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Gardens and Grief

I’ve started to think about the garden and the growing season. My father loved his garden and couldn’t wait until the weather was warm enough to plant. It’s hard to believe that this July he will be gone 11 years.

The American Psychiatric Association recently updated the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For the first time, grief is a disorder when it is prolonged beyond one year. I observed the traditional Jewish year of mourning – I said Kaddish for 11 months; I did not go to movies or large social gatherings; I did not buy new clothes. On his first Yahrzeit/Nahalah (anniversary of a death) a friend told me that I would now have closure; and I knew that was far from the truth. My father and I were aligned in our view of the world, in the ways we spoke, and the things we talked about. He was truly a poetic soul. By some magic formula, grief would not disappear at the one-year mark.

Grief has not occupied my life for 11 years, but I do still have moments. I don’t think that it will ever go away. In that first year, I didn’t know how I would get through my life without him. I knew that death is part of life, that he had prepared me for this; but his death was such a shock. How could he go? He was the man who changed my diapers, taught me how to ride a bike, how to drive, and change a tire. A week before he died, he told me that he’d had enough, that it was too hard. And I knew it was time. Yet, the letting go and the knowledge that he was no longer in pain wasn’t enough to carry me through that first year.

I kept thinking about him – when I went to sleep; when I woke up, during the day. I dreamt about him. He was always young and healthy. I knew he wanted me to go on – he’d prepared me for that. My father was a Holocaust survivor and lost his parents, an older sister, and younger brother in Auschwitz. My father was 16 when he was arrested and sent to Dachau. He lived after this. He built a life. He showed me how to live without loved ones. It was now my turn.

My father taught me about the cycles of life in the garden. I once called him to see how the flowers in the front yard were doing, and he told me, “Some are coming; some are going.” He also taught me when to give up. One summer, there was an eggplant in the southeast corner of the garden that wasn’t doing well. He told me it was time to pull it out of the soil. I didn’t want to give up; but he said it was time.

The two chive plants he planted in pots on the back deck come up every year. I didn’t know if that would happen after he died, but it did. I was out there yesterday; and green is shooting up everywhere in the pots. I take it as a sign of faith – the faith my father always had in the garden, that the soil would nourish the seeds, that the seeds would become plants, and the plants would bear fruit.

When the weather gets warmer, I’ll get tomatoes, basil, parsley, dill, and more to plant. Each year when I start my own garden, the grief returns. I should be doing this with my father. A friend of mine told me that grief doesn’t end; we just get better at managing it. I’ve gone on in my life and hope I have made my father proud. I’m far better at living with grief.

Friends who had lost a parent before I did, told me grief comes in waves. I wrote a poem called Black Ice because that’s what grief is for me. In the beginning, I didn’t see it coming; and I slipped every time. I still do. If the American Psychiatric Association says I have a disorder because I grieved for longer than a year, so be it. My grief means that I had a loving relationship with my father, something to grieve, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

To read my poem:

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