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Dealing with Tragedy Through Grief Gardens

Tuesday, June 1, 2004 at 8:47 AM

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This weekend, we honored veterans who gave their lives for their country. But throughout the school year teenagers must deal with their grief for classmates who die suddenly in car accidents, homicides or other incidents. When a young person dies, the tragedy strikes not just at family, but at friends and classmates. School psychologists and guidance counselors often try to help students deal with loss. But increasingly, teenagers themselves are creating the symbols and ceremonies they need to express their grief. One form is a memorial garden where kids and adults can remember together. As ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports, these so-called grief gardens are transforming the landscape of American mourning.

On a late spring morning at Ashland High School, death is the farthest thing from most students’ minds. They’re rehearsing for dance class, cramming for finals, and making dates for the prom. But nine years ago tragedy struck this small Ohio town and left a permanent mark on its youth.

Andrew Gardner: There’s seven of us camping and in the middle of the night the cabin caught on fire and only six of us were able to make it out.

Andrew Gardner was just 16 when his best friend died. He and the other students who survived decided they wanted to create a memorial for their friend and for other students who’d died young. What they chose was a garden.

Andrew Gardner: (reads) The Ashland High School Memorial Garden. In loving memory of those students who were taken from us through the years. They live forever in the hearts of those who loved them.

But this isn’t a typical flower garden. Working with horticulture teacher Eric Mayer, the students designed a Japanese-style garden based on the ancient teachings of zen.

Eric Mayer: I think the whole idea of using zen self-awareness - that’s what’s grief is, self-awareness, becoming aware of you and your feeling. And then the zen garden used nature to create that self-awareness.

Water falls from a bamboo fountain - drop by drop - into a granite basin surrounded by a curving bed of small stones.

Andrew Gardner: We have a rake out here at all times, there’s a wooden rake that you can use to actually rake the dry lake. It gives you your own peace of mind and serenity and tranquility all in one.

Andrew Gardner says making the garden helped him work through his grief. In fact, it changed his life. He’s now a professional landscape designer.

But not all young people are so fortunate. Dr. Alan Wolfert, Director of the Center for Loss and Grief in Fort Collins, Colorado, has written extensively on grief and children. He says teenagers deal with death no differently than adults do. But he says America’s discomfort with death makes it harder for young people to mourn.

Alan Wolfert: Grief is your thoughts and feelings inside when someone dies, but how you integrate loss into your life is through mourning, the shared social response. We as a culture have in many ways lost an understanding of and support for a more active mourning. Kids are trying to teach us about the need to openly and authentically mourn.

Dr. Wolfert believes that grief gardens are one way to accomplish that. Six years ago in the small college town of Oberlin a group of teens planted a simple grove of seven pin oaks on the grounds of their high school. In the grass beneath the trees are 82 granite markers bearing the names and dates of students who have died since the school opened.

Rudd Crawford: Here’s the stone where this woman died in childbirth and her son when he was in high school was being raised by his grandma, so the son and the grandmother put that one in together.

Math teacher Rudd Crawford helped students create this garden after four classmates died within a few months of one another. But the students wanted to include everyone who had died young. They formed a memorial committee, which called local families for permission to add the names they found. When they held the first ceremony that year, nearly the whole town came. Mr. Crawford says the students have carried on that tradition.

Rudd Crawford: I’m really in awe of the way the kids are so solid about this thing. They worked their heads off for the ceremony this fall. There must have been three or four hundred candles in bags with sand as a pathway across the campus from there to here.

Memorial committee members like Barbara Lee and Dan Lauschman hold a ceremony each spring and fall, to add new markers, and remember those placed there in past years.

Barbara Lee: I lost Angelique Hamilton, Daniel Shipman, and Nicole Sanderson. Not like going to the cemetery…

Dan Lauschman: I had a neighbor who is out there who committed suicide when he was 19. It does kind of make it easier to accept knowing that we’re all still thinking about them and that they’re still remembered.

Nicole Sanderson’s stone is the latest to be placed in the oak grove at Oberlin High School. And it won’t be the last. No one knows how many grief gardens have been created in recent years. But as young people across the country continue to commemorate the friends they’ve lost, they remind us all that mourning after death is an essential part of living. In Oberlin, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

Additional Information

* Ashland High School Memorial Garden
* Oberlin High School Memorials

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