“Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.”
May Sarton, American poet (1912 –1995)
When well-meaning friends told Sarah that at least she had her garden following the death of her daughter Evie in 2007, she says she “honestly wanted to thump them”. Nine years on, and Sarah believes so passionately in gardening as a way of managing grief that she has launched a charity and published a book on the subject.
“Since the loss of Evie I have found many benefits to gardening, not least a calm acceptance of the life and death cycle that all living things experience,” says Sarah. “It still is no cure for loss, the loss will always be with me, but it is a way of carrying on and experiencing the best of the world.”
Sarah’s 20-week scan revealed that Evie had a chromosomal abnormality. Her heart and lungs had not formed properly and Sarah and her husband William were told that their daughter would not be able to survive outside of her mother’s body. The couple made the devastating decision to terminate the pregnancy.
Following Evie’s death, Sarah suffered two miscarriages, and, after much agonising, she and William decided not to try for any more children.
Passionate about gardening for many years, she initially found little connection between her pastime and the pain of losing Evie. “It felt so entirely inadequate as a cure for my grief,” says Sarah. “But being a keen gardener, I already knew some of its emotional benefits. I was lucky that I had experienced the soothing, uplifting and inspiring benefits of gardening before tragedy struck me.”
Wanting to share her positive experience with others, Sarah wrote and published an acutely personal book, ‘The Heartfelt Garden’. The chapter titles point to the benefits Sarah found through gardening, including ‘Peace and Clarity’ and ‘Appreciation of Simplicity’. “These things help the healing process, but everyone needs to be allowed to do their grieving in their own time and in their own way,” says Sarah. “It is important to accept that a serious hurt, a loss, will always be with you, but it becomes easier to live with because of these things in your life.”
Sarah and William’s Grade II listed farmhouse, Brook Farm (pictured left), sited in the glorious Teme Valley in Worcestershire, provides the setting for her second venture in gardening therapy: The Honeysuckle Trust charity. The farmhouse, which the couple run as a B&B, and its two holiday cottages nestle in a ravishing two-acre garden which has featured in The English Garden magazine and on the cover of the 2011 National Gardens Scheme Yellow Book.
Sarah, pictured right, has persuaded two other B&Bs with substantial gardens to sign up to the charity: Sussex Prairies near Chichester and Austwick Hall in Yorkshire. The Honeysuckle Trust, named after one of Sarah’s favourite flowers, will sponsor people who have been bereaved to take short gardening breaks. The trust should be ready to receive its first guests next summer. Each garden owner will supervise their guests’ gardening tasks. “We don’t just want to send them home exhausted after digging someone’s vegetable patch,” says Sarah. “There are lots of gentle jobs that can be done which I have always found comforting - a bit like a useful meditation.”
Despite its 5,000-year history, horticultural therapy is still relatively unknown. Ancient Egyptian physicians were said to have suggested walks in gardens for their patients, while in the 14th Century Irish monks reportedly prescribed time in the garden for those who were “troubled”. In 1798 the American professor of medicine Dr Benjamin Rush noted that “digging the soil has a curative effect on troubled souls”.
In an article for the Nursing Times, Mathew Page of the 2gether NHS Foundation Trust in Gloucester speculated that the giving of hope might be the key benefit of gardening therapy. He wrote: “…there may be something in gardening associated with providing hope for those who may have little else to hope for. This might, ultimately, be the most beneficial aspect of gardening therapy.”
Sarah agrees. “Being connected with nature makes you accept the inescapable cycle of life and death and realise it’s not personal. And slowly you come to live happily with the rhythm.
“With gardening, there is always next year. There is always hope.”
Fifty per cent of the profits from Sarah's book, ‘The Heartfelt Garden’, go to The Honeysuckle Trust). It can be ordered from www.amazon.co.uk.
For more information on bereavement breaks, visit www.honeysuckletrust.co.uk
Sarah and William’s garden is open to visitors most weekends. For more details, visit: www.brookfarmberrington.org