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The Stone Pathway That Leads to Healing From Grief

Navigating loss with gardening and horticulture therapy.

Key points

  • The physical act of gardening has many parallels with the grieving process.
  • Gardening can help those who are grieving reconnect with the living world all around them.
  • Despite the challenges, gardening offers mental health benefits, such as a sense of belonging and community.

The poet May Sarton beautifully expressed how “a garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself.” Gardeners everywhere can feel this truth in their bones. Even with all of the losses, we still garden because this activity encompasses more than the fruits and flowers that signal the end result of our labor. Whether our efforts culminate in the perfect peony or we lose our favorite vegetable plant to hungry deer, our time gardening and giving it our best shot is worth it. We have all been touched by the many different forms of loss that are part of being human, but if you can find your own inner stone pathway that leads to a garden, you just might find some respite from grief.

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Gardening and grief

When we garden, we spend time clearing. Whether we are removing “weeds” or invasive species (such as honeysuckle) or creating more room on the porch for pots, the act of clearing is a way to open up space to move and breathe, to look at our yards or patios or sunny windowsills in a new way and envision what is possible. Interestingly, rich soil contains a natural antidepressant called Mycobacterium vaccae, so as we nurture the soil and seeds in whatever type of garden we choose to grow, we can tend to our own emotional interior gardens with care.

Plants are also fascinating. It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the sheer variety and unique attributes that plants embody. Bamboo, for example, can grow up to 35 inches in one day. On the inside of a cranberry, there is a small pocket of air that allows it to bob and float on water. A single strawberry can have up to 200 tiny seeds. Dendrochronology is the scientific study of dating tree rings in order to learn more about our planet’s environmental history. With over 350,000 different plant species known to science, there is so much to learn, explore, and enjoy.

According to the American Horticulture Therapy Association (AHTA), Dr. Benjamin Rush “was first to document the positive effect working in the garden had on individuals with mental illness.” As an innovative physician dubbed the “Father of American Psychiatry,” Rush documented and studied the benefits of plant therapy for patients at his clinic in Philadelphia during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. What we now understand to be horticulture therapy has evolved and has come a long way since then. The AHTA states, “Today, horticultural therapy is accepted as a beneficial and effective therapeutic modality.”

Similarly, as the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences tells us, “An increasingly large body of research attests to the unique values of horticulture as a therapeutic modality for people with physical, mental, emotional, and social disabilities, as plants are non-discriminating and non-threatening, and anyone can be successful utilizing this medium.” In a world rife with conflict and criticism, we all need places and spaces that offer us psychological safety so that our capacity for joy can be nourished.

Experiencing a loss can often make us feel isolated and lonely, but when we observe the many lifeforms that surround us daily, we realize that we are never really alone. Robin Kimmerer in her essay “Speaking of Nature” describes the relationship between humans and other species as family. She writes, “The mending we need will require reweaving the relationship between humans and our more-than-human kin. Maybe now, in this time when the myth of human exceptionalism has proven illusory, we will listen to intelligences other than our own, to kin.” By reframing our relationship with the flora and fauna that surrounds us as “kin,” we can tap into the wisdom and interconnected web of all living beings.

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The mental health benefits of gardening

Gardening also has the power to bring people together. Whether it's through joining a community garden, participating in gardening clubs or workshops, or simply sharing tips and advice with fellow gardeners, these shared spaces provide a supportive environment where we can find friendship and support. And there is no shortage of potential conversation topics for gardeners. How do I grow beefsteak tomatoes? What is the best way to prune my rose bushes? How do I attract pollinators? What type of soil should I use? There are countless questions to ask and many answers to explore.

Whether it be a traditional vegetable or flower garden, container garden, patio garden, herb garden, tire garden, raised garden, or indoor garden, there are endless opportunities for self-expression and creativity when working with plants. Designing, planning, and cultivating a garden allows us to channel our emotions into physical activity and artistic expression, creating landscapes and potscapes that reflect our own unique journey through the difficult times in our lives. And time spent tending to plants reminds us of the cyclical nature of life all year long. We can learn what plants thrive throughout the year during the warm growing seasons and design our spaces accordingly. Cold seasons give us the opportunity to practice patience, rest, and reflection, or we can grow microgreens or hydroponic plants indoors and plan for spring by gathering seeds and supplies.

There is no doubt that gardening comes with its own set of challenges. Taking care of plants requires knowledge, physical labor, and possibly allergy medicine, as well as consistent love and care. Some plants require more attention than others so you can plan your garden wisely based on what level of commitment you can handle.

Still, the rewards are immeasurable. As in life, something will work out. Perhaps the herbs will grow in abundance and the gorgeous yellow blossoms on the zucchini plant will produce fruit. Or, maybe that young tree you planted last year that you thought would never survive will grow taller.

You can start small and slowly increase your knowledge and skills. As with gardening, working through grief has its many setbacks and winding roads. Take your time walking down this stone pathway that leads to your healing. There’s no rush.

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