After My Mom Died, a Sympathy Plant Helped Me Grieve

One dad shares the unique way he grieved his mother's loss—and reconnected with his kids.

A pot of succulents

I have this succulent that sits about 7 inches tall in a pot on my dining room table. Most people who see it feel sorry for it because of its unruly, gangly features. It's become too tall for its own good. I don't see those things when I look at it, however. I see my mom—or at least a memory of her. She was hit and killed by an Amazon delivery van on June 15, 2018. This particular succulent was part of a group of them I got as a gift that same year, on June 16. 

I had never been able to keep a plant alive, but almost immediately these succulents became important to me in a way I wasn't expecting. It's likely because of how empathetic they were, sitting solemnly in their rustic wooden box outside our front door. 

This began a long period of numbness in which I struggled to keep myself afloat, in addition to also being a parent for my two young kids. I was unprepared to convey the trauma of it all in a way that made sense to a 5- and 7-year-old. 

So like me, the dozen or so tiny plants simply existed during this time. They grew without blooming flowers or showing much sign of forward progress. Eventually, though, they began to grow too big for all of them to fit comfortably in their box. 

Without a green thumb, I hesitantly pried off the wooden boards to replant them in the ground in front of our house. I didn’t want to accidentally destroy any of these plants that had been soaking up my sorrow, for fear of it unexpectedly spilling out. 

The next year we moved, and I dug up a single succulent to bring along. I left the rest of them there because the house we moved from was the place we had Christmases with my mom. It was where she came to babysit our kids. It was the house she knew we lived in and where part of her memory would always remain. 

I took one small succulent with me because I had grown attached to how it sparked perseverance in me during a dark time. Slowly, over time, it became a reminder of my mom's characteristics, too. Her steady, unrelenting love and patience for me over the years. So I replanted this one outside of our new front door, about a foot off the walkway, surrounded by other greenery but always within sight.

About six months later, I walked outside and saw my succulent broken in half, with the top part laying limp on the ground next to its fractured stem. I froze and quickly had to remind myself to breathe. A tiny plant, almost invisible to anyone else, nearly brought me to my knees with a weight of emotions.

I was subtly aware early on that I had begun to put a lot of my pain and grief into this tiny plant—even if I wouldn't have admitted it. Seeing the succulent was an excuse to think about my mom. It was a visualization of time passing and a reminder to keep going. To see something so dependable broken in half nearly wrecked me.

Standing there at that moment, I reminded myself that this wasn't my mom. This wasn't her legacy or anything else real about her. It was just a plant that I had been ever so lightly looking after. I had to tell myself that there wasn't anything I was even doing to care for it. I was merely an observer of it.

Later, I found out it was my daughter who had broken the succulent as she and my son played out front. I brought her over and opened my mouth to explain the situation, but then stopped myself. I didn't know what to say. Instead, I thought about my mom and simply gave my daughter a hug and let her go play again.

I cleared some dirt with my hands and replanted the top part. I watered it and hoped for the best. Several weeks later it was clear it had taken hold and was growing again next to the old stem which would soon wither away. The symbolism was glaring each time I passed it.

Fast-forward to spring of 2022 and minor construction at our house forced me to get a small pot and re-home the plant yet again. That's when it became a fixture on our dining table. There, it grew tall enough that it could no longer stand on its own. As it flourished, it helped me see it in a new light—for what it really is. Because as much as it has been a reminder of the past, it's still only a plant.

Recently, I finally accepted that I needed to do something with the succulent if I wanted it to continue to grow. So I took both of my kids aside and asked them to help me cut and replant it again. 

This time, instead of blanking on the words to say about it, I shared this story with them. The reason why this single succulent had been with us for so long. Neither one said much, only that they still remembered my sadness from when the plant had broken. Replanting it with them was yet another chance to think of my mom, but now without the weight of the grief that this succulent had been carrying.

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