On gardens while grieving the suicide of a child

The journey of grief is expressed differently depending on cultural traditions, whatever we define as our culture. In my work life as a garden designer, I am most often working with people who are going through change and sometimes that has come about through the loss of a person or animal very dear to them. In some instances the loss has been the suicide of a child. Unbearable grief, raw, numbing pain years later, the unavoidable reminder is the black hole in the landscape – the place where the body, their child’s body, was found. At home. The location is the problem to be addressed somehow, to make it bearable yet not demolish it, as it’s all that is left as the most recent memory. Desperate to forget it yet never wanting to forget them.

This is the most difficult of all.

It isn’t possible to help a family grieving a child’s death by suicide without talking in depth about the person they were, in every light. It can be many years before they are ready for that, but gosh I wish it were sooner. In the meantime it is a desert they walk in, one step at a time. At the end of each step must be a reason to wake up and take the next one, and the next. At this raw stage people bring pots of colour, annuals to cheer them up. Bright, loud, fast growing happy flowers, a message to bury the pain and pretend it’s ok, life goes on. Better to offer a plant that speaks of resilience, determination, a courageous, interminable will. One that wilts in heat but bounces back that night and ever so gradually gets stronger and no longer feels the heat. One that shows its struggle but flowers anyway. One that despite it all, grows. One that shows the passage of seasons with change that’s noticeable – a tree that loses its leaves yet still shines somehow through winter.

Let’s get back to the black hole, the location. We must face this, it won’t go away. People don’t always want to sell up and move away.

It will go through many iterations before the healing is done. What’s there and felt is tremendous sadness, anger, shock, despair, disbelief – it wells up from the ground like a fog. There is no one solution. This is the time to have the deep conversation to understand and find the memories of the child they want to represent, the reality of their struggle, the love of something shared, ways of communicating, places special to them. Whatever the memories, they are weighed with the trauma of the loss. In this place, bleak may be the right place to start. A copse of tall Miscanthus grasses that will bend in the wind, catch the rain-teardrops on the feathery seed heads and still stand tall even when brown and wintery. In spring, beauty will force its way through the dead leaves. Surround them with gravel, rocks, pebbles to stack in piles of pauses.

grasses moving in the wind
A garden of Miscanthus and Verbena bonariensis (photo by Dirtscape Dreaming)

On we go.

We get sick of ourselves at points when we are ready to grow. At that time we’re fed up with that which represents what we want to leave behind. A choice is made to allow some positive into this place and the dry garden must go. What are the memories now, tell me more about the person this child was. What can this place be that grasps hope on their behalf? How do we represent that as a garden, which plants tell that story? Little by little the garden talks back and shows the way forward through all that nature throws at it. In time, a place to sit and be with all that represents the spirit of the child, in the way chosen to remember them.

This garden must change as soon as there is discomfort or disengagement with it. That is its power.. to take on the job of hope and in that, a connection to that which is greater than us. That reason to go on and grow.