Planting Joy in a Season of Sorrow

Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart

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.

DSC05462Not 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.

Dotty2 - Copy (2)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.


Perennial Bachelor’s Buttons

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.

  1. Sometimes it is joy. Other times it is agony. And yes sometimes both. Amazing how we can feel opposing feelings simultaneously but they are so connected to each other. Elaine, when I read your blogs I find myself feeling deeply your pain, my pain, your exuberance and mine. You must keep writing as well as gardening.

    • I learned, or at least practiced, searching for and holding opposites when Vic was sick. I’d look for one positive small thing to lift me up as I spiraled down into grief–a flower, a raw of sunshine, a smile, a kind gesture. There was always something and there still is. I will keep gardening and writing because they both bring joy. I know you will keep painting and writing, too.

  2. Such beauty in this post Elaine. The pictures you paint of your gardens are truly captivating. And yes, I think it’s human nature to be able to feel grief and joy at the same time, for life is always going on, even in the moments when we are lost in grief, there is still beauty in life going on elsewhere around us. I’m going to say it again—I can’t wait for your book to come out. I so enjoy reading your beautiful, heartfelt words. 🙂

    • Thank you, Debby. You inspire me. A received a galley copy of the book last week, so we’re ahead of schedule for the October launch. Publisher wanted to get it ready for BEA, the big publishing convention in NY this coming weekend. As always, we’ll see what happens next. My main job is to remember to breathe.
      Warmly, Elaine

  3. I re-experience grief from doing the things my Mom loves to do – gardening & planting flowers among them. Also this is the time of year she went on hospice. I find myself simultaneously happy to see flowers and to plant vegetable seeds, and sad not to share it with her for the 3rd year in a row.

    • Yes, both things for me, too, Lisa. Joy because the lupines bloom and the bluebirds nest and sad not to share this season with Vic. I feel comfortable acknowledging grief as long as I don’t drown in it. It’s part of life and part of the way love feels now.
      Thanks for taking time to read and comment.
      With appreciation,

  4. Beautiful post! Though you grieve, your sorrow always takes a healthy turn: You say, “Crazy with grief, our sons and I did what our family always does when times are tough. We put on our work boots and grabbed the tools.” I’ve found too that work eases pain. It gives visible results we can see when our interiors feel irreparable.

    Wonderful photo of bleeding hearts, an image I always associate with strong emotion and with my Grandma Longenecker who loved, loved flowers of any kind. Even gloxinias. Do you know about them too? They are shaped like trumpets. And I’ve never seen such a pretty Bachelor’s Buttons bloom. Thanks for the inspiration today, Elaine.

    What makes me grateful during hard times? Counting my blessings in my gratitude journal – every day!

    • Thank you, Marian. My Grandma Welling in Ohio loved Bleeding Hearts. Our grandmas knew something. I know gloxinias, but they don’t thrive on my high hill so I appreciate them in other people’s gardens. It’s a biennial Bachelor’s Buttons and seeds itself freely in my flower bed. Wonderful to have a gratitude journal or any way that works for us to bring our minds to gratefulness.
      I appreciate your encouraging words.

  5. Elaine,
    This title is so perfect…inspires me to write a poem or a book or a song.
    Your posts almost always make me sad and usually proud of my friend, who stands so tall in her grief and reflects so well about those special moments.
    In May 2009 we were finally home and 4 months past the stem cell transplant. So hopeful. We bought plants and worked in the yard…mostly me, with Paul all masked and hatted and gloved, with long sleeves to protect him from the sun. By the end of the month we were back in the hospital with GVHD of the gut. We spent the summer fighting it, got married in his hospital bed and took him home for his final 2 weeks at the end of July.

    So, you see again, how our stories run side-by-side in many ways. Different people, different lifestyles and you and Vic had many more years than we had, but somehow our journey still feels connected.
    Thank you for sharing yourself and Vic with us.

    • Patti, we both stand tall. I remember those hopeful days after a stem cell transplant. I hold your hand across the miles, side-by-side. I don’t think it’s the number of years (although I’m grateful we had them), as much as the depth of connection. This seems to be nature of being human. I love Buddhism (although I’m not formally a Buddhist) because it helps me navigate the rough parts of life along with the blessings and teaches me to accept both.
      Thank you for sharing your life in your writing and for taking time to read and respond to mine.
      With love,

  6. Oh yes, Elaine, grief and joy at the same time! I look at the slowly dying flowers in a mother’s day bouquet and think of life and death–beauty and pain.

  7. What an amazing way to celebrate life and death and Vic and your ability to nurture and keep life going. The flowers and just the growing and changing in the earth is so much greater than ourselves and our pain. Thank you for showing me why I had to photograph the irises that seemed to blossom overnight.

    • Robin, I was grateful from day one that Vic died in the season of long days and warm nights. Nature forced me to look around and notice rebirth and beauty, so I felt the support of life even when I felt so close to the edge of death. I look forward to seeing your iris photos. I took some purple iris photos yesterday, glowing with morning light.

  8. Our plants and flowers need sunshine and rain to grow strong and beautiful. Those contrasts echo through our lives and you describe this so beautifully. When my husband was struggling after brain surgery, I planted flowers everywhere as a balm to my distress and lack of control over the situation. As he recovered, very slowly we often sat on the porch and reaped the benefits.
    Thank you Elaine your words bring comfort and inspiration. Gilly

    • Gilly, this morning I spent a few hours transplanting tall zinnias from the vegetable garden. I planted them there in late May to use now. They went in where poppies and daffodils used to be and now they are enjoying a soaking rain. My book is full of gardening therapy stories, sometimes by myself and sometimes with my adult sons. They love to garden, too, and are good at it. I’m grateful your husband recovered. These brushes with mortality leave us clear about just how precious life is, no matter what the outcome of the specific incident.
      I appreciate your wise blogs and helpful ideas. Thanks for visiting my blog,

  9. I agree. As my husband’s health declined, I quit gardening, but now I’m back in the garden. The flowers–and the hummingbirds and butterflies they attract–are a great solace. No sad memories for me there, just a great deal of satisfaction.

    • Thanks for taking time to comment, Ella. I’m glad you’re back in your garden after what I imagine was a hard, hard time. My garden keeps me involved with everyday miracles like sprouting seeds and pollinating bees. My son and his love moved to rural NY State from San Francisco in April. They live 3 miles from me and we’re gardening together, so my gardens expanded to the size they were when we grew food for a family of four. My son is an experienced enthusiastic gardener and so is his girlfriend. Big help! When I feel anxious or sad, there’s nothing like sitting on the mulch next to a lettuce bed, weeding, thinning, and slowing down. We ate our first salad from the garden last night.

  10. In April 2009, I came home from the funeral of a loved one. Within 24 hours I had flats of vegetables and marigolds, and I had adopted a puppy. She used to snooze under the zucchini plant while I weeded the garden. It felt like the right way to soothe ourselves, and to honor a wonderful life. Thank you, as always, for sharing, Elaine.

    • You are wise, Caroline. My son and his love rescued a pup. My dog Willow and I are part of making it possible. They had a few trips planned for summer, but she was obviously a great dog in a scary shelter, so I said I would help by dog-sitting this summer when they’re away. She’s here now. My dog and the pup Sami snuggle. She’s a smart girl and learning everything she needs to know to thrive and please her people. She doesn’t have to be on a leash because she wants to be with her humans and dog friend. Makes me happy to help save a dog and make my son’s girlfriend happy.

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