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The Grieving Garden: Simple Ways to Cope With Trauma and Loss

Posted: 03/14/2012 4:36 pm

After the death of her stepfather, Lisa Adducci of Denver began sorting her socks into intricate categories: summer socks, colored socks, dress socks, wool socks and so on.

"My stepfather was always very meticulous and extremely organized," she said. "Everything had a place and a label. When he died, my mother gave me his drawer organizers and one day I just organized my sock drawer. It was ridiculous, but it was calming and made me feel like he was with me in a way."

Finding solace in ordinary tasks like gardening and organizing can be very comforting and even therapeutic when people are grieving, whether it is the death of a loved one or the loss of someone to a life-altering illness such as dementia.

"Grieving is a unique process and we all do it differently," said Rex Allen, vice-chair and bereavement professional section leader of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization's National Council of Hospice and Palliative Care Professionals. "We have various cultural influences -- the culture of the family, the country, the state or work. Our culture tells us our norms for grief and loss."

For Susan Hart Calkin, the death of her daughter during childbirth left her in a "dark space" that she struggled to pull out of on her own. Initially, she returned to her art studio and sculpted new work, but several months later she found herself rototilling... a lot.

"I spent many months rototilling my yard," she said. "It felt like I had control over at least something. My yard is now a testimony to the grieving process. Four years out, I watch my other kids growing and playing in the areas I worked when Madeline died and I feel like all my kids are out there."

When Ms. Calkin's son was diagnosed with mild autism, she found herself returning to the garden. "I worked through a different kind of grief with this situation," she said. "But I was moved by how I had to go through similar stages with both experiences."

According to Mr. Allen, people should seek out these instinctively nurturing experiences and places when they grieve. "I think the first thing is to go back and find what nurtured you before this death occurred," he said. "What gave you strength, life and excitement. Then, what can I take from this person's life and incorporate it into my life and hold them in my heart." He added this might be anything from an interest in automobiles to volunteer work that has meaning to the loved one's illness or something that they participated in.

Claudia Miller has added on to a butterfly garden she planted just before her first child, Viviana, died at age six. "I stand in her room and say, 'What is blooming today what life is there?'" she said. Her daughter helped pick out the plants in her favorite color, purple, and adored butterflies.

In the six years since her daughter passed away, Mrs. Miller and her other four children have planted a Hawthorne tree that attracts birds in the winter. "I think that not only does it remind me of her, and brings back memories of her, it just gives me that sense of hope that there is always something new going on in the garden," she said. "I always find something new to enjoy there, something to have hope in."

Ms. Adducci, who has had two small children since her stepfather died two years ago after a long battle with cancer, said that she continues to organize small parts of her home to both honor his memory and channel her grief. "I inherited all of his tools and then I organized my garage just like his basement used to be," she said. "Every day I pull into the garage and it's a quiet reminder of him."

Although she says her grief has eased with the passing of time and being a busy mother, she added that she has since bought her own label-maker and organized other drawers or rooms at random. "Every time I do it, I just get this internal smile," she said. "And I know he would love it."

People going through grief can find support through The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization's Caring Connection.

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