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“As Both My Parents Were Dying, Gardening Eased My Grief… and Brought Me Back to Life”

In an emotional personal essay, Jeni Driscoll shares how her garden helped her turn heartbreak into treasured memories

In February 2022, I couldn’t stop planting: tomatoes, strawberries, zucchini, thyme, oregano, and lavender. Here in Southern California, we have warm, sunny days in February, so it isn’t unheard of to plant then. But it was super early for me. I’d always waited until April or May to start my summer garden.

This year was different.

Jeni’s gardenJeni Driscoll

My mom, who was then 85, was out walking her dog on a September day in 2021 when her legs collapsed. It wasn’t like she tripped and fell. She slumped to the ground and couldn’t get up. Paramedics took her to the hospital and doctors ran multitudes of tests. A few weeks later with no definite diagnosis, she returned home to my then 93-year-old dad.

Jeni’s parentsJeni Driscoll

Mom knew something was very wrong. She told me, “Jen, make sure you do the things you want to do because one day you won’t be able to.”

She kept falling — daily. Every time it happened, my two sisters and I noticed her memory got worse. The cycle of falling and forgetting became more intense and more frequent.

The doctor soon diagnosed her with vascular dementia. I crumbled inside when I heard his words: “Your mom will never walk again.” Micro strokes were deteriorating her mind and body.

She was placed under hospice care and at the beginning of January 2022, moved to a board-and-care facility.

Mom’s once-strong, shapely dancer legs could no longer hold her up. She couldn’t sit without feeling nauseous. It was a struggle to feed herself. She couldn’t hold a conversation. Her glazed eyes didn’t sparkle like they used to. She gripped her cell phone tight, like it was her lifeline to the outside world — even though her brain couldn’t decipher how to text or make a call. She still recognized my family and me.

Every time I visited her, I prayed it wouldn’t be the day she’d forget.

Jeni Driscoll's parents
Jeni’s parents when they were youngJeni Driscoll

The weight of grief

All of this terrified me. There were many unknowns as to how this cruel disease would progress. I felt guilty for not googling “dementia.” But I didn’t want to know, didn’t want to understand it. I wanted to deny it was happening.

My anxiety was at an all-time high. I felt nervous and jittery every day. Even though I’d had panic disorder since I was a young girl, I’d never experienced this level of anxiousness. Emotionally, I was drained. Physically, exhausted. My neck was sore. My shoulders ached. It felt like concrete blocks were on the top of my head, weighing me down.

My husband knew what I needed even before I did. “After you see your mom tomorrow, why don’t you go buy some plants?”

I agreed. Gardening has always been my go-to stress reliever.

When I went to see Mom the next day, I told her about my upcoming shopping trip and all the fruits and vegetables I planned to buy.

She gave me a little smile and said, “That’s good!” Her voice was small and weak, but she gave it as much enthusiasm as she could.

Jeni with a plant and her mother before her diagnosis
Jeni with a plant and her mother before her diagnosisJeni Driscoll

Mom knew how much I loved to garden, but it wasn’t her thing. We used to laugh when I’d be all happy about a new flower I couldn’t wait to get in the ground, and she’d wrinkle her nose and say, “I don’t know how you like that. I hate getting dirt under my fingernails!”

We both knew I inherited the gardening gene from Dad.

Even though Mom didn’t have a green thumb, she loved my yard. She’d be excited to see my blooming roses, sprouting gladiolus and the kumquat tree bursting with orange fruit. I’d often surprise her with a bouquet of mixed flowers or one of her favorites, Sea Lavender.

About three years ago, Mom got the urge to spruce up their back patio. “I bought some succulents and pots, but I’m not sure how to plant them. Can you help?”

MUST-READ: Grow Your Own Succulent Garden, Plus How To Grow New Succulents From Their Leaves!

The next day when I got to Mom and Dad’s, I thought it was cute, and unlike her, that she had the succulents, pots, and a bag of soil laid out on the patio table. I was shocked that she went by herself to a home improvement store (she had no interest in DIY) and bought what she needed. Mom and I chatted and laughed as we — well, mostly me — planted.  

Healing moments

At the board-and-care home during my visit with Mom, those precious memories of life before dementia rushed back. How I wished Mom and I were at her house planting succulents instead of her lying in a hospital bed.

I leaned over the bed rail and held Mom’s frail, bony hand as I kissed her goodbye, then got in my car and headed to the nursery.

Surrounded by plants, I took a deep breath and let the sweet, musky aroma fill me. Bright flowers, the colors of a Hawaiian sunset, seemed to try to cheer me up. Within half an hour, my cart was filled with tomatoes, strawberries and herbs.

Jeni grows gorgeous flowers in her garden
Jeni grows gorgeous flowers as she was gardening for griefJeni Driscoll

When I got home, I went straight to the back yard. My mind drifted as I put my hands in the earth to pull weeds, turn the soil, and dig holes. I felt connected — grounded.

Gardening was something I could control. Unlike my mom’s illness.

I couldn’t begin to make sense of why this was happening to her. She seemed perfectly fine just six months before. Mom was a woman who deeply loved her family, who’d been married to my dad for 64 years, who tap danced until she was 83, who was passionate about God and her church community, who loved the rain, caramel frappuccinos and shopping at the mall.

My dad would often ask me, “Why does Mom have this? I don’t understand.”

Jeni with her sisters and parents before her mother's diagnosis
Jeni with her sisters and parents before her mother’s diagnosisJeni Driscoll

“I don’t know, Dad. I guess people ask the same thing when someone gets cancer or has heart problems. We don’t know the reason.”

Some days it was more painful watching Dad go through it than it was seeing my mom decline.

Determined to still take care of his wife, he went to see her every single day. With little stamina, he’d shuffle down the hallway of the board-and-care and into her room, stooped and dependent on his walker for support. He’d sit at her bedside, not knowing quite what to say. Dad had serious health issues, but he put all of his focus on her. He’d say, “I need to get Mom better before I deal with my problems.”

I never brought up the fact that she wasn’t ever going to get better.

The cycle of life

Following that first trip to the nursery, I went nearly every day for the next couple of weeks. I couldn’t stop buying and planting, fertilizing and watering. Each day I’d go out to inspect the fruits of my labor. The leaves grew fuller and the plants taller, like Jack and the Beanstalk. Tons of flower buds bloomed on the tomatoes, a sign of the harvest to come.

Jeni's garden gardening for grief
Gardening for griefJeni Driscoll

MUST-READ: 7 Ways Gardening Can Improve Your Health

It wasn’t lost on me that as my plants were thriving, my mom was dying.

I was losing my sweet momma.

I was desperate to have my ‘old’ mom back. The one I used to laugh with so hard, tears rolled down my cheeks. The one I wanted to call when something good or bad happened. The one who used to love going to Malibu with me for lunch and coming to our house with Dad for Sunday dinner. The one who kept up with fashion trends and wouldn’t leave the house without “putting her face on.” The one who told me I was her ray of sunshine, cheering her up when she was down.

Jeni missed the mother she once knew gardening for grief
Jeni missed the mother she once knewJeni Driscoll

Gardening for grief

Four months after Mom went into the board-and-care, Dad had a heart attack. He was hospitalized, admitted to a rehab facility, then to a board-and-care home, different from the one Mom was in. It was agonizing and surreal to have both parents critically ill at the same exact time.

Sadness and exhaustion were my unwelcome constant companions. The only time I felt at peace was when I worked in the yard. It did more than just reduce my stress.

Jeni was heartbroken when her father's health began to decline too gardening for grief
Jeni was heartbroken when her father’s health began to decline tooJeni Driscoll

But gardening made me feel alive.

I was mindful of how my body moved and stretched. I felt the strength of my shoulders and arms as I pounded the ax into the ground; my leg muscles tightened and loosened as I squatted and stood. The sun warmed my back, the soft breeze dried sweat that trickled down the sides of my face. Dark, rich soil slipped through my fingers like grains of sand at the beach.

Jeni in the beautiful garden that she built gardening for grief
Jeni in the beautiful garden that she builtJeni Driscoll

I seized those moments of feeling young, strong, healthy — alive. Mom and Dad would never feel that again. Maybe subconsciously, I was doing it for them. Or maybe because of them.

At the end of July, my garden produced its greatest bounty.

On August 1, 2022, my beautiful Mom passed away.

Five months later, on January 2, 2023, my wonderful dad joined my mom in Heaven.

Now, when I stroll in my back yard, I think of my parents. There are reminders of them everywhere. The succulents I planted with Mom at her house are now in our succulent garden. Mom and Dad’s ceramic and terracotta pots are sprinkled throughout our yard.

Three of their pebble-covered stepping stones sit in the middle of our rose garden. Their Staghorn Fern hangs on a wall in our courtyard. Two stone hedgehogs from their patio are nestled together near our pool under Sea Lavender.

I’ve started a new tradition in honor of my parents. Each February, I’ll plant my summer garden. Not only will it be a remembrance of the love they showered on me — it’ll be a reminder to embrace being alive. Mom and Dad would want me to be happy and live my blessed life to the fullest.

And every time I get dirt under my fingernails, I’ll smile, thinking of my sweet, beautiful momma.

Jeni Driscoll contributed essays to publications such as WondermindNorthwell HealthNational Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)Thrive Global, and The Mighty. You can find more of her writing on her blog:

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