Friday, September 15, 2006

Gardening, and a reflection on life and death

DD One
A particularly difficult summer of loss has me contemplating the roll of gardening in the grieving process. As some of you readers know, this spring started with the loss of my giant dog and best pal to wabblers syndrome (see first blog post). My father lost his battle with esophageal cancer two weeks ago. It was a particularly rough go that has had us in upheaval for well over a year. This painting of him was done in May of this year, just as he began his final journey. He was 78 years old.

My sister's husband fights on the losing end of a rare, non-treatable form of skin cancer. The extended family has had several losses and the entire clan has been thrown into what seems like a permanent time of grieving. All the while the gardens continue to grow and the blooms continue to ebb and flow. Fall colors are showing the reminder of another season coming to a close. There is no way to make certain predictions about gardens or grief. Just when you think you've got everything under control tears tumble down, and out back the weeds are invading the rock garden! Darn! Here we go again!

Grief counselors suggest a number of tools to help you through a difficult time of loss. Things like journaling , eating well, exercising, getting rest, reading and learning, seeking solace, practicing comforting rituals, letting out your emotions, and nurturing something. Now if that's not a description of gardening, what is?

Garden journaling is a great process of recording, creation and just plain distraction. You don't have to be scientific to make a garden journal, just say what you want, record your planting, harvesting, likes, dislikes and feelings. If your thoughts spill over into grief, all the better. Read up on your favorite flower and draw pictures to convey your emotions. It may be time to bring new plants to your garden or read some of those gardening books gathering dust after the summer. While feeling especially low it is good to put your gray matter to work and concentrate on something new.

What about solace? The company of plants never passes judgment on a teary, grieving gardener. If anything, I believe that your garden would lift you in its arms and comfort you if it had opposable thumbs (as well as a few other anatomical alterations). I've had some of my best crying sessions while watering. As for comforting rituals, while I'm not much of a weeder, I have friends who love to weed and find great solace in its rhythm and repetition not to mention a feeling of elation when done.

We tend to think of ourselves as the keepers of the garden, but I think the opposite is often true, our gardens keep us. They hold us upright when we are off kilter, they knock sense into us when we are whacked out and they heal us when we are sad. Whether it be the ritual of weeding, the solace in being alone with your thoughts, or the love extended in nurturing the earth, I know of no other place I'd rather be when I am down than outdoors. For many a non-gardener walking or roaming about in the woods has the same healing effect. It's often difficult to show our true emotions to others and sometimes even more difficult to work out our troubles with the added burden of conversation, but quiet time in the garden offers a host of therapeutic needs without outside confusion. I think the salt of our tears even benefits the soil - perhaps a little added potassium?

Time in the garden fills our lungs with fresh air, clears our minds and almost always ends up with inspiration. Inspiration to write a note to someone in need, to re-design a corner of the garden that's always been a bit strange, to dig through all those old photographs on the shelves in the office, to call a friend, to plant a tree for a loved one, or just to order more tulips!

The Victorians obsessive craze for reinventing our language in flowers has long fascinated me and brought me solace. I walk in my garden when overcome and after an initial outburst of anguish I find myself saying out loud the meanings of the plants that surround me. It is a therapeutic thing and brings smiles, tears and contemplation, but it has a healing affect. The wormwood by the pond speaks of healing and the honeysuckle of thoughts of bonded affection. There is strength and protection in the juniper and the feverfew. The borage tells me to have courage while the chamomile speaks of patience. The sweet basil and for-get-me-not tell me that all love is not lost. The iris at the pond's edge tell me to have hope and faith, the burnet reminds me to keep a cheerful heart while the forsythia demands of me thoughts toward the future and anticipation of things to come.

It occurs to me that I am very fortunate to be a gardener. Embracing our emotions and our gardens can open us to many wondrous things. Though following their paths will change our lives forever, they both offer us opportunities for full and incredible futures. If you've never planted anything and are sad, start now. Your happiness, or perhaps your life, may depend on it.


Xris said...

Thank you for this. I've also been reflecting recently on "grief & gardening" and come to similar realizations.

Weeding is also a good way for me to channel anger and aggression. Another necessary part of grieving.

Kathy said...

That's a painting, not a photograph? Who was the artist?

Annie in Austin said...

Sympathies from one of the Texas Divas of the Dirt, Sally. Our city's recent loss was not a personal one, but losing beloved Ann Richards, also to esophageal cancer.

This is such a beautiful article! The garden is where I went when my dad died several years ago. As Xris has found, weeding is a way to use your anger toward order. For ages, mowing the lawn started tears that were hidden behind dark glasses, and sobs that couldn't be heard over the engine. I realize now that the patterns I was making with the blade were a labrynth of lawn.

May you find solace.

Annie in Austin/DivaGlinda

Sissy said...

It is my prayer that you find peace of mind and spirit in your garden...

Kati said...

what a lovely commentary of the therapeutic benefits of the garden. gardens do indeed "keep us" rather than the other way 'round!