The Tricky First Steps of Grief: What You Do When You Can’t

I have been away from my desk for several months.

Certainly there has been no absence of delight in the long, cool spring that is only now beginning to turn into stifling summer; nor is it for want of topics – as the garden throws them at me faster than I can catch them.  Some seasons simply present us with a straw more than we can comfortably carry and this is one such season.

My father has died.  That is the long and short of it.  Even in the midst of notifications, obituaries, emails and letters to friends far away, to write those words still seems strange, and not lessened by the modern verbiage of ‘passed’ – the intransitivity of which used to give the two of us great delight in moments of shared wickedness.

Passed water?  Passed out?  Passed a stone?  Here we would giggle and gasp for breath.

No.  My father has died.  And though my hope is great that his soul is soaring, he is no longer here with us.

waterside plantingThis naturally presents some problems, and we are left to deal with them in our own ways – my mother, my husband, my children, my siblings, their spouses…their children.  A life beautifully led rippling mightily through the lives of others.

We discover those ripples at the most inopportune times – at dinner with friends, at a business gathering, in a thrift store where the remains of so many lives are suddenly and glaringly obvious. We are incapable for a moment.  Then we are back.  Laughing at a joke, networking with a colleague, buying a trinket at a beautiful price.  Getting on.

I will spare both reader and writer the ‘garden as comfort,’ pablum – both because Dad would not appreciate the mawkishness that would weave itself through such predictable cloth, and because I am not sure that it is, at this moment, a comfort.

It is a place where I must do, or be done.  And the comfort is in the doing I think, not in the result of all the doing, as it might be in happier times.  Trimming an edge is the therapy, the trimmed edge itself seems inconsequential once done.

When I do step back and lift my head, there is no question that established beds are far neater than they once were.  One cannot undertake the enormous amount of mindless micro- and macro-weeding I have undertaken without making an impact.  I have tweezed fine threads of clover from between clusters of succulents without counting the minutes spent, and taken the tiny point of my trowel to the roots of tinier grasses without resenting the effort in any way.

I am not sure that the garden is, at this moment, a comfort.  It is a place where I must do, or be done.  And the comfort is in the doing I think, not in the result of all the doing.

It is gardening by rote.  But it is purposeful.

I realize that I am merely cleaning – putting things right where I have the power to do so. When I call my mother to see how she is coping, she has filled another two wheelbarrows with weeds and pruned back all of the struggling rhododendrons under a hot California sun.  She asks me if I will fix the pathway lights when we come for the memorial in August.  Yes, I can fix that.  I will fix that.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of grief is balancing this manic activity with pure apathy.  When I opened the bees yesterday – a full two weeks later than I should have – I  found one of the hives struggling and a capped emergency cell signaling that either a) they knew it, and were re-queening, or that b) half the hive swarmed and I never realized it.

I did not try and solve the problem.  I merely closed them up, cranked up The Jayhawks on my earbuds, and watched them come and go for a half an hour while I sat in the sun and thought about how much I appreciate seeing bees in the garden once again.

They’ll get on with it. We will have honey or we will not, and life will continue.


bees and beehives


The apathy continues into domestic life, with dinners of eggs and toast, or just toast with a bit of jam.  Or perhaps a glass or two of mid-range red shared with my husband in the evening.

We sit on the deck and grouse about our work days and for those moments neither of us really thinks of the enormity of what has happened.

My daughter comes out looking for dinner and I tell her to have a piece of cake.  Thrilled, she retreats before I can come to my senses.  She needn’t run – there is little chance of this when the dog is eating cat food and I have broken out the powdered milk and instant coffee to avoid trudging to the market.  Life is in a holding pattern at the moment.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of grief is balancing manic activity with pure apathy. 

carex, stachys, chamaecyparisBut I still walk around with my camera in the early morning.  I still balance the edge of my coffee cup against the heel of my hand as I fumble with the settings to capture a beautiful combination.

‘Silver Lining’ pyracantha against a wine-red ‘Bonfire’ patio peach…tall verbena weaving itself through white phlox and African blue basil…fine threads of carex softening the deep greens of a fasciated chamaecyparis.  It is gratifying to see these plants coming together in the absence of any real effort on the part of the resident gardener.

This is, ironically enough, the first season where I have felt some sense of solidity to the garden, and such feelings should be celebrated, not ignored.  The design is slowly evolving and plants are beginning to knit themselves together as if they have always been there.  Indeed I have to squint my eyes to remember what was.

Though I have found it hard to put more than three sentences together in any meaningful way, or pay a parking ticket before fines have doubled, the garden is still growing, and will be growing when I fully return to it.

Meanwhile, in shallower arenas, I have continued to share these photos on social media along with many of the great gardens I have been visiting in between emergencies…without actually mentioning the emergencies.

This is either a) completely harmless or b) final and irrefutable proof that social media platforms are curated fantasy realms of the highest order and should always be regarded with a critical eye.  There have been many moments in the last few months where I have thumbed through the photos of others, and wondered where the truth lies.


shade garden foliage plants


But that is grief – picking out your own path, wondering why everyone around you is acting normally, and in the end, getting on.  We will have honey or we will not and life, remarkably, will continue.


By | 2019-07-11T16:53:13+00:00 July 12th, 2019|

About the Author:

Marianne is the mother of two, wife of one and the voice of The Small Town Gardener. She gardens and writes from her home in the scenic (and exceptionally convenient) heart of Virginia's wine country.


  1. Anne Kelly July 12, 2019 at 3:06 pm - Reply

    Marianne, I thank you for sharing yourself with us. You words remind me of our family. I wish you peace. (And, wonderful writing as always with the highlight, for me, of cake for your daughter and cat food for your dog! They are doing fine.)

  2. Larren July 12, 2019 at 4:39 pm - Reply

    Did you ever strike a chord with me this morning! My husband, Tom, also died Feb. 16th this year. We both enjoyed retirement on my family’s farm in Oklahoma – where he planted hundreds of pine seedlings (now 30′ tall), added beehives in honor of his late father (a beekeeper), turned acres of pasture into lawn he enjoyed mowing & built a log home to remind us of our previous homes in Colorado & Minnesota. As he had Parkinson’s & congestive heart failure, I had done most of the mowing & beekeeping last summer, but he was always sitting in the Kubota, along for the ride. Then we’d sit on our long back porch overlooking the hay meadow & pastures, watching for wildlife, enjoying it all. This year has been a struggle every chore I do – but do them I must – to do us both proud. No, because of the rain my bees haven’t capped a single frame of honey yet & who knows if they will – or if I will choose to leave it for them.

    • Marianne Willburn July 19, 2019 at 12:56 pm - Reply

      Larren, thank you for relating this – I am so sorry to hear you have lost your husband. Though I am struggling here with all that I must do, I think of my mother who for forty years has worked side-by-side with my father on a piece of land and how difficult it must be to transition. Sitting and watching the bees (my sister has hives on their place), is extremely therapeutic for her. Those trees are a wonderful testament to your husband’s memory.

  3. Susan Peterson July 12, 2019 at 5:10 pm - Reply

    Marianne, I am so, so sorry. I know (now) that I have suffered from depression since my teen years. I never sought treatment until my mother’s death, when I was fifty-five. I mention this only because following her death, I simply could not cope. With anything. My tears simply would not stop without chemical help. It’s obvious that your father was as important to you as my mother was to me. And so I want to wish you strength for this painful journey. May God bless you.

    • Marianne Willburn July 19, 2019 at 12:52 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much Susan – he really was a wonderful man and will be desperately missed. Thank you for your honesty – it is appreciated.

  4. Patty Hovde July 12, 2019 at 5:19 pm - Reply

    So sorry for your loss, Marianne! My mother just died two days ago. To everyone who knew her, we just said that she had gotten her butterfly wings and flew away. She liked to raise Monarchs and she fought with the road mowers to keep them from mowing down the milkweed. Since she had been in hospice for 3 weeks with her children taking care of her, I am looking forward to going home and getting therapy from my garden….if it’s not too late. Thank you for your columns, and I hope your memories help you through the coming days!

    • Marianne Willburn July 19, 2019 at 12:50 pm - Reply

      I’m extremely sorry to hear this Patty – she sounds like a wonderful human being. Whether it’s just wandering through the garden or manically pulling weeds, I hope that you allow yourself to find the new normal and are very kind to yourself as you work through the next few weeks. – MW

  5. July 12, 2019 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    Dear Marianne, thank you for sharing. Well said. May you and your family find peace during this time of transition.

  6. Sheryl Massaro July 13, 2019 at 1:52 am - Reply

    You and your family are in my heart and prayers, Marianne.

  7. Lydia Plunk July 14, 2019 at 2:29 am - Reply

    Dear Marianne. My husband died of brain cancer last summer. I so understand. And relate. Balancing manic purposeful work against the apathy of those things which are important- but they mean finality- so they go on the back burner in a world where time is whirled in a blender. Somethings up close and others barely remembered. Getting through the grief is hard work. But the reward is our loved ones would not want us to give up. They want us to go on for them. Blessings

    • Marianne Willburn July 19, 2019 at 12:47 pm - Reply

      Lydia, I am so sorry – I’m sure that this still feels so fresh. Your words are lovely, and very appreciated. – MW

  8. Joan Gorsuch July 21, 2019 at 5:46 pm - Reply

    Dear Marianne (like a 2nd daughter to me),
    Lee and I miss your Dad terribly also. I feel guilty that I didn’t see more of Dr. B for a long time, but Lee was having his own health problems – in and out of the hospital, etc. I really didn’t know of his health problems so I could help your Mother. Looking forward to seeing you in August.
    With sincere condolences and love,
    Joan G.

  9. Mary Volker September 7, 2019 at 1:13 am - Reply

    I didnt even know why I had taken up gardening since my husband died in April. I guess it’s to avoid the necessary things we must do when we lose a piece of us. I’ve dealt with all of it but I just cant accept that he is gone.

    • Marianne Willburn September 7, 2019 at 2:41 pm - Reply

      Mary, I’m so very sorry. The garden has been a great source of joy for my mother these last two months – but each day is extremely tough. I’m spending a little more time thinking of my dad when something amusing happens in the garden, and being thankful that he gave me such a love of the land. I wish you peace in the months ahead.

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