Planting Life at a Time of Sorrow


Matt Hoff with the gift of new life

My brother Jim seemed steady and a little stronger last week. There was talk of releasing him from the hospital to rehab, so I drove seven hours home to deal with what I’d left behind.

I needed to take my mother-in-law Virginia to the doctor. The day before I left to be with Jim, she was found at 5:30 am wandering the halls three stories up in her senior residence. She didn’t know where she was or where she lived, but a kind woman returned Virginia to her apartment. I arranged extra health aide hours, prayed for the best, and left town.

DSC05360Back home for a few days, I had the snow tires removed, arranged more help for Virginia, and made an appointment to get the septic tank pumped. I also began packing to return to my brother’s side.

On Wednesday, before the septic truck arrived, my friend and helper Matt Hoff showed up with his two dogs. Willow ran joyous loops with Matt’s young dog Wilma. Matt had gifts for me, too.

First, he put the rototiller on the back of the tractor and tilled my vegetable garden into a loose loamy mix. Then he knocked on the door.

DSC05361“Where do you want these trees?” Matt asked. He had thirteen blight resistant American Chestnut seedlings. I knew they were coming and needed to be planted with deer-protective coverings. Where did I want them? Something in me was too exhausted to make one more decision.

“Come outside,” Matt said. “We’ll figure it out.” I took a few deep breaths, pulled on my work boots and a wide-brimmed hat, and grabbed my favorite spade. We dug a few holes in the area I suggested. My frantic mind slowed down.

“Not here,” Matt said. “Too wet. Too much clay. How about over there?” He pointed across the field to another area we’d discussed. He knows every wet and dry spot on this land.

DSC05371“As long as they don’t block the views,” I said.

I admired the swelling buds and healthy roots. My legs and back remembered how to angle the spade to break into sod and wedge out a rock. The earth was moist, but drained. I admired the squirming worms. Matt added potting soil to the native dirt to give the seedlings a good start. Then he planted the trees. I snapped photos. Matt is used to my camera by now, so he laughed and took photos of me digging.

I thought how happy my husband Vic would be to know we planted American Chestnuts made nearly extinct by blight. Matt snapped protective tubes in place. He did 90% of the work, but I was grateful to help a little.

DSC05374Late that evening, I raked the garden, laid out beds, and planted snow peas, lettuce, and Swiss chard. I protected the beds from hungry critters with wire hoops covered by mesh since I don’t know when I’ll be back home. It rained the next day, just what the seeds and seedlings needed. Another gift.

My brother is still in the hospital, but he’s growing weaker and can no longer speak on the phone. It’s time for me to return. Everything is in order at home. I even finished and scheduled the post you’re reading now. I feel replenished by Nature and prepared for what’s ahead–or as prepared as I can be to face the Great Mystery.

As the chestnut trees grow, I’ll remember that I trusted new life in my brother’s last days.

Even as the farmer labors
There where the seed turns into summer,
It is not his work. It is Earth who gives.[i]



The week after my husband Vic died, my sons and I planted a vegetable garden. It seemed nuts and it was the perfect thing to do. What do you do to ease grief in times of sorrow? For other posts about working with Matt Hoff on my land, see My Mysterious Home. For an earlier post about my brother’s illness, see Soul Care in Hard Times.

[i] Rainer Maria Rilke, “Sonnets to Orpheus: Part One, XII,” In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. and ed. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. 85.


  1. Dear Elaine,

    I’m so sorry your dear brother has been so ill. Meanwhile, you are taking such tender care of the elderly, the ill, the trees, the garden, and your own soul. Such solace in the natural course of life on earth is a great gift. Thanks so much for sharing your journey.

    With love,

    • Thank you, Myra. Jim died yesterday. I was glad to be with him and his family. A sad day and a sacred day. Since he was four years older, he’s been a character in my life drama from the beginning. There were no surprises in his dying, so a quiet sadness. I feel most for his wife and kids who are having their life turned upside down.

      • I’m so sorry to learn this sad news, dear Elaine. You’ve been such a devoted sister to your brother. I wish you and Jim’s family gentle, loving comfort and grace in the days ahead, and may your dear brother’s soul be blessed with all he needs on his journey.

        “They whom we love and lose are no longer where they were before. They are now wherever we are.” ~ St. John Chrysostom

        • Thank you, Marty. My brother and I were close when we were young, drifted apart as adults, and then came back together in the last fifteen years. At some point, we realize we don’t have forever so have to feed important relationships even if we live at a distance. He was a constant support when Vic was sick. I wanted to spend as much time as possible with Jim after he got sick and did lots of driving to Boston. A new level of intimacy became available then. Our support has been mutual and full of love. I love the quote you sent. Yes, right here in my heart along with all the other people I love.

  2. I am pleased to see your spirit doing a bit of frolicking in the dirt even as the Willow and Willa turned crazy loops. It doesn’t seem nuts to me to plant a garden before or after the death of a loved one. After all, this act mimics the cycle: birth –> death –> rebirth. If worrisome thoughts attack my mind indoors, I find that just going outside to my patio garden relieves me of all that. The fretful buzzing stops.

    You quoted Rilke, and I’ll quote the Psalmist: They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. (Ps. 126:5)

    A memorable post marking another milestone, Elaine. Blessings to you as you minister to Jim and family just now.

    • Thank you for your beautiful quote, Marian. I had forgotten it, and it’s perfect. Yesterday, I remembered Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season…”

      Jim pulled out of near death a few times in recent years, but yesterday, once his lungs began failing, he died in only 12 hours. Lots of peace and a few poems and songs before his last breath, including our dad’s favorite “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”

      I just read the Psalm. Just what I needed, Marian. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
      Psalm 126:5-6New International Version (NIV)

      “Those who sow with tears
      will reap with songs of joy.
      Those who go out weeping,
      carrying seed to sow,
      will return with songs of joy,
      carrying sheaves with them.”

      • I thought of including verse 6 but didn’t. Now I realize I would have deprived you of finding it in a different version. 🙂

  3. Here we are again experiencing the suffering of life. This time with you facing your brother’s death and me with my 93 yr old mother who no longer remembers her own name.
    We have faced a lot together through the years. And the longer I live the more precious you become. We live through events and at the time are happy for the comfort, shoulder, hugs and the loving conversations that help us through the jagged narrows. But now as I sit quietly reflecting on all that has passed I can see that it is the thread of continuity that is sacred. That intangible, soulful stream that is present in my life and which exists as your friendship.

    Once again you are called to witness the death of a loved one, family, and I am too far away to help physically. That is hard.
    You, she-who-has-a-big-psycho/spiritual tool-box will be there with grace and strength and wisdom. It is your way. And I will love you from afar glad to know that those around will be supported by your presence. And you will be supported by the earth beneath your feet and the many friends who know you well.
    This entry made me weep, as so many of yours do. Not sure why exactly with this one. There is something so basic in planting, and somehow American Chestnuts seemed particularly…real, timeless.

    “As the chestnut trees grow, I’ll remember that I trusted new life in my brother’s last days.” How exquisite. Your faith and your trust give me fortitude for all that lies ahead. I think I will plant a tree at my mom’s place too. It is a good idea.
    Thank you for being you and sharing your beautiful thoughts in these posts.

    • Yes, here we are again, Lauren. And we have faced life and death together. I’m grateful for that long thread of friendship–and glad that even though you’re moving at the moment, you’ll still be only 3000 miles away with no oceans inbetween. I thought of you and Steve all day yesterday and the sacred space we and others created in Vic’s death.

      I’m sorry about your mom. I’m glad she has two loving daughters watching over her. I see how frightening it is for Vic’s mom to lose her sense of who and where she is.

      I am calm on this morning after my brother’s death. His wife went back to bed for a while, but we’re having a quiet, stay in your pajamas kind of day. My brother and I had powerful moments of connection in the last few years and I’m grateful. I wondered how the sacred would show at the death of my atheist brother (other than in my silent inner chanting and prayers), but as we sang to him, loved him, and added tears to ease the transition. I’m grateful for the new baby trees and will make sure they get plenty of water and a few tears this summer. Planting a tree feels like faith in life in a long-term, after-I’m-gone way. I love that. Thank you for walking with me no matter where you are.

  4. I especially like your pink gloves! I bought petunias and trailing sweet potato vines for hanging planters. They’re waiting in my bathtub. In the 20’s tonight.
    Yes to planting!

    • Thank you, Janet. I found those almost new pink garden gloves in a messy box of garden tools and tags and seeds. I hope my orderly self shows up sometime to deal with those messes, but she’s been on vacation a long time. Neighbors are caring for two Angel’s Trumpets and two white oaks while I’m with my brother’s family. I got to the hospital on Monday night. He was very awake, alert, and full of directives and plans. My sister-in-law and I stayed a few hours until he wanted to go to sleep. Death didn’t feel close, although he’d had a bout of lung problems earlier in the day. The next morning at 7 am, his wife got a call to come quickly, she woke me up, and we hustled to the hospital. Family and close friends came and went throughout the day. We all had a little time alone with him. In his last hour, we sang to him. At 9:20 pm, there was no inhalation. Having a quiet day here with my sister-in-law napping now and Willow snoozing on my feet waiting for another city walk with all those great smells.

  5. When my brother died and Marty,s parents died we had three trees planted in Israel.Cedars of Lebanon. I love the idea that remembrance is so vital and alive.
    I was really thinking of you yesterday and so wondering how you are doing.Geoff is going to a good PTSD clinic on Monday in Vermont with a good buddy Marine friend.For 6weeks. we asked that the boat go in this week because the sawing and heavy carpentry begins Monday also.The new sofa is here all covered up because of construction.I have thought long and hard about these changes so I do not feel so caged in the winter. I got the proper Rx for my decateracted eyes…What a blessing to wear the bosses and wear my hearing aides.I do feel aware because I am.I bought some EarlcGrey and breakfast teas for us when you can .It is said lksi g our sj lings is like losing our Present. I wonder ALOT about our Present because we live on so many levels due to sychronicity.Your writing is like a poem.Spare and full of feelings and images.I am grateful for it and for you.Love is with you sweetie.


    • Thank you, Alicia. As I think you know, my brother died last night. I’m glad the trees are in the ground and I’m grateful I had four days with my brother two weeks ago when we could talk about what mattered to us. I’m glad I could be with him and his family yesterday and that I made it here on Monday night and saw him awake and very conscious then. He was glad I was there and glad everyone was with him.
      Sounds like you’re getting ready for an extended time on the water away from construction. I’m glad to hear about Geoff. May all be well. I’m staying with my sister-in-law for a while and don’t know just how long. Thanks for your friendship and take care of yourself.

  6. Elaine, I’ve just read the news of your brother’s passing. I am sending you strong hugs and gentle kisses. Your posts are such a blessing to all of us. Thank you for your truthful, wise words. I am honored to read them. Deep peace, Elaine. Thinking of you with great admiration.

    • Thanks, Gail. As you know, he’s been sick for a while. He was close to death many times and popped back, but there was no more juice this time. I’m glad he isn’t suffering. I’ll know more where I am when I’m home in the quiet of nature. I hope to return by the weekend. I want to check on those American Chestnut trees and give them a drink of water if it’s dry there.

  7. I’m sorry to hear your brother is regressing Elaine. Your strength is truly admirable. You’re looking after Virginia, and taking the time and energy to plant new life outside your home is the cycle that keeps you grounded and reminded that life is always calling.
    I’m still thinking about you and sending your hugs and prayers to remain strong through this difficult time with your brother. xo 🙂

    • My brother died yesterday, Debby. I got to Boston Monday night and his wife and I saw him from 8 – 10 pm at the hospital. He was alert and full of resolve to get better. I didn’t think it could happen, but he’s done it before. The next morning, the hospital called his wife to tell her to come quickly. He was still able to communicate when we got there but in obvious distress. Palliative care helped all day as they had helped the day before. He died in the evening. We sang to him in his last hour. I was grateful for that. I look forward to new leaves on those baby chestnut trees.

  8. I’m so so sorry Elaine. I did see you posted earlier and left condolences. A blessing that you made it back in time to spend a few more precious hours together and that he was soothed by your singing.
    I wish you strength and peace in your new journey of healing. Sending you love and hugs. <3

    • Thank you, Debby. I hope your husband is getting stronger. Spending days in hospitals either as patients or caregivers is exhausting. My sister-in-law’s brother and sister-in-law are arriving at her home today, so I’ll return to my home. I look forward to the healing quiet of home.

      • Thank you Elaine for your words of encouragement and prayers for my own husband. My husband is finally on a great road to recovery after a long 2 months. Our naturopath has been very instrumental in this development. Miracles can really sometimes happen. <3

        • I’m so glad your husband is recovering, Debby. What a blessing! Vic saw an excellent naturopath and many other alternative health practitioners, but he was up against a fierce and mysterious disease. No one knew what to do. May your husband stay healthy a long, long time.

  9. Elaine, I send you warm hugs and an invitation to stay with me on your way home if you travel over Rt 2 in Vermont. Willow too.

    I’ve never had a brother or a sister, so I am only imagining how it must be to lose someone who has been a part of your life, all your life. Is it like losing a limb?

    How comforting the verses Marian sent you must be. So fitting.

    • Thank you, Janet, and thanks for your invitation. I go straight west on the Mass Pike through Albany to get home, so don’t travel through Vermont. My husband was an only child and I only had this one brother. I’m not sure yet what it’s like to not have him in my life other than sad. He’s been a protective presence for a long time. We’ve seen each other more often in the last three years since he became ill. We had different trajectories in life, but there was always a deep familiarity and comfort. Yes, I love the verses Marian sent. I’m imagining a post using them.

  10. This is my first time visiting, Elaine, but I am so sorry for the struggles in your family! It really is amazing how cathartic planting can be when you’re going through a trying time.

    • Thank you, Rachel, and welcome. My brother died the day this piece was posted. I had written and scheduled the blog a few days before. My brother seemed to be getting stronger which is why I had returned home for a few days, but then the big reversal. I’m so glad those trees are planted in his honor.

  11. Elaine, I’m so sorry about your brother. I love that you can plant trees and flowers and vegetables, and FEEL new life. And hope.

    • There comes a point, as you know, when the only open door left is death. When my brother was diagnosed with cancer, he said to me, “I’ll need you at the end.” I’m grateful I was with him and his family throughout his illness and at the end. Of course I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, but his illness brought a deep intimacy between us. I’m grateful for that. I miss him.

  12. “I’ll need you at the end.” Beautiful, beyond language.

    Dear Elaine, I have just read your sad news with a heavy heart. May you draw great comfort in the years that follow, from your many shared days together, days of powerful connection and deep intimacy. As Jim was your only sibling, I imagine your heart is hurting much during these sad and sacred hours.

    In meditation I place the softest of shawls upon your shoulders, so that your beautiful heart may be solaced by its grace and warmth. In happy tears that feed the soul, it is a deep joy to hear how Jim’s last hours were spent in poetry and song. Sending you much love and many hugs, Deborah. xoxo

    • Thank you, Deborah. I just finished a post for next week about Jim’s last day–weeping my way through the words and images. It helps to write my sorrow, read the words of the songs we sang that night, and hear them sung on Youtube, even with my poor hearing. Official obituaries are showing up about his career and public service, but this is my personal farewell. It’s good to remember our love and my own mortality.

  13. Lovely as always my dear friend. Your writing has a literal soothing effect on me and I enjoy reading it so. I follow you every step of the way. Sometimes from a bit of a distance when I’m holding on myself. I look forward to sharing company with you soo and walking the land. Blessings to you and all that you do.

    • When we walk here again, I’ll point out the American Chestnut trees. Some of them are planted near the place where I took a photo of you under a rainbow. Thank you for being my friend and soul brother.

  14. Add my sympathy to your long attending list. Look forward to the changes death brings and your consequential growth. Another ring in the tree of your life, not easy but greatly valued. Tread gently, as always your way…
    You are not alone.

    • Thank you, Rea. I’ll find out what it means to have my only sibling die. Also what it means that the person who best carried my mother’s ambition and drive is dead. My brother was supportive and kind after our father died. I showed up to help in his life when his daughter was ill. He helped me when Vic was sick and after Vic’s death. I knew I could count on him. Still, much of our interaction was on the phone or in email since he lived 8 hours away and was busy with career. Because he was ill, I spent more time with him in the last few years than I had since I was in my 20s. I sing the song I will always associate with his death and take in the meaning of the lyrics. They’ll be in the blog I post today, but the last line is “Let’s you and me, river, run down to the sea.” He did not want to go. His body insisted. His death won’t change my outer world in a drastic way, but it will change my inner worlds in ways I can’t yet imagine. Last night I had my first dream about him.

      The haiku is beautiful, Rea. Thank you again. His loss echoes and thunders for me, but particularly for his wife and children and colleagues who were with him every day. I do not feel alone.

      • Thank you, Elaine, for the beauty of another response. Songs and poems seem to be so much a part of our early lives…and we carry them with us into the forever of growing up. From him to you to all of us, the Running River poem is a gift. — I look forward to reading your blog post from today!

        • I love this new River Song, Rea. I sing it over and over again as I drive, while I walk, every time I feel sad which is often. Songs and poems stay with us as nothing else does. They carry the sacred (no matter what our background).

  15. Found the Japanese Haiku poem I was looking for. Old and revered. Here it is:

    An old tree was felled in the forest.
    Echoing, dark echoing
    Thunder in the hills.

    Deeply meaningful for me. I hope it will be so for you, too, one day.

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