There are times in your life when you are blindsided by events that turn everything upside down and inside out. The path forward is not at all clear; the only thing you know is that things will never be the same.
Such was the case not long ago when a good friend of ours was T-boned by a drunk driver. He never had a chance. Five minutes one way or the other, and it never would have happened. So senseless. The loss is immeasurable. His mother is quite elderly and depended on him for transportation to doctor appointments and for picking up groceries and other errands; his wife, one of my closest friends, is recovering from Stage 4 cancer; his grandchildren cannot possibly understand … and nor can we.
I cannot do justice in describing this gentle man’s way of being, of reaching out to others, or his deep and resonant voice that accompanied his guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. He was a huge part of our music community, and we dearly miss playing with him. He loved nature, the mountains, the rivers, the sea… he loved kayaking and hiking and bicycling… he was once an official weather observer in Antarctica and enjoyed watching the storms roll in off the coast. Most of all, he was a loving son, devoted husband, and caring father and grandfather who prioritized his family and his friends.
One person’s irresponsible actions have shattered the lives of so many.
What can we do to ease another person’s grief that is so profound, so immobilizing, so suffocating, that all else in the world disappears?
The shock of something so sudden is too much to bear, and yet we look around, the sun rises and sets, the moon changes size from one side to the other, the birds keep coming to the feeder, people seem to have places to go… everything is the same but nothing is the same. What can we do when we suddenly have to figure out a new way of being but have no idea of where to start and feel too numb to even think about it? We know that this grief will forever be a part of who we are. We never “just get over it.” We can, however, move forward, one day at a time, by opening our hearts to the love that heals.
How can we help a friend or loved one who is experiencing such pain? Sometimes, all we can do is be there. We can listen, even when nothing is said. We can go for a walk … maybe to the mountains, along a river, by the ocean, into the forest – and when these places aren’t available to us, just out into the open air to feel the sun and wind and rain … anywhere where we can experience the enduring force of nature that transcends our brief existence.
And when we return, we can fix a pot of herbal tea.
We look for herbs that ease the heartache, that calm the nerves, and that help one to get some rest. We look for herbs that strengthen our bodies so they can better resist the onslaught of diseases when we are at our most vulnerable; herbs that lower the blood pressure, which will often skyrocket under such stress, and herbs that support the circulatory system to expedite healing; herbs that help digestion, because there is a direct connection between gut and brain and our immune systems, and we need to be able to absorb as many nutrients as possible during this tumultuous time. We look for herbs that uplift, herbs that make us breathe deeply and slowly and draw in the fragrance of calm; herbs that help us find our balance.
The act of making herbal tea can be a calming ritual in itself.
Inhale the steam; take a moment to appreciate its healing properties. For just this moment, disengage from the electronic world or other busy-ness and the never-ending to-do list nagging in the back of our minds. Prepare it daily to fully realize the healing power of tea.
No, the herbs won’t make it all go away. Some of it never goes away. That is the price we pay for loving. But they can help us better to cope, both physically and mentally. In time, when the pain is not so raw and overwhelming, the memories of our loved ones bring more smiles than tears.
There are many books written about the healing powers of herbs and numerous articles about herbal teas posted throughout the Internet. Investing in a good reference book or an educational online resource is definitely valuable. When it comes down to it, though, the best herbs and recipes are, of course, the ones you use. I rarely cook precisely according to a recipe; I am more of a “little of this” and a “little of that” sort of person. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating self-medicating with dangerous herbs. Education is paramount. However, many herbs are quite safe – and if we focus on getting to know the basic properties of a handful of the more common herbs, particularly those that are available to us, with a little experimentation and tuning in to “what feels right,” we can come up with something that is just what we need. Start with small quantities; try combinations of just a few herbs; you can always add more. It is quite astounding how the right combinations will come together.
Feeling overwhelmed with options? Here are some ideas.
Get Some Rest….
Sometimes, what we really need is a good night’s sleep – or even just to calm our nerves – and this might be the best place to start. Some herbs that aid in relaxation include California poppy, cannabis, catnip, chamomile, hops, lemon balm, linden, lobelia, milky oats, skullcap, and valerian. Many of the relaxing herbs are flower essences that have a very soothing fragrance, known for lifting the spirits. It makes sense that they can help us release the stress of the day. Look to borage, lavender, linden flowers, mimosa, passionflower, rose petals, and violets.
Support for the Immune System
Eventually, though, the stress is going to take its toll. We get run down, and it is easy for disease (dis-ease) to set in. Herbs that are known to support the immune system include astragalus root, ashwaganda, calendula, conifers (such as pine, fir), echinacea, elder, eleuthero, garlic, ginger, ginseng, holy basil (or tulsi), hyssop, licorice root, rhodiola, and certain medicinal mushrooms. Many of these herbs are termed “adaptogens” for their ability to both build resistance to stress and bring the body back into balance.
Medicinals in Our Food
Many of the culinary herbs have strong antiviral and antibacterial properties: basil, cinnamon, holy basil, lavender, licorice, mint, oregano, peppercorns, rosemary, sage, thyme, turmeric. We can see how added to our meals, many of these herbs can augment our food to be strong medicine.
When I feel a cold or bug coming on, I generally reach for “berry” teas: aronia berries, autumn olives, elderberries, goji berries, goumi berries, American highbush cranberries, and sea berries (aka sea buckthorn). I also seek out the wild ones: red-flowering currants, salal, mahonia, rosehips. And let’s not forget Cornelian cherries! So tart and sweet! I make them into jams, syrups, wines, oxymels, and elixirs (which can be added to beverages). I also dehydrate them. These fruits are full of antioxidants and can really help when our immune systems are run down from stress, anxiety, inadequate sleep, and poor diet or poor nutrient absorption. We hear a lot about the power of elderberries, and elders are definitely one of my favorites, but I feel that there are many other berries that are perhaps just as good but not as well known because the funding hasn’t been there to conduct studies on them.
Herbs that will give us a nutritional boost when we most need it include alfalfa, dandelion, nettles, oat tops, raspberry leaves, and red clover. Those that nourish and provide a little jumpstart to our systems by increasing circulation and vitality include bee pollen, cayenne, ginkgo, ginseng, gotu kola, lemon balm, peppermint, rosemary, sage, spearmint, and wintergreen.
Stress can also easily lead to high blood pressure and anxiety issues. Herbs to combat high blood pressure include dandelion, garlic, hawthorn, linden flowers and leaves, motherwort, and yarrow. Be careful, however, with licorice, which is not recommended for those with blood pressure problems.
Of course, ensuring good digestion plays a key role in combating grief, a time in which our nutrient requirements are exceptionally high. Such stress can easily lead to adrenal fatigue and nutrient imbalances. Ginger and mint are perhaps the most well-known herbs for digestion. In the mint family, don’t forget beebalm (aka bergamot), catnip, and lemon balm, in addition to the more common peppermint and spearmint.
Immune Booster Teas:
- Elderberries, holy basil, calendula
- Elder, rose hips, ginger
- Echinacea, elder, nettles, oats
- Lemon balm, mint, echinacea, elder flower, rose petals, clover, calendula
- Nettles, ashwaganda, elderberries, rosehips
- Nettles, rose hips, clover, oats, raspberry leaves, lemon balm and/or spearmint
- Ashwagandha, Tulsi holy basil, cinnamon (adaptogens)
- Douglas fir, rosemary, sage (a personal favorite, especially during winter)
Calming / Sleepy Time Teas (also good for headaches):
- Chamomile, lemon balm, catnip, spearmint (a simple blend)
- Chamomile, holy basil, lemon balm, rose petals, passionflower, mint, valerian
- Linden, calendula, catnip, mint, lavender (a flower-mint blend; go easy on the lavender; it can be strong-flavored)
- Linden, calendula, hawthorn, lavender, rose, violet (lots of flowers)
- Ginger, mint, lemon, honey
- Ginger, cardamom, fennel, cinnamon, cloves (a chai-like blend that can be enhanced with turmeric and black pepper to further reduce inflammation) – nice with milk and honey.
To the base herbs, consider adding flavorings that complement the core properties. For example, anise, fennel, and licorice root can be very soothing; lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemon grass, and dried orange peel can be used to brighten the flavors; mints, ginger, and cardamom can help digestion; cinnamon, ginger, cayenne, and black pepper can add a little warming kick. It is fun to experiment with combinations.
The Necessary Disclaimer and a Few Concluding Thoughts
I am not a doctor or an herbalist. I just love herbs and a good cup of tea with a little honey. As always, consult your physician before using herbs that might have interactions with medications. We tend to blow this caveat off, but it is important. Herbs are, after all, comprised of organic chemical components in sometimes unknown combinations and quantities.
Admission: The truth is, the more I learn about herbs, the more I realize how little I know. I have had an herb garden since the 70s and have made concoctions long before that. Herb varieties have fluctuated over the years, but in retirement, I have the luxury of being able to devote more time to the herb garden. Especially since we began keeping honeybees, we have increased the variety of herbs we grow. I do not medicate our bees. I provide the resources and let them make their own medicine. We grow over 100 different herbs. Sounds like a lot, but it’s not.
Intriguing to me: Herbs, as well as all plants, have definite personalities. I find myself reaching to them in the garden, getting to know them on a much more personal level, as I nurture them throughout the year and thank them for the gifts they offer at harvest. I look at how they can be used – whether fresh or dehydrated in cooking, steeped in water for teas or simmered into concoctions, added to honey, or tinctured in vinegar, alcohol, or glycerine – there are so many ways of extracting various properties and combining them to serve different purposes.
The art of blending an herbal tea tends to be part knowledge, part experiment, and part intuition, which to me, is the beauty of it. We taste it, we feel it, we use all of our senses. By making herbs a part of our daily lives, rather than just when we have a problem, along with choices in food and lifestyle, we strengthen our entire body to be one full of vitality and better able to get through those tragedies that life will inevitably throw our way.
A sad observation: We do not need any more reminders of how fragile our existence is on this planet. They happen every day. All we have to do is turn on the news to hear of yet another mass murderer rampage or other disaster. We become somewhat desensitized, and yet we know that at the core of each one of these deaths is an individual who touched the lives of many others, someone whose dreams stopped at that moment in time, and what they could have done for others or how they might have made the world a better place, we shall never know. And then there are your average day-by-day sorts of stressors: illnesses, physical or mental exhaustion, assorted conflicts, work and financial pressures, worries and woes… it can easily get overwhelming.
Again, take 5. Sit down with a cup of tea. Breathe deeply.
We approach the holiday season, which can be a time of great joy and also one of stress and sorrow. The power of tea becomes all that much more important.
And if I may say one more thing in memory of our good friend, Andy, who was taken from us far too soon and whose death could have been so easily prevented, enjoy the holidays, but Please, Please, do not drink alcohol and drive. Have a cup of herbal tea instead.
If you liked this post, you might also be interested in the following:
“A Memorial Garden Sanctuary,” which I wrote after my little brother was killed in a plane crash. I will forever hold a tender spot in my heart for him.
Herbs at Barbolian Fields: A list of medicinal and culinary herbs and dye plants