Our Memory Garden at school is a raised bed of beauty; flowers, sculptures, American flags, and a collection of painted rocks, all to mark classroom pets and loved ones who have died over the years. The garden sits quietly as children run and play alongside. It is welcoming, and children who visit inevitably ask questions.
Additionally, there is a flat paving stone with a carved dragonfly in remembrance of Taylor, a little boy in our school who died some years ago. Taylor adored dragonflies. Yesterday I noticed the garden needed weeding, and sat on the low stone wall to take care of Taylor’s dragonfly. Emma came over to ask what I was doing. She wanted to help me weed. That was the beginning of a remarkable series of events about dying.
Yes – dying – the word that scares teachers and parents. The “D” word. Something they hope they’ll never have to talk about until their child is older. I wasn’t scared.
Emma noticed the dragonfly and we weeded together to make things beautiful again. She was quiet, and this work seemed to be soothing to her. Well, that’s what I thought at first. Yet, it was far more than the weeding that was soothing Emma which I would soon discover. Ever-cheerful Scarlet bounced over with her signature big smile and curiosity. It was Scarlet’s first real visit to the garden.
“What’s that statue?”
“It’s a baby deer.. It’s for someone who died long ago.”
“Died? Is he under the deer?”
“Oh, no. People would have to be buried in a real cemetery.”
“Scarlet, the deer helps us to remember the person. See how beautiful his eyes are? We can remember the good. All statues and painted rocks represent pets and people who have died”, I said waving my arm across the garden. “Look here. What are those letters on the green rock?”
“They spell P-E-E-P”.
“Peep was our Guinea pig before Ella.”
“Emma, do you remember Peep?”
Emma nodded her head yes. She was there to love Peep when he was alive, and she was there when he died. Emma had not talked this entire conversation. She had not even made eye contact with either of us. I told the children how Peep was buried deep under the rock in a pink lunchbox. I told them the story of how he had died at Audrey’s house on Christmas Eve, and how we had buried him in the snowy weather.
Then we talked about Peep and all the things he did when he was alive. We looked at the blue rock for Goldie the fish, and the rock for Sparky, and for many other pets. I told them stories of our first guinea pig. We weeded and talked. Finally Emma said, “My Nana died yesterday. She was ninety-five.” Relief. She said it. We talked some more, but now it was Emma who did the talking, all about her Nana.
Scarlett jumped right in, “My sister Ruby died.”
My silence must have deafening. “Do you want to tell us about it?”
“Yup. She was bigger than me. She died in Mom’s belly before I was born. We have her birthday every year.”
Elena, the inquisitive and thoughtful one, walked right over to Scarlet. “What happened? Your sister died?” And, Scarlett told the whole story over again, including the birthday part. Emma asked me if all the animals in the Memory Garden celebrated birthdays. I told her I didn’t know, but wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing. Everyone nodded and looked at me, hoping I could make something happen, or perhaps make things ‘right’ for the animals.
“Let’s sing Happy Birthday to everyone. What do you think”. Squeals of “yes”, hand-clapping, and jumping up and down told me that singing the song was indeed a good idea. We all held hands, including other children who had gathered at the Memory Garden, and belted out Happy Birthday, twice. It felt good. The children were satisfied.
Our Memory Garden is an open door for children to wonder about the circle of life and ask questions. Don’t we all need that? Don’t we need a remembrance, a garden to weed and take care of, and others who can listen and understand?
The next evening a friend and fellow teacher came over for dinner. As we walked outside she noticed my dragonfly stepping stone in my garden. We stopped. This was a moment for her, beautiful memories after a tragedy. When we walked out to sit by the pool, a rare ‘dragonfly show’ suddenly appeared. Imagine that!