The past year has been a year of grieving and, when I look back on it, even more than many before it has for me been tinged with great loss. Part of that deeply personal loss, and part of that communal.

In the summer of 2022, my nephew lost his fight with cancer. His funeral was held on what would have been his eighth birthday. To watch a struggle that was so hard fought end in tragedy is not just difficult to convey in words, but in fact impossible. Even now the reality of his passing has yet to fully sink in.

But at the time of his death, when I had no other way to communicate with him, I wrote this note to myself:

Is there such a thing as good grief?

I remember seeing a poster taped to the noticeboard on a visit to Schumacher College a few years back. Schumacher College has always been a bastion of avant-garde eco-thinking, and this poster indicated just such a concept.

It was an open invite to a ‘grief compost’ session. It elaborated slightly, likening the process of grieving to that of a compost pile. But other than that, plus a time and date, there was very little to give away what this meant.

Unfortunately, I was only there for the day and couldn’t attend the session. But the concept, and that slightly tattered poster, stuck in my mind. As with such things it’s lain largely dormant until recently when grief has resurfaced again.

Now, facing the particularly tragic loss of a much loved and very young family member, it feels time to dig out that dusty memory and explore.

At this point I’d like to say I’m running with this theme entirely on intuition and personal experience and nothing else. No expertise or even the slightest idea what I’m doing (much like grief, I guess). Secondly, I have been known to try home composting that has led to several mishaps, the worst of which involved two bin bags full of fish heads that decomposed with such ferocity that the heat generated encouraged the rancid fish oil to leak onto my driveway, attracting hundreds of flies and coachman beetles and forcing us to close our doors and windows in an August heatwave.

Anyway, I digress. Grief and compost – what can they have in common? Well, let’s start with what I know of compost:

Compost releases the embodied nutrients and minerals held in expired plant matter.

Breaking down this dead matter is vital to life; many species thrive on decomposition.

The result should be rich and fertile and allow life to flourish once again.

My sense of grief as I know it is that the loss of your loved one leaves a hole. A gap that was once filled with vibrant life. In Nature, when a great tree falls or a flowering bush dies, the ‘composters’ kick into gear. What was bound up in that wonderful form is now released. In grief, maybe we can feel it as a rush of memories, emotions, loss and love all suddenly rushing to the surface.

And Nature wants this process to happen. We use the same terminology. We break down.

This feels awful. Unfair. We get angry, despairing even. It doesn’t feel kind to have this done to us. To be frank, it feels shit. And yet shit makes the best compost of all.

Having helped shovel fresh cow manure and dried-up horse dung into the garden many times, I feel like shovelling poop may well be the best example I have of what grief feels like. Long, arduous and slightly thankless.

However, what results is truly remarkable. Anyone who’s done the same can’t have failed to see the results. Red wriggling compost worms, fine tendrils of mycelia, and, this past year, our compost bin becoming home to a grass snake and her clutch of eggs.

And here starts the glimmer of hope. For from that big pile of crapness comes rich and fertile soil for the next season. This will foster new seedlings and future harvests. There is something comforting in that as a gardener. For a while, you are part of that cycle, helping it along, and then one day you’ll become a part of that cycle yourself.

Of course, it doesn’t prevent the heartache and the anguish, but knowing that, from all that shit, new life will flourish again is maybe the warmest legacy I can imagine and certainly one I hold to in times like these.

Bye bye, Dexter – there will always be a part of you in our garden.

Love, Uncle Si xx

Reflecting on this writing now, it seems more that I am talking myself through the process of life than anything else, and that connecting grief to a natural cycle does feel, well, natural. The assurance that everything is on a rotation, and that just as despair looms so too do the seeds of restoration and healing. It’s not obvious at first, but just now I am realising how friends have supported in subtle, kind ways that have gently guided me back to the surface and out of the depths of that blackish oceanic void that grief can feel like sometimes.

That feeling of grief is also familiar for so many of us. Over the last few years, loss and death have been so much more prevalent than before. So many of us taking drastic action to protect one another and to ensure we can be together for longer. In turn, this makes me think on this persistent feeling of grief that I feel underpinning even this communal loss. The gnawing panic I sometimes get when I see global temperatures rising or deforestation rate statistics. This feeling of loss and sadness that is compounded from personal to collective to global.

I was talking to Renée Lertzman on a visit to the gardens I care for over the summer. Lertzman is a world-renowned climate psychologist and has some great learnings on the psychological processes we go through in either denying climate change or suffering overwhelming anxiety from its enormity. Her work really highlights the need for us to explore these feelings and to recognise them – something I think I’m only just beginning to understand myself. She recommends a more low-key remedy, to act as a guide to those looking for a way out of the tangled mess.

Supporting people in finding a new path made me realise now how all these strands of grief weave together from the deeply personal to the overwhelmingly universal aspects. We need space and gentle guidance to help us find our way, but equally, like compost, it’s a matter of time. As loss rots away, we can remember that something special and beautiful will grow in its remains. It feels torturous, but then as those feelings subside there remains the love you feel, and you realise that that is why it hurts so much, and somehow we can’t have one without the other.

Perhaps this is more eloquently said by Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet, so I will leave you with his words and know that we are probably seeds just dreaming now of spring as it arrives.

“Then Almitra spoke, saying, We would ask now of Death.

“And he said:

You would know the secret of death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.

If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.

For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;

And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.”

After a career as the chief perfumier and head of ethical buying in his family’s business, LUSH, Simon Constantine left the company in 2019 to launch his own chemical-free fragrance range and to restore/rewild Careys Secret Garden, a historic site in the Piddle Valley, Dorset.