Monday 18 January 2016

Times of change: Grief and loss

During this dark time of the year, losing those we admire or love seems somehow harder. We often forget life is a continual series of loss of one kind or another. Just as the year changes with different periods of light and shade, we also move from infant to child, adolescent to adult, fertile to infertile, active to physically challenged, life to death and the passage something else or nothing, depending your own belief system. Each stage brings its own grief which may or may not be noticed or acknowledged.

Shakespeare depicted it in his own inimitable way when he wrote in “As you like it”
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with a good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws, and modern instances,
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Nancy Kerr recently introduced me to a round which sums up “a good life” eloquently in so few words. She was given it by her mother, Sandra, who attributed it either to Kabir, the Indian mystic or “an old Cherokee saying”.

When you are born you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.

Whether the loss be large or small, however it arrives there will be periods of grieving to a greater or lesser extent. There is one certainty; everyone will experience grief in a different way and probably at a different time, often when it is least expected. This is normal.

Many people today expect life to be like Norfolk; flat, when the reality is that life is like Birmingham; filled with hills and valleys but often covered with buildings so sunrise and sunset can be obscured.

Many people fear change and many more feel helpless when those around them are physically or emotionally in pain. There are many simple things which can be done to support those suffering and there are several herbs which can help.

Immediate support
It’s hard to plan for loss. News that something is ending whether it is a life, a job, a relationship or something else can elicit shock. Reactions can vary. Denial, avoidance, anger and pain are common and many people experience numbness where nothing seems real and the world turns in slow motion or catapults you into places where you have no control over events.

Shock puts great strain on the adrenal glands. An immediate response can be to offer Rescue Remedy Flower Essence (4 drops under the tongue every half hour for the first four hours or so). I use rose elixir in the same dosage or one dropperful/1/2 a teaspoon every hour.

Perhaps the most important role at this time is being with the person suffering. It doesn’t mean doing the “There, there, don’t cry” routine or “Would you like a cup of tea” because both those phrases impart an unconscious message that you can’t cope with their emotions so please will they stop doing it and you can’t cope so you need to escape to make the tea. Having said that, those suffering will often want respite from the presence of others so going into another room to make a drink can be helpful.

If someone is shocked and numb, they do need someone with them to take care of practical issues. If you know someone is likely to be given bad news, it’s best to go with them so you can hear what is being said and hopefully remember the important points and can make sure they are safe afterwards.

Herbs which help
All the soothing nervines will help to greater or lesser extents. Teas made from chamomile, lemon balm, lemon verbena or lime flowers taste good and can help to make the person feel more relaxed and cared for.

Although alcohol such as whisky or brandy are often given to people in shock it’s not really a good idea in large amounts. Alcohol may deaden the emotional pain for a while but the individual will be dehydrated and suffer other damage if it is used for any length of time.

When I was training mental health nurses and drugs teams several years ago, they all told that people who misused either alcohol or other substances nearly always started because of a bereavement they could not cope with. If grief is not acknowledged and supported, so many difficult life events can follow.

Many people find it difficult to sleep at this time. This is normal but can be debilitating. Chamomile relaxes smooth muscle and has a noticeable effect if tea is drunk twenty minutes prior to going to bed. You can also put it into a bath for both adults and children if drinking tea isn’t an option.

If going to sleep or waking in the night is a problem, passionflower tincture is really helpful for stopping the brain’s chatter. It is recommended to keep a dropper bottle by the bed so a dose can be easily taken without getting out of bed. Both passionflower and skullcap can be used in half doses with children, who will also be suffering, especially if those around them are noticeably upset.

Longer term herbal support
Grieving people often find themselves experiencing quite violent emotional outbursts. This can be anger, sorrow, regret or despair. It’s useful to remember that anger is known as a secondary emotion and usually arises from pain or fear. Often, if you address the primary emotion, anger will die away. Anger needs to be acknowledged so it can be properly addressed, ignoring it only makes it worse.

Emotional pain is also a very real event. If someone is suffering from a complicated grief reaction, which is more likely if they have lost a child or a loved one who was murdered, it can be life threatening.

I will often make up a “bereavement tonic” for someone who is grieving based on a mixture of four nervines. Those in the very early stages of grief will receive Vervain (it makes you let go), Lemon balm, St John’s wort (providing they are not only any other mental health pharmaceuticals) and nettles. The dose is 1tsp three times a day. I also give them a small dropper bottle of skullcap tincture to take when they feel a screaming habdab moment coming on or they just can’t cope any longer. A bottle of tonic should last about a month.

As time goes on, if things are still difficult or they approach me further along their timeline, the mix will probably contain Vervain, Milky Oats, Lemon Balm and Motherwort (especially if they’re experiencing hot flushes and minor palpitations which their doctor has already investigated and found nothing untoward) as a blended tincture and they’ll be given nettle seed to eat 1-2 tsps every day for up to three months.

Other herbs which can be really helpful are hawthorn flower essence which will aid forgiveness either of the person taking it or the person who died or who did something unhelpful around the time of the loss. Agrimony flower essence will also assist anyone who is keeping up a cheerful front but crying inside, the “tears of a clown” syndrome.

Lavender tincture has been called “a hug in a bottle” so may be useful to anyone who needs a hug during difficult times.

If you don’t have a flower essence available but do have a tincture, drop doses of the tincture can be given to obtain the same effect. Dose is 4 drops under the tongue four times a day or sipped in a glass of water throughout the day or 4 drops every half hour during a crisis.

This is only a very short commentary of a very complex subject. If you are interested in more information I have a booklet written especially for those who work with grieving people in any capacity as well as leaflets about herbs which can assist in restoring sleep. Please email me via the blog and I will send them to you.

Saturday 2 January 2016

Learning from your herbal studies

When you begin a course of study, whether provided by an institution, distant learning or from a book, there are often written or verbal instructions to guide you in preferred methods of demonstrating the degree of learning you have achieved. You may be asked to submit essays, monographs or dissertations. There may even be exams to sit or oral discussions to prove your worth.

When you embark on something less formal, it is often harder to show yourself that you are assimilating facts and experience or you have confidence to experiment with what you know and trust your intuition to create something new which resonates with our ancestral past.

At this time of the year there are several people around the UK who are starting the Springfield Sanctuary Herbwifery Apprenticeship. Over the next few months I will be posting a series of articles which look at how herbal learning can be recorded and disseminated so everyone can look back and easily see how their herbal journey is progressing.

Recording what you learn 

It is often easy to do things but harder to make notes and write considered pieces to incorporate everything you learn. Try to get into the habit of jotting down notes or diagrams with your observations while you are observing or immediately after doing something significant. If these notes are part of the observation or practical process they will be easier to do than if you “leave it ‘til later” when you will have forgotten half of what you wanted to put down and put yourself under extra pressure to try and write something meaningful.

When you have a collection of notes, make time maybe once a month to sit down and review what you have discovered. This may be an amalgamation of your research through reading books or online, your practical observations, what you’ve learned through using a herb either physically or energetically or maybe you’ve experienced a “eureka” moment when something has happened which has given you a greater insight or understanding of herbal companion.

You may want to record your findings in a series of articles or a collection of written or oral stories. If you are writing about your ally or one herb, the correct name for these accounts are herbal monographs. This just means you are writing in depth about a single plant. If you find writing things down difficult or unrewarding, draw some mind maps so you have a written record of what you have learned or record your thoughts on a suitable device you can return to later.

Capturing images

If you are to learn as much as you can from your time of study, it’s a good idea to capture images of your activities throughout the year. Photographs are a good way of keeping a precise record but sketching a plant or situation teaches you close observation, enabling you to see aspects you might otherwise miss.

To be asked to draw something can be very scary and many people will avoid such a task because they believe they have little or no skill and therefore their efforts are worthless. 
The quality of the outcome is not the most important aspect, trying your best is the only thing that matters. No-one else will see your work if you don’t wish to share. You may surprise yourself and I can guarantee you will discover things you have never seen before. To give you some encouragement, I’ll recount what happened to me when I was asked to draw my ally.

All my life I have known my artistic skills are very limited. I cannot draw or cut straight lines and colouring inside lines was never achievable. I can’t remember what age I was when I knew I could not draw. I remember illustrating my written work in the junior class without any qualms. I took great delight in designing dresses for the princess of my dreams, even though they all looked the same!

I suspect my mother mentioned my sister’s drawings were more accomplished than mine but real embarrassment came on transfer to secondary school. Art lessons were not a subject in which I excelled. I loved the lino-cut pottery and fabric screen painting we did in the second year. I was even quite pleased with my shading effects when drawing twigs in the third year but art was not a valued part of our academic career and it was jettisoned in favour of a second foreign language.

Forty years later, Kristine Brown, who devised the original herbal ally series, set a challenge to draw our herbal ally. Kristine is incredibly skilled in art and design.  I wondered how I could achieve something similar to her endeavours with nettles. I quietly forgot about the task but it remained in the back of my mind.

My ally that year was sweet violet. It was the end of March and I knew the violet flowers would soon be over.  On a cold, cloudy Saturday, I woke early, determined to think about seed planting instead of sleep. I dug one third of a vegetable bed and planted some peas. We used prunings from the apple tree as pea sticks. I hung washing out on the line and felt it grow wetter. We sat outside and drank coffee complaining about the cold while the radio cricket commentator complained about heat in Sri Lanka.

My husband disappeared indoors to watch the last of the cricket. I followed. In the middle of removing my jacket, I decided I really would go and sit by the violet bed with my notebook and a pencil and see what happened.

I had sketched one leaf when a phone call drew me away. I didn’t use the excuse to stay inside but returned to my chair, pencil and paper. I drew two plants, each with the delicate violet flower hiding amongst vibrant green leaves.

What did I learn? The leaves have a serrated instead of a smooth edge. The leaf has two lobes where it joins the stem. The stem is a circular tube, three or four times as thick as the flower stalk.  In the centre of each plant new leaves appear as green tufts.  The markings on each leaf are delicate lines, almost like the lines on a hand. They stand out and yet are ethereal.

The violet flower is such a beautiful colour. She hangs her head modestly, reaching only half the height of the leaves. They stand tall all around her, protecting her. The plants felt like family groupings; each one growing one or two flowers, but several leaves with many more to come.

I didn’t hold out much hope for my sketches but I was quite pleased with the two results. I still can’t colour in without crossing the line. I could blame it on a failure to keep a steady hand but my hand has never been careful or meticulous.  The colours were not exactly true, but they were what I had available. 

Using another medium

Part of the same challenge was to try different mediums. One Saturday I sketched plants and coloured them using crayons. The following day I gathered a bunch of violet flowers and leaves for another jar of infused vinegar, along with nettle tops, sorrel, jack-in-the-hedge, marjoram and a little rosemary for nettle and stilton soup.

The hour I was in the garden coincided with sun emerging through deep cloud cover, so I sat and sketched a violet flower, both full facing and a side view. It was remarkable how much detail could be seen in the delicate flower.  The pale green sepals could only be seen from the side view and if you only viewed the flower from this angle (which is the most common view when looking at the plant) you could easily miss, what to me is the most amazing part of the whole flower.

The flower consists of five petals, leading down to the orange stigma in the centre. Each petal is similar but different. They are have a deep, violet pigment for two third of the length which then becomes white as it nears the stigma. It is only when you turn the flower upside down that you notice the single largest petal has purple streaks of colour leading down to the stigma in the middle of the flower.

Recent technological advances in infra-red photography have shown how most flowers have “landing lights/lines” to show the bees where to reach the pollen but it looks as if the violet flower has its own flight path painted onto this one petal.

Once back indoors, I took the plunge to try painting my sketches with watercolours. The crayons I’d been using said they could be used for water colours, but I didn’t understand how until discussing it with a friend. It was surprisingly easy to paint over the shading with a damp brush and gave the sketches a softer, more even look.

If I had not taken part in the challenge, I would still believe I lacked the ability to sketch plants. Now I challenge you to pick up a pencil and see what you can learn.

Recording your herbal companions does not have to be restricted to drawing and painting. You can use your sketches to make embroideries, maybe to cover a notebook or make an item of clothing or soft furnishing. You could also transfer the image onto graph paper and use this as part of a knitting pattern.

The possibilities are endless, the only limitation is your imagination. If you’re not sure how to achieve what you can see in your head, ask for advice or help. Remember to share pictures of anything you create within a community you trust so you are part of the growing fund of support.

Evaluating your learning

If you keep a diary or notebook or blog it is easier to review what you have achieved and maybe to challenge yourself to show how knowledge you have assimilated. Here is a list of questions you may wish to use to help you quantify what you have learned over a given period.

1.    Which plants have I grown this year?

2.    Which other plants have I worked with?

3.    What have I done with these plants?

4.    Which workshops/workdays/festivals/study days have I attended (list dates & activities)

5.    What did I learn from these activities?

6.    What books have I read and what were the major points of learning from them?

7.    What have I really enjoyed this year?

8.    What have I found really difficult?

If  you take time to answer these questions fully, you will probably be surprised by how much you have learned and how much you have changed over that time.