Sunday 24 June 2018

Irish schoolgirl (12) creates garden at Bloom to help guide people through bereavement

When you experience loss, help can come from the unlikeliest of places. At this year's Bloom festival in Dublin, 12-year-old Aliçia Kavanagh will showcase her garden created to help guide people through bereavement.

Alicia Kavanagh (12), with mother Sinead. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Alicia Kavanagh (12), with mother Sinead. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Digging in: Alicia Kavanagh (12), has designed a postcard garden for Bloom. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Claire O'Mahony

When 12-year-old Aliçia Kavanagh experienced loss, she wasn't sure how she should feel. After the passing of her Nana, she was uncertain whether to feel sad or to believe that the person she grieved for was in a happier place. Around this time, she also had the grief of losing a beloved pet. Her mother Sinéad gave her a library book in which the seven stages of grief were outlined: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression and acceptance.

"Before I recognised the stages I was going through, it was hard to understand why I was feeling this way - was it the right way to feel, was it the wrong way to feel - because I didn't know what way to feel," says Aliçia.

These stages form the concept of her garden at this year's Bloom festival in Dublin's Phoenix Park. It is one of 13 small but perfectly formed 2m x 3m plots, where gardening clubs and amateur gardeners showcase their designs. Aliçia's garden, Rainbow's End, looks at the stages of grief through the eyes of a child, reflecting how everything in life has both a positive and a negative side, and exploring how children need to be allowed to deal with both aspects.

Gardening and nature have always played an important role in the life of the Kavanagh family, who live in Navan. Aliçia has attended Bloom for the last eight years and always said that she would have a garden at the event. Two years ago, the sixth class student realised that she didn't have to wait to be an adult to do so, and applied for a small garden but was advised to reapply for a postcard garden the following year; she did and was accepted.

Digging in: Alicia Kavanagh (12), has designed a postcard garden for Bloom. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Digging in: Alicia Kavanagh (12), has designed a postcard garden for Bloom. Photo: Caroline Quinn

She began designing the garden, working on sketches and deciding on its architecture back in January of this year, with weekends spent planting and painting in Rainbow's End HQ, a space donated to her by Louth Meath Education Training Board in Navan town. In the early stages of the garden's design, she conducted an online survey, one for adults and one for children, asking people to match the seven stages of grief to the seven colours of the rainbow based on the nursery song 'I Can Sing a Rainbow'. "The results that came back were amazing," says Aliçia. "For instance, 'shock'. For adults shock was white and for the kids it was pink and orange. For me, pink and orange, they're bright colours, if you put another colour in you can't really change them.

"For 'anger' everyone thought red. When it's the same colour [that adults and children choose for a particular emotion] there's nothing you can really learn from it, but when it's different colours you can think, 'OK adults, why did you think shock was white?'."

The most important elements of Aliçia's garden are colour, height, touch, smell and sight, and also that it is bee- and butterfly-friendly. Many of the materials used are recycled, such as electrical spools and paper cores, or have few air miles, such as the pebbles which come from a Wexford beach. Plants chosen depended on the colour scheme of the stages of grief, with the red-hued bleeding heart plant representing grief, and herbs traditionally used as cure for anxiety disorders, being used to symbolise depression. Taller plants signify adults, while smaller ones represent children.

"If you don't tend to the adult, the adult will fall over - and this is really going to sound morbid - and smother the smaller plants," Aliçia explains. "If adults don't look after themselves when they're grieving, their emotions will be passed onto the children and the children will feel that way." In the middle of a garden is an oak tree. "It's basically representing the tree of life and the circle of life," she says. "You need to go through all the stages before you complete the circle and then it goes round and round again."

Both Aliçia and her mother Sinéad say they are bowled over by the level of kindness she has received since she embarked on her Bloom adventure, with local companies donating paints, edging and other elements for free, with great support from friends. Mother and daughter started an online Fund:It campaign with the hopes of raising €2,000 to cover the associated costs of bringing a garden to Bloom, such as construction of the garden off-site (Postcard Gardens have 12 hours to be put together at the event), transport, planting, printing, insurance, etc. They received 26pc more than this in donations.

This is of great significance to the agency that Aliçia has chosen to support and highlight with Rainbow's End: Meath Springboard Family Support Services CLG. It provides a range of tailored programmes of family support and counselling for children who are going through loss whether through bereavement, addiction, marital or economic separation or other forms.

After Bloom, Rainbow's End will relocate to the garden of Springboard's new premises, which recently opened after 10 years of fundraising. "As children come in to the agency they get to step through this path of grief and pass through the seven stages of grief, so in this symbolic way they manage to come full circle and recover from the trauma," Sinéad says.

The extra funds raised means they'll also be able to give Springboard a cheque to put towards counselling for children.

"If a child goes into counselling with an agency like Springboard, they have their funding on a quarterly basis and when the funding runs out, the counselling stops. So it's hard to take a child into counselling unless the funding is there on the other side of it," says Sinéad.

That Bloom coincides with Springboard's new house opening was serendipitous, as were other aspects of the project. When Aliçia approached her soon-to-be secondary school to ask if they would like to help with the logo for her Facebook page, it transpired that the teacher teaching first years is an artist in her own right and was able to assist. And just when the fundraising deadline was approaching and they were still €800 short, Greenshoots, which trades as Nature's Best, stepped in to not only match the shortfall but exceed it.

Aliçia would like visitors to Rainbow's End to contemplate it for a while. "You can't just look at it and walk away because then you don't get it," she says. "For people who take in its features, what I want them to take way is that you can't ignore your feelings, you have to go through with them. Everyone likes positive feelings but at the same time, sometimes you have to kick them to get them motivated.

"I'm not saying blunder through but you've got to encourage people to understand what they're feeling. Because the worst thing - and I hate it - is when people say, 'Don't think about it, you couldn't have done anything, it's over and done with, it's not your fault, or don't worry about it'. You want them to think about it, you don't want them to go around thinking about death but at the same time you want them to think about it so they understand."

Sinéad is extremely proud of all her daughter has achieved. "I'm looking at this little person and her Nan would be unbelievably proud," she says. "Her Nan was such a people person. I'm originally from Dublin and Mam would get on the bus, three miles from the city centre and whoever she would get on beside, she'd known their life story. People opened up to her and when I see Aliçia, in the way she processes stuff and she understands people and how they're feeling, I think Mammy left a bit of herself behind when she went, and she left it with Aliçia. It's very special."

Pictures: Caroline Quinn

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