In 1984 scientist Edward O. Wilson formulated the Biophilia hypothesis, that connection with the natural world is an innate biological need for humans.
The health benefits of immersing ourselves in nature are considerable, from improved cardiovascular health to better cognitive functioning, improved energy to better sleeping patterns and even an increase in the body’s natural cancer killing cells.
What is less clear is whether an urban landscape can offer solace to the grieving and heal a fractured heart.
Indira Naidoo, an Australian journalist, broadcaster, and author, lives in a 13th floor apartment in Potts Point, Sydney. She lost her younger sister, Stargirl, to suicide during the COVID 19 pandemic. A plum tree in a Melbourne suburban garden became her makeshift gallows.
The Space Between the Stars is Indira’s tribute to her enigmatic, ethereal, and free-spirited younger sister. She was a mother and a wife, a Walkley Award-winning journalist with a Master’s degree, and a media adviser to state premiers.
The reader is invited to share in the trauma of suicide, to experience the complexities of suicide grief, and to wonder at the healing power of the natural world.
The trauma of suicide:
Losing a friend or family member to suicide is cataclysmic. It is an unimaginable horror, a world gone dark. It feels like a rupture in the earth’s surface, a shaking beyond your control. Nothing is stable. You wonder whether the foundations of your life will prove strong, able to support your existence. Indira says,
It’s like being blasted by an atomic wave – the impact hurtling me out of myself in violent slow motion. I’ve been flung through the air like a floundering crash-test dummy with no airbag to save me.
The impact of suicide cannot be contained. It is like throwing a pebble into a still pond and watching the ripple effect. Indira says,
The ripples from a death touch so many. Close family and friends and then the friends and family of those family and friends. It creates a village of grief.
The Complexities of Suicide Grief:
Suicide grief is a solitary affliction. It is a process that each person experiences differently. Indira says,
No two people feel it the same way. Even when it involves the same event or the same person, you’re trapped in a torment tailor-made for you.
Suicide grief brings a loss of clarity and vision. It seems incomprehensible that the sun is still shining, and people can find a reason to smile. Indira says,
I open the curtains and am blinded by dazzling sunshine. It’s incandescent. Almost indecent. This is the cruel trick grief plays on you. For the rest of the world the day is humming with happiness.
But there’s a thick smear of Vaseline over my lens… The world is blurry and fogged over, and no adjusting the dials can bring it back into focus.
Suicide grief is tainted with introspection and self-doubt. The guilt and shame linger and will not be assuaged. We berate ourselves for not doing more. Indira says,
As I surrender to the quiet, the torrents of emotion coalesce into the unformed words that have been haunting me: You were her older sister. It was your job to keep her safe. How could you have failed her so utterly?
The accusation hangs dark and heavy in the morning air…
Suicide grief casts a long shadow. Uncertainty presses in, challenging every thought, clouding what is possible. Indira asks,
Will Stargirl’s death cast a forever shadow over me, blocking just enough light so each new experience feels a little grey and hollow?
The Healing Power of the Natural World:
Indira’s experience of urban nature is positive, but she questions how it might ease her grief. She recalls being cooped up in an office and how the talk often turned to weekends and the opportunity for renewal. Indira says,
Sunlight, fresh air, forests, flowers, birdsong, beaches – isn’t that what we dream of escaping to when we’re trapped in our fluorescent-lit, air-conditioned office towers?
The natural world nurtures and protects, it teaches and inspires. The following elements of nature helped Indira navigate her grief.
While strolling in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens Indira discovers a towering Morton Bay Fig, an elder statesman, 150 years old. ‘This is My Tree’, Indira decides. ‘Strong! Dependable! Immovable!’ As she looks up into the vast canopy, she feels safe, protected. The cloak of stillness invites a surrendering of all the restless thoughts and rampaging fears. Indira says,
Here with this tree, I sense I can sit alone yet not feel isolated. I can draw on this tree for a unique form of solace. It will be here but ask nothing of me. I can come to rest and recover without needing to give anything in return. Instead of doing. I can just be.
Horticulturist, Paul Nicholson, explains that mature trees have a presence that spans time, linking the past to the present. Indira reflects on all her tree has lived through and what it brings to the weary bystander. She says,
Through it all (the gold rush, the First World War, the Spanish flu) my tree would have sheltered others like me, the wounded and broken. It would have been – as it is now – a place of solace and safety. It couldn’t fix, it couldn’t change. All it could do was be present. The greatest comfort anyone can offer.
Indira looks to the heavens hoping to locate Stargirl. The night is clear, and the stars shine brightly.
Phil Angilley from the astronomy society arrives with his Meade telescope. He and Indira prepare to explore the infinite wonders of the night sky.
More stars become visible as the light fades. Indira realises that she is peering at a universe that is explosive. She struggles to grasp the intensity of the burning suns. She finds it incredulous that many would have ceased to exist long before their light even reached her. She realises that endings can have a positive element. Indira says,
Then again, peering up at these sparkling wonders l can also see the good that can come from endings. Just like Stargirl, their radiance can burn brightly long after they are gone.
There are weeds growing near her fig tree. Indira looks upon the weeds as urban survivors, many of which thrive in inhospitable circumstances. Their story is one of survival, determination, and resilience. Indira says,
Weeds are adaptable and resilient, able to survive and thrive in unforgiving landscapes. They are an example of how nature will always find a way of asserting itself.
Indira wants to be a survivor like them. She does not want to surrender to grief, to give up hope of a fulfilling life. She has seen weeds sprouting in unlikely places. Their example instills courage and the will to press on.
A BALCONY GARDEN
Indira’s little balcony garden, her garden in the sky, lies neglected, a consequence of the unexpected disruption to her life. Indira’s garden has taught her some pertinent lesson about life and death. Our survival is never guaranteed. Indira says,
I can tenderly plant all these seedlings and nurture them attentively, watering and weeding, and still some will not make it.
Indira knows that tending a garden gives a person the chance to play God in a small way, to give life to something that would not have had that opportunity without your intervention. Gardening allows us to share in the creative process, to play a part in the process of renewal while accepting that life and death are inseparable. Indira says,
Gardening is not only an act of hope; it is also an act of acceptance. Endings are part of renewal. You can’t have one without the other… something may die but something will grow as well.
Ajay Narendra is Indira’s ant guru. His love of nature has given him an ant’s view of the world He says,
Make yourself small, not big. Set your goals and then surrender to them.
Despite their reputation for aggression, ants are quite altruistic. Their genetic similarity ensures a selfless, harmonious approach to life.
Ajay explains that most ants only forage 20-30 centimetres away from their nest and can carry up to fifty times their body weight. They are industrious throughout their entire short life.
Indira reflects on their existence and concludes,
My own problems pale in comparison to the average exhausting day of these tireless workers. Especially since their life span is so short-just seven to eight days.
And I feel robbed that I only had forty-eight years with Stargirl. How precious every moment would feel if we injected our years with the gratitude of ants.