Planting Joy in A Season of Sorrow


Go outside and plant, a wise voice in me said. You need flowers.

Garden plants sat on the porches and at the side of the house. They were hardened off and ready to go in the ground. Part of me thought I had better things to do than plant a garden, but that wasn’t true. There was nothing better to do.

My husband Vic and I spent May 18, 2008, our fortieth anniversary, in the hospital. I bought him decaf cappuccino and read our favorite love poems out loud. Our life centered around his suffering. We knew it would be that way as long as he lived.

He was dying. The question was how soon.

Not knowing when, I tried to keep the soothing parts of life going. I bought vegetable and flower plants as I did every year. When Vic took a nosedive, friends cared for my plant babies at their homes while I stayed at the hospital. When Vic’s doctors said he would be hospitalized half that summer for a last chance chemotherapy, I decided to forget the garden, but Vic didn’t survive the first treatment.

Garden in late June

After his death, I returned home exhausted and stunned. Bleeding hearts, purple lupines, and weeds greeted me along with flats of plants longing to go in the earth.

Crazy with grief, my sons and I did what our family always did when times were tough. We put on our work boots and grabbed tools. We weeded, dug holes, smacked in stakes, planted, and watered. Then they mowed and cleared trails while I watered.

The gardens and wildflowers were exuberant that first summer. I admired their colors as I wept for Vic. Bachelor’s buttons popped and iris budded. The vegetables perked up and grew strong. butterflies danced through the gardens. They gave me faith in life even though I’d just witnessed death.

This spring, I try again to talk myself out of gardening. It would be smarter to buy organic vegetables rather than grow them, but when the lettuce is young, the bees sip from Shirley Poppies, and peppers turn red, my heart sings. I’m back at the nursery buying lobelia and zinnias, nicotiana and begonias, tomatoes and peppers.

As I weed and plant, images of Vic’s last weeks float to the surface. Then I notice one perfect blossom or a Rosy Breasted Grosbeak at the feeder. I hear a Scarlet Tanager call from the oak tree at the edge of the woods and see the autumn clematis sprouting beneath vines killed by last winter’s cold.

Nature celebrates with spring exuberance as she always does. When I plant, I celebrate with her. While I work, the dark soil absorbs my tears.

What makes you grateful at the hardest times? Do you find it possible to feel grief and joy at the same time? For other writers on the healing power of nature, see How Nature Can Help Us Heal from Grief by Sami Grover or many poems by Mary Oliver. You might also enjoy another piece I wrote about the healing power of gardening, Remember What You Love: Deep Friendship and Thriving Plants.

Elaine Mansfield’s book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief won the 2015 Independent Publishers Book Award Gold Medal for Aging, Death, and Dying. Her TEDx talk is "Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss." Elaine gives presentations and workshops and has been a Hospicare volunteer since 2009 in a variety of roles.

For more information about Elaine’s book and other work, see her website and her blog.
Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief
Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss