Photo by Shana Lee Hampton

By Karly Upshall

Karly Upshall is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.

The past couple years have been tough. We’ve seen more “unprecedented” events than seems even mildly reasonable. From the pandemic, to natural disasters, to the utter upheaval of normalcy, we have had some of the more challenging years in recent history. As a result, subjects like grief and loss have begun floating through daily conversations, despite the ever present pressure to pursue “good vibes only”.

 For me, it often feels like we are not taught to lose and to grieve within Western cultures. Everything can and should be “fixed”, but what does this notion do to the healing process of those who are grieving? Whether it be for loss of a loved one, loss of a place, or even loss of a future plan, grief arouses valid and important emotions that we should be allowed to feel. Facing something as powerful as grief head on, however, is a daunting task that you can never truly prepare for. So how do we support each other through these most painful experiences?

This has been a question close to my heart since March of 2020. Surprisingly, it was not the onset of Covid-19 that brought this to light, but rather the sudden passing of my father just prior to the pandemic. I hesitate to say that I’m grateful for the space Covid-19 gave me to grieve. The pandemic has had devastating consequences, but this “big pause” as some have dubbed it, allowed me the time I needed to explore the nature of grieving. 

We like to joke about it now, that the world just couldn’t keep going without George. In March, the pandemic was still new to our lives. We were some of the last people to actually get to spend the final moments with their loved one in the hospital. My heart aches everyday for those who haven’t been afforded the same comfort. We were able to hold a ceremony for Dad’s life only three days before restrictions came about. People brought us toilet paper instead of casseroles, and about a week after we lost him, we were in lockdown. 

If there is one thing that I have learned, it is to lean on those who can be pillars during these times. As humans, we are not islands, and it is particularly difficult to be forced onto an island when you need your community most. The restrictions that came with Covid-19 meant we were left with limited access to traditional coping mechanisms like finding solace and support in the physical presence of loved ones. One thing in particular, however, remained a safe haven – the outdoors. 

It seemed especially fitting that heading outside would be what I needed to begin healing. Dad was an outdoorsman his whole life, dubbed “The Great White Hunter” as a young man. This is a title he lived up to until his very last breath. The stories we shared and still share of his life often take place on a boat, in the woods, and especially at his beloved cabin. Even before his passing, I would boast about the ridiculous luck (or lack thereof) my father had in regards to the outdoors.

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Every week I would get a call regaling his most recent shenanigans, whether he had tipped over his belly boat and nearly drowned, went through the ice with his quad, or had a heart attack at the cabin the night before but brushed it off as heartburn and drove himself home. He was well into his 60’s for most of those events and normally alone at his cabin. We all gave up on worrying about him because being in the woods, face to face with his own mortality, was Dad’s raison d’être. The day he couldn’t go to the cabin anymore would have been the day his life was over.

That’s where we get it from, my siblings, niblings, and I. My brother and nephews would gather at the cabin every September for their annual hunting trip, something that they all looked forward to year-round. I wound up pursuing an education in Outdoor Leadership through Mount Royal University and got to call Dad often to tell him about our -50°C survival trip, tipping over a canoe in the Amazon,  or a 10 day expedition in the Purcell mountain range. After years of struggling to really bond, we were finally speaking the same language. It was a language I found myself trying to keep alive after his passing.

Finding a Common Language with Sonya Jakubec

I’ve heard it said that “grief is just love with no place to go”(Jamie Anderson), but what if I could give it some place to go? This line of questioning eventually brought me to Sonya Jakubec, a professor at Mount Royal University who has a special interest in griefs relationship with natural spaces. I reached out to Professor Jakubec to talk about her research on the impacts of natural spaces and parks on palliative care patients and their caregivers.

Professor Jakubec has been in her position with Mount Royal for 17 years, a position which she says has allowed her to pursue some niche interests that began with a background in community nursing, both in Canada and overseas.

“When you get to travel and do exchange work, it puts you in a new context and really opens your eyes” said Jakubec. “Very early on in my education and work as a nurse, I had my eyes opened by the world. When you’re in a different place you see things differently, you feel things differently, and so that you can ask different questions”.

One experience that stood out for Jakubec was her time spent in West Africa as a Community Health Nurse after her undergraduate degree in Nursing. She credits this experience for her ability to ask the right questions, be resourceful, and to “learn to work with people across different sectors and in the community”. It was particularly important in this context to not “takeover”, or as Jakubec puts it, “colonize in a way”, but to ask the community what it needs and work with them to create lasting change. This experience is also part of what sparked her interest in the relationship between the land and human health.

 “A lot of my work has been in community and in connecting to land and people and places. So that’s always been there for me.” That connection to land has followed her from New Zealand, to West Africa, right back here to Alberta, where she began volunteering with Alberta Parks in order to integrate into the community and get to know people. This is where she first became acquainted with the Alberta Parks Inclusion Plan and some of the adaptive programming within parks. The Inclusion Plan sparked new questions around disability in nature, and eventually the breadcrumb trail led Jakubec to people in palliative care.

“I really think about that piece around people at the end of their lives, people in older age or in long term care,” said Jakubec. “These are new and really important areas for study, and we need to do better, we need to learn more.”

This is what inspired Jakubec to begin her work with Peace in the Park, a project that explored the meaningful connection between nature and people at end of life. Through interviews conducted in a nature setting, the Peace in the Parks team was able to gain a better understanding of how people grieve, and how nature  played a part in granting both them and their caretakers peace near the end of their life.

The insights from this project that Jakubec shared with me  gave voice to some of the experiences and emotions I hadn’t yet been able to put into words. She wrote that “nature provides a container for grief, a place for our stories” [1]. In other words, nature gives our love a place to go. She described how nature teaches us to grieve by providing us with unconditional acceptance, forgiveness, and endless companions and teachers [1]. Nature does not care if you cry, it will not rush your emotions or attempt to fix the unfixable. Nature just continues to be, and allows you to exist in the same space with it in whatever capacity you need. In the words of one of the survey participants, “a tree never tells you that you look stupid” [2]. And she described a step I am still working towards in my grief  — that there is a profound hopefulness in nature. “If the park could withstand the fires and flood, maybe I, too, could endure”[1].

Celebrations of Life and Loss
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“Modern death practices have influenced grief by removing all cues of death – bodies, public grieving, even funerals are stripped of honest recognition of the realities of loss (for instance, we now refer to ‘celebrations of life’)”

This described my experience and the experience of people that I know perfectly. My dad had asked for a celebration of life, and much of the advice I got after his passing was to “focus on the good times, the time you had with him”. This is not inherently bad advice or bad practice, in fact I think that a celebration of life can be a beautiful thing. However, I also felt inexplicably disconnected from the concept of life celebrations until I read that phrase. I felt like it was ignoring my truth – someone was irreversibly lost to me forever, and that is a pain unlike any other.

Sonya echoed my observation.  “Yes, we speak about celebrations of life – and that’s okay, and we do want to celebrate lives” she said, “ but can’t we also just grieve and be with our distress just as it is? It’s horrible right, and it’s a loss, and so we have to make space for that”. 

Nature, we agreed, was an ideal place to make that space. Sonya described some of the things she heard from participants in her research. 

“Some participants told us you can make space for grieving in Parks and Nature because it can hold our distress in a way that we humans can’t,” she said. “They’ve said it offers a place to get away from grief. But for others, it was a place to connect with their grief, where they were able to grieve.”

The mountains and rivers have big shoulders, more than enough to carry your pain – either with you or for you while you struggle to stand. They can be the strength we can’t find in our bones, the escape we can’t find in our minds, and the comfort we can’t find in our own arms. One of the most beautiful parts of parks and nature is how they are an extension of ourselves. “That’s not just a park”, said Jakubec, “It’s you, we are nature. We are a part of these parks.” 

On the Power of the Parks Experience

The numbers are astounding. From their work with Peace in the Parks, Jakubec and the other researchers discovered that 91% of respondents agreed that Parks can provide physical comfort at end of life [1]. 92% reported that Parks can provide emotional comfort at end of life [1]. 93% said Parks can provide spiritual comfort at end of life and 92% of respondents wanted to have an end of life experience in Parks [1]. The group was also able to create a short but powerful documentary about the project, which features interviews with some of the participants about their experience in parks and nature. (Fair warning that you should grab a tissue before watching.)

Parks are powerful. They have the ability to break down barriers, connect us with ourselves, and provide a reminder of what it is to be alive. Nature can be a great equalizer. As Jakubec explained, “It’s not caregiver and person with disability out in nature, those boundaries kind of evaporate. We’re all just park users here having an experience”. People who love the outdoors know that the false boundaries we set for ourselves and others tend to evaporate once you hit the treeline. The things that often define you in your day to day life no longer matter, and you get to realize the person you’d like to be, even for a short time.

It’s a place for people in end of life to escape from their role as a patient, as a person who’s dying, or as a caregiver” said Jakubec. Once again, nature is a place where you get to just “be”. 

That space to just be, however, is a privilege when it should be a right. Jakubec described multiple situations throughout this research where small interventions had a huge impact. She said there was one woman who simply wanted to look at the moon, and another man who’s park experience ended up just being the planning process, just dreaming of coffee brewed outside. “There was a couple that we interviewed and took for a visit to Kananaskis, just to the visitor center, nothing grand, not a huge mountain to climb. Simply sitting at the visitor center and taking a little stroll on the viewing deck – that experience gave them the confidence for other excursions, to get out of being in a patient at end of life role, and to engage in living. So I think it can really be small things that spark a whole lot more”.

It seems that sometimes we set the bar so high for ourselves that we get overwhelmed at the thought of even reaching for it. In order to be full and complete, an experience has to fit in a certain box. We set the boundary for ourselves that if we cannot reach perfection, if we cannot create an experience that is everything it ‘should’ be, it is not worthy of our time. The big question we need to start asking, though, is who is defining the ‘should’? “It doesn’t need to be scaling, hauling, and going to the top of a peak” Jakubec says, “that’s not all that a park experience can include. For some people, it’s really just the invitation – it’s looking out the window, looking at pictures, reflecting and reminiscing on old experiences, and dreaming of new experiences – it can be quite small and extremely meaningful”.

Filling the Nature Prescription

It seems obvious that nature therapy should be a viable treatment option in palliative care and care for persons with disabilities, so why isn’t it more widely prescribed? 

It’s one thing to tell people that getting outside helps, it’s an entirely different story to provide the right support and resources to really extend a proper invitation. As Jakubec said, “We can write this prescription, but what does it take to fill it? We discovered that the way that people access these experiences is different and unique to everybody, but there are some commonalities”.  

For persons with disabilities and persons at end of life, a study such as this could be the only, or the last, opportunity that they have to get outside. “What’s been very striking was that for some of our participants an experience outdoors for a research project might be their only time outdoors in a year – or their last time in a favourite place” said Jakubec.

There’s a lot of moving parts to a prescription for time in nature. It’s not as simple as bringing a piece of paper to the pharmacist and then browsing the magazine aisle for half an hour. In Jakubec’s experience,  “We learned that this takes a lot of planning, and this takes communication, this takes a kind of breaking down of these false boundaries of who does what”. She explained that there is often a perception of health risk associated with time spent in nature which can prevent people from seeking out these experiences, such as limited access to essential medical equipment or a lack of places to rest.

We agreed that there are ways, however,  of supporting the development and expansion of outdoor experiences, and there are a lot of people who want to help do it. “Every time we present results from the research, people come up to me and say, ‘I want to do something to help, I want to volunteer’,” said Jakubec. “Friends of Fish Creek, for example, one of Alberta Parks partner organizations, have developed a grief and loss walking program called Good Grief”. The Good Grief walking program is a great example of park programs finding a way to fill nature prescriptions. Since the Friends of Fish Creek Park is a community-based organization, their power to create lasting change extends beyond governmentally funded programming. This is important because, as Jakubec says, “If we rely on programs that can come and go to provide us what we truly need, we’re in trouble”.

There also has to be a shift in community perspective on death and dying. This shift already appears to be happening though, as our current laissez-faire approach to loss does not seem to be doing us any favours. “There’s a little bit of a death positive movement that’s happening in our culture – people are curating an end of life moment even” said Jakubec. We see this in programs such as Make-A-Wish, and even with people at end of life who begin to plan their own ceremonies. As a community, we have the power to ease the transition from life to death for both the person dying and the loved ones left behind if we begin to open our perceptions of death up to include something a little bigger than a hospital bed or a casket. 

Jakubec is hopeful of how society’s views of end of life are evolving. “There has been so much inspiration and interest in what we’re doing right now,” she said. “We have the momentum to keep following these breadcrumbs to see what other groups want to build and grow, and to understand more through research and evaluation”.

Jakubec would like to see us keep the momentum on death positivity and begin to really explore our options. She explains that she would like to see nature opportunities available to everyone as an expected part of their care planning, having been already integrated into the healthcare infrastructure and the health worker training. Moreover, Jakubec would like end of life care to be intricately tied to parks organizations and practitioners  because the reality of the risk involved in a nature experience is insignificant to the benefits – we simply need to be better at tailoring the action.

The important thing to remember, however, is that everyone is different. Nature is not everyone’s passion, or even everyone’s cup of tea. “People have different passions too. So I think it’s really that awareness too, of just really being mindful about what people’s passions are, what connects them to the world, and connects them to themselves”. Moving forward, we are going to have to rethink how we approach care in all manners. It cannot just be a move towards the outside, as much as I’d love it to be that way, it has to be a move towards understanding and appreciating each other at our cores. 

I highly recommend reading the literature that Jakubec has worked on, including “Nothing is more natural than death and loss”, and “Grieving Nature – Grieving in Nature: The place of parks and natural places in palliative and grief care” to better understand the importance of her work. These pieces quantified my experience of grief, created space for the exploration of death values, and I believe will be vital in laying the groundwork for a more informed palliative care experience.

Find Places for Your Love to Grow

The topographic lines of my grief resemble the Rockies; neverending peaks and valleys. When you first lose someone you love, people tell you that it gets easier with time. What they don’t tell you, however, is that it’s not that linear. Like nature, grief follows the beat of its own drum, and we are just a part of the cycle. We learn to carry the weight of our loss up the highest, most challenging peaks, and then down again into the most beautiful valleys. 

These days I take some of Dad’s ashes on hikes with me, something he hadn’t been able to do for a good many years. He would have loved the view, and there, on top of the mountains we climb together,

I find a place for my love to go.

References

[1] Jakubec, S.L, Carruthers Den Hoed, D., Krishnamurthy, A., Ray, H., & Quinn, M. (2018). “Nothing is more natural than death and loss”: The Place of Parks and Nature in Palliative Care. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329363132_Nothing_is_More_Natural_than_Death_and_Loss_The_place_of_parks_and_nature_in_palliative_care

[2] Jakubec, S.L., Carruthers Den Hoed, D., Ray, H., Krishnamurthy, A. (2019). Grieving Nature – Grieving in Nature: The place of parks and natural places in palliative and grief care. In Quilley, S., Zywert, K. (Eds). Health in the Anthropocene: Living well on a finite planet. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Retrieved from https://utorontopress.com/ca/health-in-the-anthropocene-2

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2 Comments

  1. This was such a beautiful article- thank you for sharing your experience and vulnerability Karly.

    I have watched this artist make beautiful creations out of ashes (https://www.fullcirclememorybeads.com/ They are a local BC family)- maybe this is something that might be a way for you or your family to keep your dad close in day-to-day life.

    I have also recently read this article (https://globalnews.ca/news/8587316/bc-doctors-prescription-park-pass/) where BC doctors can now “prescribe nature” by offering access to a free annual Parks Canada Discovery Pass (72$) for mental/physical health. This is available through a Parks Canada collaboration with an initiative dubbed PaRx which was originally spearheaded by the BC Parks Foundation (https://www.parkprescriptions.ca/en/about). BC hosts several National Parks: Glacier National Park, the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, Kootenay National Park, Mount Revelstoke National Park, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, and Yoho National Park.

    I too have found solace for my own loss in nature- it was one of the main reasons for me moving to BC- something about the endless scenic landscapes and extensive patches of grasslands, forests, and alpine to explore both myself and reflect on the events have to lead me to be the person I am today. Interestingly, one of the most reflective periods of my life so far- where I was able to finally reflect on painful closeted memories and past events was when I spent a summer tree planting in the Sea to Sky area. It was a pouring wet day and between the weather and the physical labor, my mind drifted from the task at hand, much like how your thoughts may wander when taking a walk- the physical motions become second nature almost like a form of hypnosis. Only when my mind wandered and was confronted by years of buried grief.. everything released at once like flood gates being opened. Childhood memories were now being reflected on through the eyes and perspective of an adult. All while also being comforted in the task of putting seedlings into the Earth; a place to lay to grief to rest and to let love start to grow in its place- it was truly healing to just be out in nature’s ruggedness.

  2. I really enjoyed reading such a personally touching and widely relevant article. I had the pleasure of working with Sonya when I was at Mount Royal University and hope your words can introduce others to her exceptional work.


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