Nature Heals Grief

by | May 5, 2023 | People

PHOTO Allie Goodspeed


“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
— “The Yosemite” by John Muir, naturalist 


As I grieve my daughter, I’ve begun to realize that time — as platitudes promise — isn’t healing me. Instead, it is nature that is my familiar, patient caregiver while time merely passes by. 

Our youngest child and only daughter, Elisabeth Maxine, was prenatally diagnosed with Trisomy 18, a rare, life span-limiting condition. We didn’t know which of its symptoms would prove fatal, but we understood her life would be brief and different from that of her three brothers. My husband Mark and I have always hiked Austin’s greenbelt trails when we need to discuss life or just have family time. After our baby’s difficult diagnosis, we sought refuge there more often. In the open air, we found the space to breathe, pray and prepare for our family’s new realities, while our boys — then ages 10, 8 and 6 — could explore and play. We each needed the beauty and informal boundaries nature offers. The nearby Wildflower Center drew us in because it is vast but also manageable for young explorers.

Beautiful Elisabeth was born in wildflower season. We’d prepared for a NICU stay, but her birth was uncomplicated, so we were able to bring her home to enjoy springtime. The only medical equipment she initially required was a nasogastric feeding tube because bottle feeding was too difficult for her. Elisabeth’s extreme pulmonary hypertension made her complex heart defect irreparable. The two combined would eventually wear down her heart and take her life. This was painful knowledge, but our family committed to love and fully share life with our precious Elisabeth as long as she could be with us. 

Our girl was exuberant, chirpy and intensely interested in each of us and anything outside. She was a nature lover! We delighted in being outdoors together while the boys ran wild, with intermittent fly-by kisses for Elisabeth.

Because she couldn’t sit up on her own, we bought a pram instead of a seated stroller so Elisabeth could lie down to gaze at the clouds and trees overhead. Her eyes danced to watch the leaves’ shifting flickers of light. We would try to follow her eyeline to see what exactly was making her smile: the sky, always!

 When Elisabeth was two months old, our youngest son discovered tree swings in the Wildflower Center’s Arboretum. He was excited to show us this shady, breezy cove called the Cathedral of Oaks. That spot became “ours”! We thought it was perfectly named because it felt set apart and special.

Over and over, our family returned to the swings with Elisabeth. She lounged with us on her big porch-style swing and watched the glinting light in the trees while her rowdy brothers flew on their rope swings or crunched down the gravel path. The boys schemed how we could “live” there in our comfy, outdoor home. In 2018, the Wildflower Center honored our daughter and our family’s commitment to care for that space by renaming it Elisabeth Maxine’s Cathedral of Oaks. 

In the wee hours after Elisabeth passed away, I walked outside. I remember staring at that silent, black 4 a.m. sky with only stars flickering little SOS signals back to me. Where precisely is my daughter now? I felt so desperate to reverse time. The chasm now between my body and my baby, whom I’d held only hours before and every day of her year on earth, felt impossibly wide. I was gasping through tears and nothing made sense. Every part of my body and soul felt raw, like it was peeling away and unwinding. I had the urge to stay under this sky and walk; I would have walked to the horizon if it were possible. 

In that first year without Elisabeth, being indoors made me feel trapped or just empty. Patterns of daily life and defined, finite spaces we’d shared as a family of six were indoors. Rooms in our home, our favorite restaurants, even our church building all contained the muscle memory of life with Elisabeth and now felt painful for me to enter. The outdoors is where I found comfort and calm. Being under the expansive sky with the natural world was easier on me.

Nature’s patterns are familiar, but organic and never precisely the same. In the fluidity of natural spaces, I could feel memories of Elisabeth without the painful, defined shards of her absence, which seemed so evident indoors. Elisabeth’s swing was the first place I could pray peacefully without anguish. I needed nature’s sanctuary and the same breezes Elisabeth had felt. 

In this grief, I’ve found nature’s healing touch is accessible and innately recognizable, because we are already part of nature. Its rhythms are predictable and beautiful, but imperfect, just like us. Time passes; nature heals.