In 2008, Michael Palmer, 30, died peacefully in his sleep, the victim of a bad heart damaged by 16 years of drug abuse. He had found hope and a year of clean living through a ministry called Celebrate Recovery, according to his father, but the years of abuse were too much in the end.
Afterward, Michael's father, Hollis Palmer, was lost in a storm of emotions and pain. He could not move forward with his life, which includes wife Nancy and two daughters, ages 25 and 26, both in health-care careers.
"I felt as if I would never experience joy in my life again," says Hollis, 58.
"I wondered if I was actually going crazy. I felt as if I had no hope of ever being happy again."
Two things brought him to what he calls his "new normal," or his renewed ability to function with joy and hope again.
The first were 13 weekly GriefShare support group meetings at Liberty Baptist Church in Hampton.
The second was his vegetable garden.
I have loved gardening since I was a little boy," he says.
"My daddy was raised on a Georgia farm. He helped me plant my first vegetable garden 50 years ago when I was 8 years old. He spent a lot of time teaching me how to grow vegetables. It was a good time in my life. I loved working the soil, planting the seeds and watching the seeds emerge. I watched over the garden every day keeping it weed free, watered and fertilized. I was thrilled to harvest something and bring it to my mama. What a sense of accomplishment."
But, that sense of accomplishment died with Michael.
"There was a long while I didn't feel like I deserved to be happy, so I stopped doing things I like such as gardening," he says.
"After I reached my new normal, I had Jesus at the center of my life. God added back into my life the things that brought me joy such as gardening but in the proper priority."
Today, his 2,500-square-foot backyard garden is a place where warm- and cold-season vegetables like squash, tomatoes, cucumbers eggplant, collards, spinach and Brussel sprouts are shared with neighbors, friends, strangers and GriefShare participants. He installed his own sprinkling system, and gardens organically, using small fish he catches as natural fertilizer in planting holes.
"As I work the soil, I feel a sense of peace," he says.
"Quiet time in the garden relaxes my body and mind. I have many conversations with God while in the garden. I enjoy the food but I actually enjoy the time in the garden more than the harvest itself."
Palmer also enjoys the neighborhood people that discover the garden while walking their dogs along the private road that runs along the back of his property near Deer Park Baptist Church in Newport News. They see the cross and the memorial with photographs of his son next to the garden and began talking about their own pain from loss, he says. A small table with two chairs is where Hollis and fellow grievers sit and quietly talk while bees busy themselves among the squash and tomato blooms.
After three months of GriefShare meetings, Hollis says the unexpected happened to him. He realized he had reached his "new normal," and wanted to do more than just attend the support group meetings. He retired from a shipbuilding career to become the GriefShare facilitator in 2009, and has helped about 1,000 grievers find renewed interest in life. In September, he becomes a certified chaplain and plans to volunteer with a local police department, in addition to continuing with the GriefShare ministry.
"I recommend the broken-hearted consider gardening," he says.
"You can grow anything from flowers to collard greens. The time you spend being still in your thoughts with God, working the soil is good for the soul."
Contact Kathy at email@example.com.
10 things to expect during grief
Immediately after the funeral, your pain from grief could be worse than the day of your loss.
Your "season of grief" will last longer than you expect.
After your loss, many things will trigger your mind to recall memories — conversations you had together, certain words, music and even specific foods. This deluge of memories can overwhelm you, shortening your attention span. This ambush of memories can also make you feel like you are going crazy.
You will experience emotions such as guilt, regret, loss, pain and disappointment at intense levels, and you will experience many emotions at once.
You may feel trapped in your grief, and can't explain what's happening to you or clearly tell others how to help you. Those around you may not know how to help you or understand your pain and may even avoid you. At this point, you are stuck in grief.
You may experience several days when you don't want to get out of bed. You may cry for hours, not answer the phone, not return e-mails and not want visitors. These feelings come in waves like waves of the ocean.
You may have difficulty sleeping; when you do sleep, you may experience nightmares.
Long periods of grief can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair.
You may experience shattered beliefs about life, the world, your faith and even God.
10 Find a support group that can help you work through these issues because you should not walk the journey alone.
– Hollis Palmer, GriefShare facilitator, Liberty Baptist Church, Hampton
The nondenominational grief recovery support group meets 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at Liberty Baptist Church, 1021 Big Bethel Road, Hampton; materials cost is $20; scholarships are available. Dinner is served 4-5:45 p.m. for $5. You can join at anytime during the 13-week program; a new session begins Aug. 22. Child care is provided, if needed. Contact facilitator Hollis Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 812-1906.