I spent last spring working with a woman who was dying of terminal cancer. Sarah (not her real name) was an amazing artist and sculptor, and found so much joy in her annual zinnia garden. When Sarah was told she would only have six more months to live, her husband was surprised to find that she still wanted to plant her zinnias, despite her illness.

I felt honored to be a part of Sarah’s gardening project, following her lead as she read decades of instructions, bringing seed to amended potting soil, planting them in the beds the first week we were certain the frost wouldn’t return in the night.

After the zinnias finished their season, Sarah finished her own. Her husband worked with a facility that specializes in Natural Organic Reduction, where her body was composted with soil and other natural substrates, and was returned to him as rich soil. A few weeks ago, he mixed the soil in with the garden beds and invited me back to plant flowers into the ground that she was now a part of.

Navigating Loss by Starting a Grief Gardengrief garden

The Positive Impact of Gardening

When you experience grief, on any scale, you may notice that the typical levels of stress you experience on the day to day start to feel even more overbearing. The Mayo Clinic describes gardening as a great tool to manage stress, “Nearly all forms of exercise can reduce stress including gardening. It’s been shown to lighten mood and lower levels of stress and anxiety. It’s very gratifying to plant, tend, harvest and share your own food.”

Studies have even shown that gardening for one hour a day greatly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety, both of which can be amplified after experiencing grief. As someone who has experienced depression and anxiety, I’ve been told by mental health providers to take my inner world outside.

I’ve always appreciated the catharsis of digging my hands into the earth – discovering happy worms, and watching seeds turn to food and pollinators for the bugs and bees. Gardening also helps me zoom out of the chaos of my own brain, to tend to something that is coming to life to remind me how important my own is.

 Grief gardening connects me to the awe and the magic of energy, which is undeniably everywhere in a garden. 

While gardening can be done in solitude, it also provides an opportunity to connect with others who are passionate about gardening as well – some of whom maybe even moving through their own grief. Picking out plant starts at the local nursery, joining Facebook groups about gardening, or renting a plot at the local community garden, can all be great ways of finding community and keep from isolating yourself (as much as you might want to) in your grief.

Mike Hawley spoke with the Seattle Times last year about his own experience with grief gardening. “There is a therapeutic aspect to being out in the garden — it can be calming and reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness.”

grief gardening

We also asked out TalkDeath followers on Instagram about their experiences channelling grief in the garden. Here were some of their responses.

  • “Knowing that my dog has returned to the earth in my backyard makes me feel connected when I garden.” 
  • “Clear mind, providing love and tenderness to plants.” 
  • “It was something that I had to tend to daily.” 
  • “Two words: rage weeding.” 
  • “It helped me keep going. And it showed me that those we love deeply never really leave us.” 
  • “Slows me down, regulates my breath, allows me to be present.” 
  • “It connects me to life.” 
  • “Planting seeds or plants that I received from loved ones or that remind me of them.” 
  • “The garden gave me a place to plant my tears, without knowing what would grow.” 
  • “Helps remind me life and death is a cycle and is the baseline for every living thing.”  

Legacy Projects 

As a death worker, gardening has been a great way to connect people with the legacy of their loved ones. Planting a tree next to their cremated remains, or dedicating a small plot of soil to their favorite flowers are all meaningful forms of memorialization.

Additionally, these legacy projects can allow you to honor other-than-human losses- for example, relationships, traumas, other large life changes.

Legacy projects can be an opportunity to harness your grief and give it a generative direction in which to flow. The scale can be anything from a small potted succulent for your desk to an entire garden. If you’re considering using gardening and plants as a legacy project, here are some factors to consider:

Does a certain season, color, or plant speak to your loss? Explore the symbolism of certain plants to help enrich the meaning.

Determine how the care of the plants involved might suit your needs- for example, if you’re looking for more of a companion to your grief, a low maintenance plant might work well, whereas if you are someone who would like to continuously labor into this legacy project to keep your grief moving, perhaps plants that require annual care might offer you that opportunity.

An approachable legacy project is once you’ve curated the plant(s) for your legacy project, write your loss on a small piece of paper. You can write a letter to the person you’re honoring, some words to yourself about this grief, or even simply name it. Before you transplant the plant(s) or seeds into the soil, tear the paper up into small pieces and integrate them with the soil. Then continue to re-home the plant(s) or seeds into their new location. As the plant grows, the paper will become absorbed by the soil and help sustain the plant.

Continuing the Celebrating of Life 

garden death grief 1

After preparing the zinnia beds, I had a long chat with my grieving friend. We talked about how traditional memorial services felt so odd when Sarah’s garden and open space was right there for friends and family to experience.

Jamie Thrower, a friend and end-of-life doula, began gardening after the death of her mother. Gardening connects her to her mother and with her community. “Grief gardening connects me to the awe and the magic of energy, which is undeniably everywhere in a garden.” says Jamie, “Everything is so alive— even the things that are dead or decaying— which is to say that gardening allows me to feel connected to my dead loved one’s energy too.”

Jamie recently asked me if my partner who died late last year had a favorite flower and I couldn’t help but smile at the memory of him walking through the land I am fortunate enough to live on and admire all of the native plants blooming in the Spring; fields I let run wild with dandelions, purple nettle, yarrow, lemon balm. Since his death, it’s been challenging to go on those walks alone, but I have allowed myself to let go of perfectionism with my garden. I can toss seeds into the soil and mix them in with my toes, let the chickens run wild and turn beds for me, and see what beauty can come from accepting change.

My grief garden has held me in ways that I’ll never fully be able to explain, and it’s magic stretches beyond my yard because it’s also a garden grown to be shared.” Says Jamie, “I’ve saved seeds each season, carrying their legacy and beauty with me into the next year, in the same way that I do with my loved ones, knowing each season brings new challenges, triumphs and deeper understanding—in grief, and in gardening.”

Jamie also has a zine about grief gardening titled Tend To Your Grief: Musings and Inspirations from the Grief Garden that can be purchased here.

Building your Grief Garden 

garden death grief

Gardening may seem intimidating, but it is easier than you think.

Start small. It may be tempting to embark on a journey toward a big, bountiful garden. However, that may take more energy than you’re ready for. Find what feels right for you in terms of scale. Experiment with plants that you like and figure out how to grow them well.

Take your time. One thing about grief is that it never fully goes away, and the memory of your loved one won’t either. Letting yourself feel your grief long term can help it feel more manageable, and each spring can feel like a re-awakening of their memory when you set out to prepare your grief garden.

Lean on your community. There are likely many people around you who want to support you but may not know how. Asking loved ones to garden with you can be a great way to connect with others without pushing away your grief or needing to “act normal” when your entire world has shifted after a loss.

It doesn’t need to be perfect. Death is rarely perfect, even when someone has agency in their own decisions around their death. Gardening is rarely perfect either. There are so many factors that can be challenging – soil nutrients, weather, slugs, etc.

Letting yourself love the imperfect nature of gardening, and of grieving, may help you find a sense of acceptance in losing someone important to you.


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