Nature and Te whare tapa whā
In the Māori holistic model of health, there are four dimensions to our wellbeing: Taha Tinana / physical wellbeing; Taha Hinengaro / mental wellbeing; Taha Wairua / spiritual wellbeing; and Taha Whānau / family wellbeing.
Being in nature is special because it nurtures all four parts of ourselves. It contributes to our overall wellbeing in a unique way.
Taha Tinana / physical wellbeing
Being outdoors often involves getting some exercise – whether we planned it that way or not! At the beach, tamariki / children will run in and out of waves, search for shells or dig sandcastles. Walking a track through native bush or hiking to a lookout point is a good way to encourage mātātahi / young people to get some exercise while setting a goal or challenge. Any amount of exercise is helpful for our taha tinana / physical wellbeing.
Research has shown that spending time in the bush or forest – sometimes called ‘forest bathing’ –has real physical effects on our bodies. It is proven to lower our blood pressure and heart rate, and reduce the production of stress hormones. Being surrounded by trees is also proven to boost our immune system, which may be weakened by stress and fatigue after the death of a loved one.
Taha Hinengaro / mental wellbeing
Spending time in nature can be like a ‘reset’ button: it gives us space away from the obligations and stress of our everyday lives, and can help us to see things from a fresh perspective. For tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people, the home environment might feel stressful or uncomfortable after the death of a family member. Getting out of the house and into nature gives them a break, a chance to breathe deeply and be reminded of the wider world outside their home life.
Just as research as shown that nature can benefit our taha tinana / physical wellbeing, studies show that exercise helps people of all ages to cope with the overwhelming emotions we feel when we’re grieving. Taking your family / whānau for a walk around the nearest park, for a swim at the beach or a bike ride along the waterfront can have a positive effect on everyone’s taha hinengaro / mental wellbeing.
Nature also helps us to be ‘in the present’. When we’re surrounded by the sights, smells and sounds of nature, we’re encouraged to be mindful – aware of ourselves and our environment at that exact moment – which can be a big relief for a grieving mind. If you’re outdoors with tamariki / children or mātātahi / young people, practise describing what each of you can see, smell, hear and touch.
Taha Wairua / spiritual wellbeing
For mātua / parents of tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people experiencing grief, being together in nature gives us an opportunity to talk about life and death. If you’re walking on the beach, you might come across the skeleton of a fish; in the park, you may find a dead insect. This is a good moment to talk to your taitamaiti / child about the life cycle – every creature is born, lives, and dies. Explain what death means in an age-appropriate way, and how that relates to the person who has died.
For mātātahi / young people, this is an opportunity for a deeper discussion about life and death, how different cultures explain these phenomena, and what the young person themselves believes.
Whatever our spiritual beliefs, it can be comforting to feel that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. For many people, nature provides that feeling. The changing of the seasons, the movement of the sun as it travels across the sky and the phases of the moon remind us that life moves in cycles, and that everything changes.
Taha Whānau / family wellbeing
Spending time in nature is one of the best ways to nurture your taha whānau / family wellbeing. Being together in a beautiful place is an opportunity to talk, to offer space for each other’s feelings and thoughts, and to be mindful together.
Talk about the fact that you are making new memories. This can be a very painful idea, as the loved one you have lost is not there to share in those new moments. But it’s also important to acknowledge that your lives are going on, and you all deserve to feel joy and to laugh. You can make sure your loved one is with you during your whānau / family time by writing their name in the sand or spelling it out using stones.
Another way to be in nature with tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people is to involve them in gardening. If you live in an apartment, or a house without a garden, you can grow plants in pots on balconies or windowsills.
The process of growing plants can be hugely beneficial for grieving tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people. Involve them in the whole process, right from the first steps. Have them choose the seeds or seedlings they want to grow. Together, find out what conditions those plants need to thrive. If age-appropriate, ask them to share some responsibilities for looking after the plants – perhaps watering or weeding. Check on the plants regularly and celebrate watching them grow.
Consider choosing plants that attract insects your child or young person can observe. Flowers that attract bees can inspire us to think about taking care of our environment. Growing a swan plant will bring monarch caterpillars into your garden. This is a wonderful way for tamariki / children to observe the life cycle of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, and to talk about the short but beautiful life the butterfly lives.
Gardening together as a whānau / family can also be an opportunity to grow food. Start simple, with some herbs, lettuce plants or micro-greens (like sprouts). Growing edible plants can empower tamariki / children and mātātahi / young people to think about the value of healthy food, and the importance of looking after their taha tinana / physical wellbeing when things are tough.
Let nature in
In Aotearoa, we’re surrounded by nature. Let it in and let it help. Keep your activities manageable. Find the ways in which nature best supports your whānau / family in their grief: activities that help you all to feel freer and lighter, to feel some moments of relief or even joy, and to remember the bigger picture. To be together and to honour the memory of your loved one.
Written by Jenny Zilmer