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When You're Grieving, Garden

Getting your hands dirty can balance body and heart, and honor your loved one.

Key points

  • Direct contact with dirt is healthful.
  • Gardening is helpful for grief.
  • Memorial gardens can be simple and created in a home.
Aleshyn Andrei/Shutterstock
Source: Aleshyn Andrei/Shutterstock

When you've lost someone, daily life is disrupted. How can you just go on? But you will, eventually, and routine can be a saving grace.

You may find that nature is especially healing now. If you already have habits that bring you close to nature—walks in a park or caring for houseplants—it's a good idea to keep them up.

If your time with plants (or dirt, sand, rocks, lakewater, seawater, or mountain views) is rare and precious, think about giving yourself the gift of more. Can you go to the park every Sunday? Plan a month working remotely in a beautiful spot. You may find you get more work done that way. Grieving can slow us down and a nurturing environment can help you focus.

Can you create a garden in your backyard, patio, balcony, or windowsill? Bereavement experts speak of “grief gardening”—there's something about contact with dirt that literally helps us "ground."

Establishing your own link with nature is a way to honor a loved one who was a nature lover. Maybe you stayed indoors while your wife gardened. Now, can you keep those plants flourishing? Doing the work yourself will bring you closer to her. But even hiring people to maintain her garden is a testimony to your love. You can also put plaques and statues outside that make your garden a kind of memorial. Indoors, you can put her photograph among her plants.

Don't Rush

Nothing has to happen right away. A year from now, you can start your garden. Grieving has its own rhythm and everyone grieves a bit differently.

Especially if you feel you aren't coming to terms with things, pick up a rake or find some bulbs to plant. However, if your grief is intense, persistent, and interfering with your daily life a year after a death, you might be diagnosed with “prolonged grief disorder," which may warrant talk therapy or antidepressants.

The Health Benefits of Dirt

Any contact with nature may cut your risk for depression, anxiety, or poor immunity linked to emotions. For people hit with a traumatic loss—for example, a sudden loss of a child or a suicide—some research suggests working on a farm. You can bring yourself a bit of that healing in small ways.

This shouldn't feel like a chore. You might be inclined to huddle indoors, even in bed. But getting your hands dirty can soothe more than you realize.

“Spend some time looking at [dirt] and inhaling the aromas,” said Amos Clifford, the founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs and the author of Your Guide to Forest Bathing. “Sift it through your fingers, then bring your hands to your face.”

Create a Memorial Garden

Zhen H/Unsplash
Source: Zhen H/Unsplash

If you have outdoor space, a new gardening project may absorb your attention. There are many ways to make it a memorial to your loved one. Did your husband love the color purple? Choose purple plants that flourish in your location. In the northeastern United States, you could plant wisteria that will eventually fill up the side of your garage. As it grows, you will see a sign of your husband's spirit that has continued.

Think about the colors, smells, seasons and parts of the world that remind you of your loved one. Take your time and you can make your garden an ongoing reminder of your love.

Be a Little Sentimental

It's your garden—and your grief. You can include wind chimes or personalized plaques. If you don't want to actually garden, create a small area with sculpture and stone. An engraved suncatcher in the kitchen window might bring her closer. You can make a suncatcher yourself or buy one at a craft fair. Items with your loved one's name can help if you didn't bury her with a headstone or can't visit the grave easily. You can engrave flower pots and garden stones.

Attract Life

An outdoor garden can draw honeybees, birds, or butterflies if you design it that way. You can make it a fun place for grandchildren. Include a swing!

A Memorial Garden in Your Home

Many of us don't have backyards and can't go to parks often. We need nature in our lives, too. Dedicate part of a patio, balcony, breakfast nook, or simply a window sill to your loved one's memory. It's okay to keep it small and simple, and you don't have to spend much money.

The key is to foster happy memories. If you had romantic vacations in dry climates and live in a wet one, make yourself a small flower pot with succulents you can keep indoors.

Dried flowers in your home can work, too. You might dry flowers yourself—choose her favorites or blooms from sympathy bouquets you receive. Or use flowers she selected for your wedding. Hang them on the wall in the kitchen, where you miss the breakfasts you shared, near the window with the suncatcher.

Gabriela Fechet/Unsplash
Source: Gabriela Fechet/Unsplash

Make a Spot for Reflection

In an outdoor space, put a lawn chair where you can pray, meditate, journal, or listen to “your song” (or any music you enjoyed together). You might find yourself talking aloud to your loved ones or sensing signs of their presence—that's not uncommon and not a sign of mental illness.

Inside, place her favorite chair near your memorial plants or in a spot where you can see her name in a suncatcher.

Don't Forget Lighting

We often miss loved ones most in the evening when we're alone—during and after dinner, for example. A lantern or lights in an outdoor space may make you feel safe rather than frightened at dusk and after dark. Create a peaceful spot that can subdue loneliness. Indoors, consider making a ritual of lighting a candle near a memorial spot. Choose a lamp with a gentle glow, not one for reading.

Feeling Low-Energy?

Grief is work. It's normal to be tired when you are absorbing loss and a change in your life. Your loved one's family and friends can help you create your garden. Host a ceremony in which each person plants a bulb. You can also make this your private grieving practice. Remember, you can create a garden whenever you choose, even a decade after a loss. There's never a rush when it comes to grieving.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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