When parents lose a child – no matter what age, friends and family want to know how they can best help the grief-stricken. Some offer homemade meals, an ear to listen or shoulder to cry on, or make a donation to an organization in the child’s memory. Although none of these gestures can ever bring the beloved child back to its family, the gestures show love and a commitment to keeping the child’s life/memory alive.
One of the most touching gestures for Theresa Gill Wellman, a Project Sweet Peas project leader who lost her son Donny after six days as the result of a rare birth defect (congenital diaphragmatic hernia), was a garden that a friend offered to plant in Donny’s memory. Wellman spent that spring with her friend on this labor of love – watering the flowers, meditating beside it and contemplating how she would best navigate life without her son.
“I’ve been comforted by this simple gesture – and by the knowledge that my son had touched others’ hearts,” Wellman said.
Wellman then decided to plant a memory garden at her own house – something that she could cultivate and nurture as often as she wanted. Although she and her family no longer live there, she hopes to establish one again soon at her next permanent residence.
“A memorial garden is very therapeutic because it helps establish a connection to your child,” she said. “It is so hard to learn how to parent your angel. The garden provides a gateway; it provides a pathway for grief and healing. It gives a newly grieving parent something to do that is directly related to their child.”
PSP writing volunteer Erin Hart is also a proponent of remembrance plantings. After her twin sons Ethan Patrick and Casey Lawrence passed after being born prematurely at 22w5d gestation, she received two blue hydrangeas that she promptly planted. A family member also purchased plants of her choosing (two hibiscus) that she potted the same day she received them. The gestures were touching – giving life when lives were lost.
But the most healing activity was planting her own memory garden – one that, coincidentally, surrounds a tree with twin trunks, something she didn’t notice until a co-worker pointed it out in a picture Hart had taken.
“I needed something outside of the cemetery – a beautiful place where I could sit, think and talk to my sons. Each spring when I’m planting the garden, I feel their presence. When I’m digging the holes for their gerbera daisies and the windchime above me tinkles in the breeze, I know they are with me. It is one of the very few things I can still do for them, and I imagine they are giddy with excitement to know how much love I pour into this.”
Not everyone has a green thumb for memory plantings they do themselves, so they or their loved ones may opt to purchase a plant or a tree in the child’s name. When Shannon Mason, PSP’s bereavement and writing director, lost her babies, her aunt and uncle dedicated a magnolia tree along a highway in Mississippi under the Keep Mississippi Beautiful “Avenue of the Magnolias” program. According to the program website, a $25 contribution will dedicate a specific newly planted tree in honor or memory of your designee.1
There are many other similar organizations that allow families to purchase or dedicate plantings:
Plants will never replace our precious angels, but they offer a way for family and friends to stay connected to the grieving family – and honor the life of a child who was taken much too soon.
“Even though my son died, his spirit lives on,” Wellman said. “When I plant these flowers, water them and take care of them – I think of how Donny continues to live. When I watch the flowers grow and bloom, I can feel his love growing and blooming within my heart. Nature is one of my connections with Donny – and it is through nature and spending time within it that he communicates with me, and I can be a mommy to my angel.”
For more sweet updates and stories, subscribe to our newsletter