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Katie Allison Granju is the married mother of five children, ranging in age from toddler to teenager. In addition to blogging for Babble Voices, she also publishes her own blog, Big Good Thing, and she works full time in digital media with a large cable network. When she isn't at work, blogging, or washing someone's socks, Katie enjoys working in her flower garden, riding her bike, and feeding the chickens she keeps in the backyard of her family's large and totally impractical, 113-year-old Victorian house.

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The One Where A Grieving Mama Accidentally Rediscovers “Fun”

By Katie Allison Granju |

Mr. Owl, a recent addition to my garden

If you follow my blogging with any regularity, you may have noticed that for the past two months or so, I have been rather, ahem, preoccupied with gardening ( and related, complimentary outdoor-improvement, DIY pursuits.)  Given that I have never really been into gardening as a hobby in any notable way in the past (or any actual hobby at all in a very, very long time)  this may seem slightly puzzling to readers, and also to people who actually know me in person.

But see, here’s the thing; I’ve been just as puzzled myself. What in the WORLD is up with my sudden compulsion to dig in the dirt?

After pondering the question, I think I’ve come up with an an answer (or two). And I figured it out while – you guessed it – working in my garden.

On a recent hot, sunny Sunday afternoon in which I was once again out in my yard, pulling weeds, digging out a new patch of ground for planting, putting in new plants, and then watering and mulching the new plants, I thought about what it is that keeps drawing me back to the dirt every chance I get ever since the first winter bulb popped up in my yard back in February.

As I thrust my newly acquired, mack-daddy trowel into the dirt again and again, using my bare hands to rip out lawn and turn the soil – a task that most people would likely use a rototiller to get done rather than digging at the ground like a human honeybadger – I could feel the raw spot on my left palm twinging with pain every time I pushed the trowel back in, while on my right palm, I could see the newly acquired callous that has already replaced the sore spot that digging in previous weeks had rubbed raw on that hand.

And there were other physical sensations, too, as I thought about why I was doing what I was doing. As I turned the dirt again and again, yanking out sod and ripping out roots, I could feel the  muscles in my shoulders and upper arms flexing in a way that they haven’t in a long time. Yes, I realized, my arms, back and shoulders were sore, clearly as the result of me having spent most of the day before painstakingly digging river rock out of our mess of a backyard,which slopes down to a creek, and then hauling them one by one around to the front, ready to define the ever-expanding patch of dirt that I am transforming into the cottage-style flower garden that I can see clearly in my mind’s eye.

As I listened to my body, and thought about my motivations for being out in the dirt, I suddenly realized that while my hands and muscles were definitely complaining, it was a purely physical and deeply satisfying kind of “pain” that at the end of that day, after the sun went down and I would sit on the porch swing with my husband and children, would privately, tangibly remind me of all I’d accomplished that day.

Since Henry died 23 months and 20 days ago, my body has often felt disconnected from the non-physical parts of my being: my heart and my mind. When your child dies, your physical body remains intact, but your brain and your heart are left as wounded and swollen as if they’d been mauled by a terrible monster and then left that way. Tending to those acute psychic and emotional wounds in this first two years left nothing for my muscles and limbs and hands and feet – the purely physical pieces of myself.

Plus, my body couldn’t take care of what’s needed to get done since Henry died. Instead, that’s been like an Olympic event of endurance for my mind and spirit. Grief of the magnitude that comes with having your child die is kind of a full time job to manage all by itself. But I also have four other children who need me, plus a full time job that supports us, and a raft of freelance and “extra” work beyond that (you’re reading some of it now) that. Cutting back on any of it after Henry died simply wasn’t an option. And my work is entirely head-based, not physical.

And then there was all the thinking and writing and calling and meeting and documenting that I  I did for over a year to ensure that the drug dealers who hurt my child were arrested and charged to prevent them from supplying death to any other mother’s child. All three were arrested and indicted on September 20, 2011 , so 15 months after Henry died . And although there’s more I want to accomplish in that area, I have now discharged my final, fundamental obligation as Henry’s mother in making sure that those people were arrested. But getting that done took everything I had. It took more, in fact, something that only a few people very close to me and the lead investigator whose work resulted in the arrests really understand. And once again, that task was all about mental and emotional fortitude and endurance, not about how much I can lift or whether I can run fast or jump high.

But now, through this gardening thing, I am rediscovering my body. While some mind and heart work go into reading about and choosing plants, and then caring for them, most of my gardening effort is just out and out physical. I can think about what I want my garden to look like all day, but unless I get in there and do the work with my own two hands, calling on my muscles and back and shoulders and legs and even the skin on my hands to do their parts, there won’t be any garden at all.

This is what I was thinking about, as I yanked weeds and pulled up rocks that Sunday not long ago, the afternoon when I was sort of pondering this stuff. And as I pondered and dug and pondered some more, I realized that I was ready to put my body back to work. After two full years during which I’ve had to simultaneously try to patch my battered brain and heart back together – at least well enough that I could survive and go forward with a life that no longer includes my firstborn baby –  while also calling on head and heart to do the hardest work they have ever or will ever do, surrendering to the garden’s pull this spring means that I am finally ready to get back to a simpler kind of work – at least for some of the hours that make up my weeks – one that involves sweat, dirt, and muscles rather than anything more cerebral or controversial or complicated. And so that’s clearly part of why gardening is suddenly the thing I want to be doing any time I get the chance. It’s simple and primal and physical and very, very satisfying.

As I had that kind of aha realization, it led me to the even bigger one. Why am I drawn back out to work in the garden evening after evening? I mean, I could be doing something that would either A: earn money or B: further one of the cause-issues that have become so meaningful to me since losing my son the way that I did. What about laundry? Decluttering the two youngest’s bedroom? Why was I out here wasting my time when more important to-do tasks remained on the list I keep on my iPhone and laptop?


Oh my God! I thought to myself as this simple yet profound realization washed over me. I looked down at my filthy hands, grasping the trowel, and over at the flowers that were already planted and blooming from my previous weeks’ work. I thought about how much I find myself wanting to browse around (and overspend!) in nurseries and greenhouses lately, and how excited I’ve been to get to be one of the people working on a new gardening blog at my job, THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO HAVE FUN!

I suddenly became aware that it’s been so long since I did anything at all that was not goal-oriented, laser-focused on achieving a greater purpose, or simply required in order to keep myself from being pulled under entirely by the grief that has at times threatened to take me out for good that I had simply lost the ability to have fun or in this case, with the gardening thing, to even recognize fun when I started having it.  Instead, I was puzzled, baffled, entirely mystified by something that most people would find really simple; namely that the reason anyone keeps wanting to get more involved with a new hobby they’ve discovered – one that,in the case of gardening, lots of people really love  - is because it’s FUN.  And when something is fun to do, human beings naturally seek to do more of it. Thus, this explains why I am digging in the dirt and writing about digging in the dirt so much in recent months.

There’s no deep, complex mystery here. Instead, it turns out that I accidentally rediscovered something that most people take for granted – the pleasure that comes with spending my free time pursuing an actual hobby.  The fact that it’s an entirely new hobby for me isn’t that complicated or mysterious either. People find and take up fun new hobbies all the time.  I’d just stopped knowing that somehow. (Hobby? What the hell is that?)

Gardening doesn’t serve any higher purpose. It doesn’t help other people with their problems, or solve any of my own problems. It definitely doesn’t earn money that helps to support our family. In fact, what I am doing out there in the dirt week after week is pretty much entirely pointless…except for the fact that there’s a point to having fun, which is that it should be part of the human experience. A big part. I’d just completely lost touch with that.

So there you have it. That’s what’s up with the whole “Katie seems kind of obsessed with plants and dirt and garden design” lately thing. It’s a simple explanation, but it really is an explanation. And now that I’ve stopped worrying that my newfound and growing interest in gardening as a hobby, and my desire to get outside among my flowers as often as possible represents some kind of weird problem I am developing, I am having even more fun than before I realized that’s what I was doing in the first place.


And now I hope that you will indulge me as I show off some of my gardening work, which remains an “in-progress” kind of thing.

(Just click the arrow to the right of each photo to view the next one in the series)


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After Losing a Child: Rediscovering What

Photo of our house taken before we bought it

This is Casa Hickju, a year or two before we moved in in 2006. As you can see, there was no garden action happening there at that time.


So how about you? Are you a gardener? Or is there some other hobby that helps you reconnect with simple, unadulterated fun in your life? Have there been periods where you forgot what simple, pointless enjoyment felt like? How were you able to get fun back into your life? Let’s talk about what it means for busy mothers – whether you have dealt with tragedy as I have or not – to try to find ways to have fun in their lives in the comments below.





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About Katie Allison Granju


Katie Allison Granju

Katie Allison Granju is the married mother of five children, ranging in age from toddler to teenager. In addition to blogging for Babble Voices, she also publishes her own blog, Big Good Thing. Katie also enjoys working in her flower garden, riding her bike, and feeding the chickens she keeps in the backyard of her family's large Victorian house. Read bio and latest posts → Read Katie Allison's latest posts →

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21 thoughts on “The One Where A Grieving Mama Accidentally Rediscovers “Fun”

  1. Carrie Ann says:

    Katie, this post made me tear up. I’m so happy you’ve found something FUN! You deserve that, and I hope you continue to embrace it and not feel an ounce of guilt that it doesn’t make money for the family or do something “productive” for the world at large. It does something productive for YOU. Your happiness can fuel you to work on your other pursuits and causes in the same way your grief and anger did. Wishing you all the best.

  2. Virginia says:

    Katie, I’m happy for you, that’s you’ve discovered something you love that is purely for fun. My husband has suffered from depression for years, and several professionals have emphasized to him the importance of having a hobby … he just scratches his head and says, “I don’t have any hobbies,” or “My work is my hobby.” But I know they’re right and that it would be so helpful to have something to throw himself into for nothing but the fun of it. I keep hoping he’ll eventually find that thing. (And selfishly I hope it’s house painting or vacuuming. Just kidding.) Thanks for sharing your story … maybe I’ll take him to the garden center this weekend …

  3. Kristin says:

    I am so happy to read this post. What a wonderful milestone for you! And in addition to the foremost purpose of helping you to have fun again, your garden also serves a wonderful purpose of dressing your home up a bit on the outside and bringing joy to other people as they walk by!

    My semester is just about over — I just need to grade the final exams and papers. Then I’m back out to my garden — I have some really wonderful hybrid peonies to plant!

  4. Korinthia Klein says:

    You so deserve some fun. Thank you for sharing your garden with us!

  5. Chrissy says:

    You’re just like little Mary Lennox in the Secret Garden, finding her heart again in the garden. xoxo

  6. Chrissy says:

    You’re just like little Mary Lennox in the Secret Garden, finding her heart in the garden. xoxo

  7. John Dominic Barbarino says:

    You say it so well. Though, if I may add something, please. I sat with a mother yesterday at lunch. She survived her son’s almost obliteration in Iraq and his eventual two year reclamation of his life THANKS to her and fighting with medical authorities and the military. Her son is now in graduate school at Harvard. Her daughter is wonderfully employed with a great creative job post college that uses her skills. And her reward (not that she was looking for one), she will be spending a month in Spain in a house she has rented this summer. And her children will be joining her after her first two week by herself to share in it. What she is experiencing is GETTING HERSELF BACK. Whether it is in Spain or in that quiet moment doing quiet things, what an accomplishment. To get oneself back is a tribute to road taken and in and of itself a gift. Mothers are amazing.

  8. Amy Lee says:

    I love the pictures but now I want to see a full house picture from the street like the first one taken before you moved in there! We have to see the full picture, new gardens and porch makeover :)

  9. Trish says:

    I have a dear friend who lost two children within one year of each other; she said good-bye to an almost three year old, and then to a one+ year old the following year. It’s unimaginable. She created a garden at her home and spent countless hours weeding and planting the small area she had dedicated as Thisbe’s forest, after her daughter died. I remember how she would describe the joy she felt pulling up the “really big deep roots,” and relishing the feeling of her aching back and legs in the evening.

    One day we were talking and I told her I wanted to do some work in the front yard at my house. She showed up with her trailer and huge pieces of yard equipment. We bought truck loads of mulch and completely redid the front of my house in the next 24 hours. I thanked her profusely and she thanked me, because this was the week Noah (her second) had died and she needed to let herself go in this project- something completely removed from her terrible grief. We worked in silence much of the time. We talked some of the time. She cried some of the time. We worked from sun up until sundown shoveling, plowing and planting.

    We are selling our house this very week and this will be one of my most profound memories of living here.

  10. Eileen says:

    New creative skill set. You have a picture in your minds eye and now you are learning how to realize your visualization. I think that is very important. We may not all be great artists, but all art beautifies the world and that is not pointless. Enjoy your garden and your healing!

  11. shelley e says:

    Good for you! Your garden is coming along very nicely. :) Enjoy all your efforts!

  12. Nadia says:

    I got more Ito gardening and landscaping when I bought my house a few years back and llloove it! I would so much rather play in the dirt and sun, plant, pull weeds, research water wise/natural plants for my area, etc than deal with cleaning inside. Riding is also the best therapy, I recommend that next ;-)

  13. Nadia says:

    I also love seeing the plants come back each year, getting bigger an stronger, growing. Additionally ive spent time planting lots of things I love the smell I’ve (so when I winterized its doublely nice) – so I have a lot of agastache and lavender. Another bonus of the agastache (not sure if that’s something that would do well in your area) is that the hummingbirds and bees love it!

  14. Danielle says:

    There is something to be said for keeping busy doing primarily physical yet spiritually uplifting tasks as a way to cope with grief and depression. Cerebral activity can only help so much, and often times makes it worse.

  15. jzzy55 says:

    I had no idea what to expect from your teaser. This is great! I completely agree. Mulch is fun…compost is totally fun…even garden pests can be (sort of) fun (well, vanquishing them is fun). Gardening is tremendously fun and I am so glad you feel this way. It IS good to be grubbing around in the dirt. And I think it’s great for your kids, too. Happy mom = happy kids.

    Here are three items I can’t live without in my garden:
    Crispina ffrench is a veteran fiber artist living in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. She has designed a utility apron made from tushies of old pants, repurposed into a handy two-pocket apron. So cute, so functional.
    2. Fulcrum weeding tool makes weeding significantly easier. This is a regular forked weeder with a metal fulcrum welded on the back side of the shaft. Far less elbow-grease is needed to lift the weed out of the soil because the fulcrum does the leveraging work for you. Save your wrists, use a fulcrum!
    3. Spongey kneeling cushion. Extends your gardening time by making kneeling more comfortable. And you can use it next to the tub while you bathe kids. Makes a nice baby gift, actually!

  16. S says:

    Chop wood, carry water!

  17. Meg Clapp says:

    Yeah for Katie! ….and love the pictures, love so many of the comments above!

  18. sarah b. says:

    Katie, This is beautiful beautiful beautiful. I’m so glad you have found this thing and that it has been therapeutic for you. I imagine it is a great release and you get to make something beautiful in the process. Our bodies are our vehicle through this life and sometimes rediscovering and harnessing the POWER of your own body is an amazing thing. This makes me so happy to read.

  19. Desiree says:

    Sure beats my garden…my first garden. Random pickings from Home Depot(next time costco). So far everything still looks like it’s growing…I hope lol.

  20. Kathy Oakes says:

    What a great article. Am so glad you were able to find something to do that releases the grief you carry and gives you some peace and fun to enjoy life again. I am a long-time gardener and love working in the dirt. Just love to see those little sprouts break the ground and grow up to be beautiful flowers or veggies. I have 2 veggie gardens and 5 flower gardens, so know what you mean by sore and tired muscles at the end of the day, but it’s over-ridden by the sense of satisfaction of a job well done :) Wishing you continued healing and joy.

  21. Amy Teaford says:

    Katie Your story is my story except for the details of our son’s passing. I read your story and it was as if you plucked my thoughts out of my head. I started my son’s garden many months after he passed away…once I could actually concentrate on something besides grieving. I started with the corner of my yard that my bedroom over looked (a window I would stand at and stare out of often) I started digging and pulling and moving the earth. I found myself being able to use aggression and frustration in a positive way. I found the cool earth very Zen like. I found myself enjoying the different colors and eclectic array of plants I would watch the birds attack the mounds of dirt for worms and the squirrels playing. I found myself smiling and even letting off small laughs then I thought “Oh No I’m laughing” as if I did something wrong was I actually having fun doing something that originated because of my son’s death!
    I felt complete guilt! Then this unexplainable feeling came over me that’s what this garden was for to bring me back to earth!
    Not to make a shrine for my son but a place to find peace! I now spend sunny weekend afternoons with my oldest son in the garden. We find plants, flowers, little objects, statues, rocks, and any little trinket that we think would be a lovely addition to Anakin’s Garden!
    I know from back pain, dirty finger nails, bubble bees, butterflies and beautiful flowers that today, tomorrow and the rest will be ok that it’s ok to smile its ok to actually have fun! I turned my pain into a beautiful garden for my Anakin!
    Thank You for sharing your story!

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