Gardens and Grief
By Valerie Hartman
Four years ago, I lost my mother to cancer. Three days after my mother died, a close neighbor lost his battle with cancer, too. Our families shared lives, and in 2008 we shared losses. I remain very close to Ann, who was a constant source of strength to her young husband and her children during fragile times.
My family and Ann’s were connected through more than our bereavement. My mother, who was a poet laureate, developed her poetic voice in the garden as she grieved the loss of her own 26-year-old son. The garden and writing poetry saved her emotional life years ago as she lived through that difficult time. My neighbor Ann is also an avid gardener. I asked her the other day how the garden has played a role in her grief process since her husband died. She thought about it, and then described a comfort and a revelation that she said she had never articulated before. She agreed to share a few insights in honor of ‘the garden’ as therapist.
“Gardening is a metaphor for what life is about, and it comes right from the Earth,” Ann said. “As the garden regenerates over and over constantly creating new life, I find it a metaphor for birthing and for dying because it is happening all the time.
“As the gardener, I want to be responsible for the things I create, but I have learned that the gardener is like the space that allows for life: growth will happen whether we tend it or not. The gardener has nothing to do with the creation of this thing; you can shape it but it is going to happen with or without you. I have had the thought while weeding and planting that birth and death are organic happenings, and in the garden we are stewards to the process.”
That one comment–“birth and death are organic happenings and we are stewards to it in the garden”–that strikes me. As hospice caregivers we are stewards to an organic process and we do tend it.
It really has been four seasons since. I do think some of my neighbor’s happiest moments continue to happen in that garden. The other day Ann made a comment about her basil seedlings:
“The garden is miraculous every single time I plant a seed I am startled by what gets created. Always I marvel at it every time! ‘Look! It came up!’ ”
“The marvel is in the life giving piece.”