connections can help with this turbulent grief emotion. In the meantime, try raising a cactus during this time. Tending plants is physical work, and helps us by focusing our attention on sensations and problems unrelated to grief. 

A cactus takes little maintenance and lots of light to thrive. Repotting presents some challenges, as most cacti are spiky enough to draw blood unless you're wearing protective gloves. Thick gardening gloves will help you wrest control of your new cactus, and your anger. 

4. Depression, reflection and loneliness: Monstera

Monstera deliciosa is a popular houseplant, recognizable by its striking split leaves. (Unsplash/Kara Eads)

This stage is what many people believe grief to be: sadness, isolation, rumination and emotional agony. Depression comes in short and long bouts, but if it becomes prolonged, it may be worth an appointment with a grief counselor. 

During this time, plants can keep you rooted to the real world. Caring for living things can give  us a reason to get out of bed and tackle the day. It's also inspiring to see the fruits of your labors when your plant sprouts a new leaf or blooms.

What better plant to help you move through this gloomy stage than a monstera? The aroids thrive in barky soil, and aren't difficult to look after. This is a coveted houseplant, as monsteras have large and distinct leaves, reminiscent of swiss cheese. 

5. The upward turn: Oxalis

Oxalis leaves open in the morning and close in the evening. (Getty Images)

In grief, it can feel like you take three steps back for every step forward. But this journey is non-linear, and there is no back or forward — there is only through. The feeling of wavering between progress and setbacks is followed by the upward turn, a stage marked by the one thing that has been missing: hope. 

A person experiencing an upward turn may still have setbacks, bouts of depression and other stages too. However, something important has shifted, and there is some semblance of a new normal. It may be possible to glimpse a future in which grief doesn't play such an active role.

Oxalis is a flowering houseplant that is known for drama. That's because its leaves fully open and close through the course of each day. On top of that, oxalis visibly reacts to its conditions. It's not uncommon for an oxalis to fall limp over the edge of its pot in thirst one day, only to spring back up the next day after a good drink. Oxalis is a joyful and interesting plant to help you navigate the upward turn of grief.

Grief is a non-linear process. Backtracking and feeling discouraged is normal, though frustrating. (Getty Images)

6. Reconstruction: Terrarium

Building a terrarium is a great way to regain control and build new life after a death. (Unsplash/Louis Mornaud)

A death in the family leaves a big emotional and practical mess. Financial loose ends to tie up, selling or moving property, guardianship of minors, and the complications of grief all contribute to less-than-ideal circumstances for those left to pick up the pieces. On top of that, regular life responsibilities do not stop. Work, school, family, and other obligations will continue, and may even become unmanageable, during bereavement. 

In the reconstruction stage of grief, these responsibilities seem less insurmountable. There may be a new energy and strategies for tackling past projects and problems. This is the moment where many grievers begin to be more productive with less effort after a loss.

Build a terrarium to signal your emergence into a world that is going to be forever different. A glass jar or terrarium, soil, mesh netting, some plants, scaping materials and a few tools are all you need to create a mini-ecosystem. Designing, building and taking care of this little universe is an empowering way to see a positive future. A terrarium can also help keep issues of death and dying in perspective

7. Acceptance and hope: Fiddle Leaf Fig

The Fiddle Leaf Fig is a delicate plant that requires consistent care to thrive. (Getty Images)

Life goes on after death, and so does death. Living requires maintenance, effort and perseverance, even in the face of tragedy. Even though you've made it to the acceptance stage, you're still subject to occasional pain of grief, and future losses. 

The Fiddle Leaf Fig is known as one of the most finicky houseplants a gardener can take on. Intolerant of both over- and under-watering, a delicate balance and rhythm in life can help make this plant more manageable. They also prefer to stay in one spot, and react poorly to changes in environment. Consistency is what matters when it comes to caring for a fiddle leaf fig, and keeping a healthy balance in the acceptance stage of grief. 

Plants make people happy

People who forge their own pathways and procedures for healthy coping often emerge from the grief experience as an evolved version of themselves, armed with knowledge and experience that can be put to future use.

Taking care of plants as a hobby has many emotional benefits, particularly for those who are experiencing grief. But if plants aren't for you, there are other healthy outlets there than can help you navigate the seven stages of grief. Finding the right approach to your own unique way of grieving will help you navigate the journey of loss. 

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