Food for Thought, Thoughts on Food
Farm, Garden and Grief
My story of growing up on a farm is a fairly typical one: chores, gardens, big machines, endless outdoor days doing everything and nothing, seasons cycling through births and deaths. Farmers seem to have an endless ability to accept the changeability of life with little complaint. Perhaps the weather trains them.
My parents were no exception, they embraced the trials of life on the farm, indeed they accepted almost everything wholeheartedly, with the exception of sadness and upset. Somehow as an all too typical part of country life, grieving the losses was mostly passed over in favor of keeping our chins up and doing our best to be distracted by an endless “to do” list.
I grew up knowing myself to be abnormally sensitive and affected by death on the farm, inside a family that excelled at both bottling feelings and not feeling. My parents learned these skills from their parents and on up through generations.
Now I am a full time farmer myself, on an educational farm where I welcome children from Kindergarten through High School into the processes and wonders of life with living things. I am also trained as a Grief Recovery Specialist®. I have found the farm to offer many opportunities to meet loss with children, to model healthy ways of processing grief, and dispel the fear our culture imparts of sad emotions.
To create a fully healthy experience for children, parents must be taught the importance of children being allowed to express the full range of the emotions they experience. In our culture we train children at a very young age to control and bottle their emotions. We rarely revisit with them how to complete painful emotions when they pile up in our bodies, causing illness or in our hearts, leaving us emotionally crippled by cumulative experiences of unresolved sadness. and by making ourselves wrong for not being able to “get over it” easily.
Children work with me on the farm, caring for animals, collecting eggs, milking goats and cows, gardening, pruning, building and generally doing the physical work of what it takes to keep a farm running. Children’s week ly visits through the school year expose them to the cycling of the seasons as well as the cycles of life. Death is an unavoidable part of the experience for me, and it has taken courage and commitment to allow it to be so for the children as well. These experiences are incredible opportunities for me to teach them what skills I know about being with and completing loss. I do not intentionally throw death at them, but rather allow them the exposure when the opportunity arises.
For instance, if a kindergarten class arrives on a morning when a sow has just accidentally stepped on or rolled on a piglet, the children have the opportunity to see the body, to touch it, to bury it with reverence. Some are reminded of when their dog died or other sad things have happened, we share our stories of sadness together and in so doing lighten their load. They have more than once known me to cry in their presence when I lose an animal that is precious to me. Hiding my emotions would only perpetuate the perception that it is not okay to feel sad or to cry.
Carrying sadness alone is an all to familiar condition in our culture. We rarely allow others to cry around us without trying desperately to eliminate their tears, with a cookie, a distraction, some rapid attempt at filling the void. What the grieving of any age need from us, however, is an opportunity to be heard in all their sadness, to its depth. We have lost our trust that sadness has a bottom, and an end, if we visit it completely. I am not suggesting that we urge them on into their tears, simply that we hear them out, without trying to take the tears away. Children instinctively know what they need to say to feel complete, until we train them not to be sad or talk about sad things.
This past December the farm tragically lost a favorite goat. He was a tiny fellow who didn’t grow. He was frequently carried and snuggled, and at 10 months of age could easily be scooped up by a kindergardener. His name was Bebop and his misfit status made him all the more endearing to the children who came weekly to the farm. As absurd as it may sound I brought his remains to school, where I was met in a favorite forest location by a class of frequent visitors to the farm. I cried as I told them of the accident which resulted in his death. They observed the light was gone from his eyes, his body was cold and stiff. On their own they hypothesized where the part that was gone, his soul, his spirit some said had gone. Mostly they thought he was in a happy place. I reminded them after they theorized upon his whereabouts that we the ones left behind might have some sadness. We talked and cried about our favorite things about him and about the things we found challenging about him. We celebrated him, apologized when we needed to, and forgave his foibles that frustrated us. We said goodbye.
When we are complete about our experiences, we can more fully remember them with acceptance. And as many times as our sadness may resurface, if we embrace it fully, we will find our way back to joy.
Michaela Ryan is a biodynamic farmer and Grief Recovery Specialist. She has created New Village Farm to bring children in her community the oppurtunity for real and productive work on the farm. New Village Farm is enjoyed by children from the neighboring Lake Champlain Waldorf and Shelburne Community Schools as well as students from South Burlington High School. Michaela welcomes drop in visitors from away as well. She lives with her husband and three children in Shelburne, Vermont. More on New Village Farm can be found here.