Steven Katsineris writes about his own coping strategy for dealing with the grief occasioned by the death of a child. Steven Katsineris is a freelance writer of articles, short stories and poems. Born in Hobart, Tasmania, he now lives in Hurstbridge with his family.
This article is about gardens and grief, how the garden helped me survive the loss of my child.
Wherever we have lived, our children have always loved playing, exploring and discovering in the garden. They also enjoyed helping me in the garden, with the planting, weeding, watering and other tasks. When we moved to a new place, we would set about planning what jobs needed doing and begin to grow a native garden and vegetable patch. The children also delighted in eating the fresh produce the veggie garden provided, and picking the flowers and herbs that we grew.
When we moved to Hurstbridge, the house had been empty for over a year and the big garden needed a lot of attention. At the time we arrived, our son Andreas was only three and while he liked the garden, he was too young to help much. Our daughters, Sian aged eight and Chione aged five were on the other hand willing, energetic and capable helpers in transforming the yard. Chione especially had plenty of splendid ideas to share with me, and there was ample room for many more plants in the yard. Together we talked about our common imaginings of a thriving, fertile garden, abundant in wildlife and the joy it would give us to work on creating this and the enduring pleasure the garden would give us.
The large nature strip along the main road was bare; another big section of nature strip had only three gum trees, with a long pathway running the length of the nature strip. Chione had a vision of it full of native vegetation and suggested we plant a forest there on both sides of the pathway. There was also the remains of an old, large concrete pond, which was full of logs, branches, rocks and other rubble, with bare ground around it, except for a plum tree growing near it. Chione and I envisioned a beautiful fishpond with scores of grasses and other plants growing around the pond. There was also a cubby house that needed various repair work. Chione thought that a flower garden adjacent to it would look really wonderful.
We started these joint projects by setting up a vegetable garden and we planted quite a few native trees and bushes. But the dreams we shared of a wondrous, flourishing garden did not come to fulfillment, or at least not in the way we ever imagined. One day while I was at work and my wife and children were returning home from school, a careless young driver’s car left the road and hit Chione, who was walking ahead of the others. She died the next day in hospital.
Our family struggled to cope and we barely continued to operate on a basic day-to-day level in between the collective and individual upheavals as we struggled to help each other through this tragedy. It was very hard to find the strength to hold us together and go on functioning amid this profound loss. I was in shock for a long time; emotionally distressed and in intense grief. I couldn’t concentrate on work or write and felt drained of energy. I just cried and cried and tried to comfort my family. I couldn’t sleep much, but spent a lot of time lying on the bed or on the couch thinking things over and over.
One day while lying on the couch half asleep I distinctly heard Chione’s voice saying, “Father, father, get up off the couch and do the garden.” The other children called me dad, while Chione preferred to call me father. I thought for a few minutes about what I’d heard. It sounded just like what she would say. I sat up and looked out the window at the vegetable garden for a while. Then I got up and went out and picked up the pitchfork. I walked to the vegetable patch and started to weed, an unfinished job we had started previously together. As I dug, I cried, feeling conflicting emotions, with thoughts of Chione, of doing what she would want me to do, but it also felt somehow wrong. It seemed to be betrayal, as if I were getting on with life without her. After a short time I returned to the couch, emotionally and physically exhausted. The next day I worked for a longer time: each day a little more. So it went on until I finished all the tasks Chione and I had talked about doing together.
The night after I finished the garden around the cubby house, I had a dream and in it Chione said she would like some Forget-Me-Not flowers planted there. There was only one tiny area in the yard where they were growing, so the next morning I went to dig some up. I put the hand spade into the soil and dug out the flowers and there in the ground was a small unbroken, terracotta angel. It was such a wonderful discovery. It seemed so fitting and was full of exceptional significance to me – as if I were meant to find it. I put the angel on a rock in the garden with the flowers.
Gardening went from being an activity that I enjoyed immensely to something that became deeply meaningful – a meditative and spiritual pursuit. Perhaps it was always so, but I never realised it. Now it was, together with the well-being of the children, the key to my continued existence. I lived to work in the earth and with plants. It saved my sanity: the tasks that Chione and I discussed and started gave me a focus, something to work towards. It was a reason to get up out of bed and face the day. It wasn’t easy especially at first: it took a great effort for me to find the strength to go on after such a devastating blow. I don’t believe you ever get over such close death, especially the death of your child. You don’t ever heal; you merely find a reason or reasons to go on and the inner strength to do it. To me the garden is a special place of solace and salvation.