What Flowers Teach Us About Death
May 27, 2020
Nasturtiums have been my favorite flower since I planted my first garden in 1975. They are colorful, beautiful, prolific and easy to grow, and they can make any landscape look like a fairy tale kingdom.
But they are also fragile, and if the sun hits them too hard for too long, the flowers will wilt, the life force flowing through the stems will choke up, and the plant will die. It happens every summer, and it’s inevitable.
My acceptance and embrace of death is absolute. I’ve worked in end-of-life care for the past 12 years, and have watched dozens of people take their last breath. I’ve comforted and counseled hundreds more who’ve come to me for grief support and spiritual guidance. I have no problem allowing death to occur when it is clearly what the body seeks. I watched my teenage son die from a rare metabolic disorder, and my mother die from the ravages of old age. I lovingly supported those transitions, holding sacred space while encouraging those souls to slip away from bodies that could no longer hold them.
I even accept the ultimate death of the earth itself. When I hear people cry out to stop global warming, I roll my eyes, because the natural ebb and flow of planetary life cannot be stopped. Planets come and go every day in our own galaxy; they’re born and they die, and they heat and cool along the way. Ours is no different simply because we’re occupying it. It is arrogant to think we are something special in the cosmos. I see our insignificance as a comfort, not as a threat. We are all just stardust.
So I’m OK with death. But I cannot bear to let my Nasturtiums die.
When the heat is too strong I protect them with a UV shade cover. I trim away the wilted blooms so the energy that would otherwise be used to make seeds will now be used to make new flowers. I keep them alive using any intervention I can, despite their natural inclination to leave this world. I do this because I love them. They make me happy, and I want them to stick around.
But they suffer in the heat; I hear them begging me to put them in the compost pile where they can be reborn as nutrients for a new generation. But I hate letting them go, even though I know they will leave offspring behind; seeds that will flower again in the spring.
Yet I, in my arrogance, insist on sucking every last bit of life out of them, long after their quality of life has diminished. I extend their suffering so that I don’t have to suffer the loss of them. Isn’t this exactly what we ask the medical establishment to do with our loved ones at end-of-life?
If we are gardeners, we have no choice but to accept the nature of impermanence. We know that all organisms, plant and animal, have a life cycle of birth, reproduction, death and rebirth. This is demonstrated to us everywhere, from a tiny seed pod to a massive planetary system. So why do I fight so hard for these little flowers?
I think they are here to remind me of these universal truths. My attachment to them forces me to face the fact that despite my experience and wisdom concerning death, I am still a vulnerable human with an instinct to resist loss and grief. They point out that I spend far too much time in the realm of intellect, and not enough time in the realm of the heart.
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