Garden of Memories

For those who have lost a loved one, a remembrance garden can be a gentle way to grieve and heal.

Focus On Gardens

September 01, 2002|By Nancy Taylor Robson | By Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

A squirrel darts through the light-speckled hosta in Tom's Garden, pauses, tail fluttering, by an angel figurine, then skitters up the sycamore. Linda Stryholuk smiles, suddenly remembering her son as a small child tottering after his grandmother as she planted geraniums.

"I come out here every morning," Linda says softly, eyes on the shady garden behind her home in Galena on the Eastern Shore. "And I think of Tom."

Her son, Tom Norman, was killed eight years ago at age 23 in a motorcycle accident. Linda began the garden the weekend after his funeral.

FOR THE RECORD - In a story last Sunday about remembrance gardens, the name of the garden at Maryland Public Television was incorrect. It is dedicated to Brenda C. Alban. The Sun regrets the error.

"You have to find something to consume your attention, otherwise you drown in grief," she says. "And making things grow is very comforting."

Though Linda's grief is personal, her impulse to create a remembrance garden, a living memorial, is universal, an expression of the need to reaffirm life through the renewal of the Earth.

"Nature reminds us that when things seem bleak and barren -- as in winter -- the Earth is full of life just waiting to return," says Alexandra Kennedy, psychotherapist and author of Losing a Parent: A Passage to a New Way of Living (Harper San Francisco, 2000, $15). "That helps people to remember that it's all a cycle, and they too will have life return."

Kennedy says a number of her clients have created remembrance gardens in honor of deceased loved ones.

While some use plants associated with the person -- a favorite flower, herb or tree, or a plant that recalls a significant, often shared time -- others use the actual plants cultivated by late family or friends.

"One moved her mother's roses to her own garden; then the remembrance garden developed from the roses," says Kennedy.

In addition to having a visible, living symbol of remembrance after a loss, creating the garden helps to restore the gardener.

"In a subtle way, planting and being a caretaker of a garden helps you regain those senses of control and accomplishment that make us feel OK," says Erika Svendsen, social science researcher for the U.S. Forest Service in the Northeast Region.

Svendsen was working for the Parks and People Foundation, a Baltimore-based community forestry program, when she created her first remembrance garden at Mount and Fayette Streets in memory of two young people who were killed there.

"Remembrance gardens are all over the place," Svendsen says.

It's true.

Remembrance gardens are tucked into hospitals, museums, concert halls and office buildings. The Edwina C. Alba Remembrance Garden, complete with a goldfish pool and small waterfall, occupies one corner of the courtyard at Maryland Public Television (MPT) in Owings Mills. Named in honor of a loved and respected MPT assistant who died suddenly last summer, the garden's scope was enlarged this spring to include all of MPT's friends and colleagues.

Cherishing in memory and passing on to others the importance of the individual is one important function of the remembrance garden.

The Alice E. Healy garden, tucked into a grassy rise by the U.S. Post Office in Glyndon, was made by Healy's family in "joyous memory" of the beloved schoolteacher and Glyndon resident who "knew the art of living and giving from the heart."

Svendsen says, "At their heart, remembrance gardens are about healing."

Healing is the soul of the Living Memorial Project based in New York, a green response to September 11. The forest service has been working with the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland and Washington, D.C., to produce meaningful and continuing green-space memorials to the victims of the terrorist attacks. Currently, they are examining proposals and finding funding.

"The long-term goal is to make something lasting to enhance quality of life and help people deal with significant loss," says David Kamp, project consultant and owner of a landscape design firm, Dirtworks, P.C., in New York. "We're looking at the restorative powers of nature in a variety of environments."

Linda Stryholuk began Tom's remembrance garden with rooted plants from his funeral -- white and yellow lilies and bleeding heart. But over the years, she has expanded the garden from encircling one tree to two and including the ground in between them with heuchera, sedum, soft-hued impatiens, morning glory and ferns.

Though there is no plaque, two angels now grace the space, and another marks the entry from the patio.

"I want to put in a fish pond next year," she says. "This garden will never be finished."

A living memento

There are many ways to create a remembrance garden. The main thing is a memento, a physical reminder of the loved one. Don't forget to include a place to sit. Below are a few possible approaches.

* Design a garden with the loved one's favorite plants, or if possible, transplant originals or cuttings from that person's garden.

* Add a commemorative statue or figurine.

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