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The Landscape of My Grief

By Susie McDaniel

Today I cleaned my patio garden as I usually do each Sunday.  An enthusiastic gardener, I love spending time with my hands in cool earth, cleaning up fallen leaves and trimming away old growth to make way for new.  This patio garden is small, a 16 x 6-foot rectangle that is heavily shaded by the sentinels that stand guard above it: decades-old fig, plum, and cape honeysuckle that toss their leaves and blossoms like a careless four-year old at a wedding, haphazardly covering my plants with random bits of debris.

I have meticulously and lovingly planted each specimen in this special garden.  Rosy impatiens, creamy gardenias, purple and pink fuchsia, star jasmine, maidenhair fern, pale pink begonia, rose and pink azalea, and mona lavender with deep purple under-leaves.  I tried bleeding hearts but to no avail, a disappointing discovery given the significance of their name.

In the middle of my little garden is a sweet fountain, only two tiers, that plays a lilting  song as it sparkles in the early morning sun or in the dappled light of late afternoon.  Beneath this fountain are the ashes of my daughter’s suicide note that she wrote in the early evening hours of January 4, 2012 just before she ended her tumultuous and confusing 19-year old life. Covering the pain and anguish of those tortured words with the healing, serene sound and movement of falling water was the very first step in my creation of this garden, my Shaelee Memory Garden.  Pink was her favorite color.

At a very young age my daughter, my only child, was diagnosed with Early Onset Childhood Bi-polar Illness.  Her journey, our journey, was fraught with challenges on every front.  School was a nightmare, childhood friends were mostly non-existent, the financial strain was bankrupting, the questions were never-ending, and the answers were excruciatingly hard to find and devastating once understood. When she was nine, her dad and I separated and eventually divorced, adding more confusion and pain to an already intolerable ordeal.  Her first suicide attempt occurred at the age of 15.  After 16 months at a therapeutic boarding school and a return to “managed health,” three more attempts followed as Shaelee negotiated the punishing and precarious journey of adolescence and the approach of an uncertain young adulthood. This resulted in more hospitalizations with inpatient and outpatient intensive therapies, medication changes, family counseling, and more despair.

Finally, four years and four attempts following that first terrible effort to remove the pain of her debilitating illness, she succeeded.

Despite this tragic outcome of her devastating mental illness, my beautiful, creative, spirited, and courageous daughter left several life-giving legacies.  Never choosing to learn to drive, when she attained her state identification card she became an organ donor.  Today, somewhere in Arizona, a grandmother with once failing eyesight is now able to see her family once more.  This is a poetic result given the gorgeous big blue eyes with which my daughter examined life. Her lovely skin has aided many burn victims; her generosity of spirit has contributed to the forward movement of scientific research.

Upon reflection, it seems such a curious contradiction, this gift of ongoing life from such a tragic death. And yet, I see this cycle in the landscape of my garden, as well as in life.

Growing up in the Midwest, autumn was–and remains–my favorite season.  The dazzling and bejeweled forests; the impish, orange pumpkin fields; and the spicy aroma of a strong autumn wind all fill the atmosphere with that intoxicating experience of the season.  As a child, I knew that this colorful display heralded in hayrides and bonfires, crisp afternoons, and the eventual gift of crystal clear snowflakes with the onset of winter.  What I didn’t think about was the fact that the earthy and exhilarating autumn aroma was the result of dying and decaying plants and leaves.  Nor did I ever consider that the deep frost of winter sent flowers and trees into a profound suspended animation, death-like and silent.

I did not consider these processes because the new life of springtime consistently transformed the naked trees and hidden plants into a riotous display of brilliant colors and textures.  I did not think about the notion that this new life could only result from release and loss giving way to transformation and rebirth. But now I know better.

In my journey that began with that first terrible phone call on the evening of January 4th, 2012, I have experienced the most devastating of losses, the darkness and winter of my fractured heart and bereaved soul, the slumbering suspended animation of paralyzing grief, and—slowly—a glimpse of new life.  Expert notions shared through the remarkable organization The Compassionate Friends suggest that we are in “acute grief” for three years following the loss of a child.  Acute grief requires the intercession of acute care.  I have received such care through the unceasing support and love of my family, my friends, and an unrelenting God that would not let me go no matter how hard I tried to wrestle free in my rage and despair.  And I have found solace, even snippets of joy, in my Memory Garden.

Because Shaelee does not have a burial site, there is no special monument to her life that I can pour my love and my grief into, no place I can leave flowers or love notes, no sacred ground acknowledging her existence.  And this is why I created my Memory Garden; my own hallowed ground upon which I pour my tears, my prayers, my sorrow, and my love.  In the physical act of maintaining this garden I find both release and renewal.  As I work in this little patch of earth I commune with my daughter, releasing my despair as I ask why she left me and if she forgives me for not saving her.  Surprisingly, I also find myself connecting with God in the midst of his natural world, finding consolation and renewal as I yield to his relentless love in the midst of my struggle to find the self-acceptance and forgiveness I so desperately seek.

My Memory Garden has a new look these days.  Recently, as we prepared ourselves for the impending departure of a much beloved older dog, my husband and I made a bold move.  We adopted two eight-week old puppies.  Now at 20-weeks, the “babies” are both pushing 20 pounds. Bundles of energy, they wrestle like Ninjas and are curious about everything—including my precious garden.  In order to protect this sanctuary from marauding puppy paws, last week we finally wrapped the fence surrounding my garden in green mesh to deter the puppies from their recreational jaunts.

Although I find this obscured view of my garden distressing at times, it is, after all, only temporary.  Eventually the mesh will come down and my garden landscape will be clear once more. For now, I still climb into the garden every Sunday to clean and prune, to talk and pray, to weep and smile as I find solace for my soul-scorching pain in my intimacy with the cool earth.  And as I do I am, yet again, reminded of the astonishing cycle of life, death, and new life.  Through this demonstration I find hope that the landscape of my grief journey will also yield ongoing glimpses of personal rebirth and transformation.  So I will plant myself in the soil of my Shaelee Garden, fertilize it with mother-love, and wait for the miracles to occur.

About the Author

Dr. Susie McDaniel, a native Midwesterner, has been a corporate trainer, teacher, and educator for nearly 40 years. Currently a Lecturer at Loyola Marymount University, Susie’s area of specialty is interpersonal and family communication, with particular emphasis on interpersonal relationship development and maintenance, family narratives, family rituals, and individual and family grief. Susie is an avid gardener and dog lover. She currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband, Dean Scheibel, and their three Wheaten Terriers: Casey, Molly, and Brigit.