July 26, 2013

A mother's love

Butterfly garden gives a sense of hope and beauty for parents who have lost a child

Tina Settles created the Children’s Memorial Butterfly Garden at Good Shepherd Parish in Indianapolis as a place to remember and celebrate the lives of her only child and other children who died too soon. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Tina Settles created the Children’s Memorial Butterfly Garden at Good Shepherd Parish in Indianapolis as a place to remember and celebrate the lives of her only child and other children who died too soon. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

It all has to do with the incredible depth of a mother’s love.

There’s no other way to explain what Tina Settles has created, what she believes in, and what she holds close to her heart.

For the past two years, Settles has worked tirelessly to turn an overgrown patch of land behind a parish church into a flowing garden of red, yellow, pink and purple flowers that has become a home to a dazzling, breathtaking assortment of butterflies.

Yet even more dramatically, that change in landscape has led to a special place that has lightly touched upon the hearts and souls of parishioners who have known the unbearable heartbreak of losing a child.

It’s a devastation that Settles has suffered personally, too.

This then is a story of transformation, the transformation of a parent—from a mother who never felt so alone and devastated after the death of her only child to a woman who has created a Children’s Memorial Butterfly Garden where people can feel some measure of hope and healing as they remember a child who died too soon, who touched their lives forever.

A sense of hope and beauty

Settles knows that some of the pain from the death of her son, Jeremiah Allen Monroe, will always be with her. He died at 29 on Sept. 11, 2010. And while she prefers to keep the details surrounding his death private, she openly shares the heartbreak of losing her only child—and the startling discovery she made in the midst of that heartache.

“When I lost my son, I felt very alone,” Settles recalls. “A lot of people at the showing would tell me they had lost a child. I had no clue. Here I was feeling all alone, and other people had been through it. If you outlive your child, it’s a strange feeling. I saw they were going on with their lives, and it gave me hope that I would learn, too. I’m still in the learning process.”

One significant part that has helped in that process has happened at Good Shepherd Parish in Indianapolis, where Settles and her husband, Kevin, are members.

In the spring of 2011, there was a flower garden behind the church that had become overgrown, and one plan was to return it to grass. Hearing about that plan, Settles asked Father Gerald Kirkhoff, the parish’s pastor, if she could take over care of the garden. One of the main reasons she wanted to do it was because she remembered how much her son enjoyed watching her garden.

“I thought it would be a good diversion for me,” she says. “I was so depressed. For me, gardening is therapeutic.

“Some of the flowers that were originally there, once the weeds were pulled away, we started to see butterflies. Then I added some flowers and weeds that attract butterflies. We have wild violets. We have milkweed. If you don’t have milkweed, you won’t have monarch butterflies.”

The butterflies appealed to Settles’ sense of beauty, but there was another reason she strived to make them so essential to the garden.

“When you think of butterflies, they’re like our children. You think of their metamorphosis—from a caterpillar to a butterfly. It’s kind of like the Resurrection. As the Bible tells us, when we pass, we turn into something beautiful. It’s a reminder that our children will be resurrected, and their spirits are safe with God.”

A place to remember

As the garden began to take shape, so did her idea of wanting to have a plaque in the garden that remembered Jeremiah and the children that other parents had lost.

“I started thinking about all the people who had been there for me, and the stories they told me about losing their children. We remember our children in our hearts always, but I thought it would be nice for our church to remember our children, too.”

She started selling tomato plants at the parish to raise money for the plaque. Then people donated money, wanting the names of their children to be on the plaque.

“The children are of all ages,” she says. “One person in the parish lost a child at 56. That was still her child. We’ve also had people who are not Catholic ask to put a name on the plaque. I have no problem with that. We’re all God’s children.”

There are 46 names on the plaque that hangs on a red-brick wall by the Children’s Memorial Butterfly Garden. After one of the parish’s Masses on July 7, Father Kirkhoff dedicated the plaque while a large crowd watched.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Father Kirkhoff says. “It enlarges the whole idea of respect for life. We think of the unborn children who die because of abortion, and we also think of the children who died too early in life—children who were stillborn or who died because of childhood illnesses and accidents. It’s a memorial for those children—how they made an impact on our lives in such a short time, and how they made us better people.”

Mary Jane Biro joined the group that attended the plaque’s dedication.

“I was amazed at the number of people who came,” says Biro, a member of the parish. “It was inspiring, not only to see the people who participated but how much work Tina put into the whole thing. She has a place where people can sit, and she made stepping stones so it’s easy for people to walk through.

“I married a man who lost a son when the son was 50. It was so sudden. Bob goes back to that garden and just sits and enjoys the serenity.”

Kevin Settles marvels at his wife’s tribute: “This is a wonderful thing she’s done.”

‘I believe I’m starting to heal’

Nearly three years have passed since Settles lost her son. There are still times that test her soul.

“There have been people who told me that some people never get over losing a child,” she says. “For me, it’s very hard. He’s the only child I’ve ever had. But I believe he’s with God. He no longer suffers or knows pain. And I believe I’m starting to heal. But you just never want to forget them.”

Now, she has created a place for herself and others where they can heal as they remember.

“When I’m at the garden, I think of him. I’m also starting to find peace. When I feel sad, I can sit on the bench and feel God’s presence.”

She walks through the garden, taking time to kneel and weed. She also looks for the butterflies—the monarchs, the black swallow tails, the tiger swallow tails. They grace the garden on most days, especially in the morning or after a rain.

“I wanted to turn something sad in my life into something good,” she says. “And I wanted to do it for my parish because they were there for me during the hardest part of my life.”

She smiles and points to a butterfly alighting on a purple flower.

“I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for my faith. When you’re down and people are there for you, that’s when you see Christ’s face.” †

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