Gardens of Grief, Gardens of Grace

Gardens of Grief, Gardens of Grace

A grief garden provides natural healing, connecting you with those who are no longer living.

It was the sacrificial braid of human hair that brought the grief home to me. I felt like a grave robber. As I brushed leaf mold from the light brown twist, I realized it had once belonged to the mourner who’d designed and planted the small, circular garden bed I was restoring. She had left a traditional symbol of sorrow. Who was she? Who had she lost? How had the creation of this shrine helped her heal?

It was the fall of 2019, and I had traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii as a volunteer caretaker to Kipukamaluhia, the Gaia-dharma sanctuary of “grief whisperer” Rashani Réa. While pulling up six-foot-high stalks of cane grass, removing blankets of bindweed, and chopping long tendrils of dragon fruit, I was surprised to find many small gardens and shrines hidden in the luxurious growth. After too many youthful suicides and overdoses, Rashani had taken a break to teach on the mainland. My job was weeding. The wonder was extra.

Grief Gardens = Horticultural Therapy

Ancient Egyptian physicians were said to have suggested walks in gardens for their patients, while in the 14th century, Irish monks prescribed time in the garden for those who were distraught. In 1798 Dr. Benjamin Rush, an American, noted that “digging the soil has a curative effect on troubled souls.”

“Any time you put your heart and soul into something, the love that underlies it can help with the healing process. That love and spirit are what resonate with people in a garden,” says horticulturist Chris Fehlhaber. Gardens can connect us with those who are no longer living. “My grandfather used to raise me up on his shoulders to smell the blossoms on a crabapple tree,” Fehlhaber recalls. “To this day I make a point of smelling them as often as I can every spring because they’re so ephemeral. And I feel as though I’m back upon his shoulders.”

Fehlhaber notes that plants communicate in the language of the senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. “All plants have a lot to say if we take the time to understand them. They lack the ability to say it verbally, but isn’t love really just an expression of health and happiness?”

Making a Memorial Grief Garden

“In a garden, the soul finds its needed escape from life… where the ritual arrangement of life is more important than the business of surviving and making progress.” —Thomas Moore

In their book The Sanctuary Garden, Christopher Forrest McDowell and Tricia Clark-McDowell go into detail about the design and stewardship of meaningful gardens. They remind us of the symbolic and psychological aspects of water, color, stone, and wood. Keep these archetypal symbols in mind as you design your garden.

Water: Adding an element of water, even a small birdbath, will evoke the yin energy of the Mother, the Goddess. Water is associated with fluidity, movement, creativity, cleansing, renewal, healing, and transformation.

Color: The Soul speaks through color. Red represents life, passion, love, and courage. Orange speaks of warmth, willpower, radiance, and vitality. Yellow, the color of the sun, laughs with joy and is the color of wisdom. Stimulating to the nerves and brain, yellow has a harmonizing effect. Green brings a feeling of renewal, new life, the ultimate creativity, and unconditional love of Nature. Blue and indigo, connected to sorrow, peace, and calm, may be thought of as doorways to Spirit.” Violet blends the symbolism of male and female as the color of love, royalty, mystery, and the unconscious. White stands for purity and transcendence. Keep these symbols in mind as you choose flowers for your memorial garden.

Wood: The element of wood is reflected in the Sacred Tree of Life. The tree is the archetypical symbol of the cosmos, dwelling place of gods (and other feathered beings), and a medium of prophecy and knowledge.

Stone: Stone stands for our eternal or Divine nature. As sanctuary, stone forms a structure, a holy cave, from where we contact the spirit world, worship, initiate, and heal. Stone symbolizes everlasting life, even in its form of constantly evolving and never-ending energy, the unification of matter and spirit. Minerals. Star stuff. The Alpha and Omega of life.

A Memory at the End of the Earth

You might say the idea of healing through the designing, building, and nurturing of a grief garden began to grow on me as I chopped through the indefatigable flora of Rashani’s Hawaiian sanctuary. My son came to visit from the mainland, and together we began a plot, among the many, for a boy he’d grown up with. The friend, a Marine, had been stationed in Hawaii before he’d died by suicide. He’d been a long way from his West Virginia home. My son laid out a compass in the rich earth with a prayer for the soul to find its way home.

Vertical altar
An altar inside a Hawaiian grief garden

Although the memorial we started is now under the Big Island’s relentless overgrowth, along with the braided hair of an unknown mourner with whom we share a kinship of grief, we will always remember the effort of calling that young man back into our hearts. Now that a new spring has arrived, it may be time to plant again.

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