My grandmother called roses “death flowers.” Seven years ago, I was reminded that they were only to be given and received at funerals when I was picking out flowers for my wedding day. I discarded roses from list, thinking that this was merely due to tradition; a sign of an older time, or perhaps based on the Victorian flower language that carried a symbolic message of sympathy. Seven years later, as I dwell in the City of Roses, I’ve come into my own, deeper contemplation of the meaning behind death roses.
I started the New Year preparing to separate from my husband and life as I knew it on the East Coast to return to my family, friends, and the feeling of “home” in the Pacific Northwest. Soon after my journey West and settling into my new house, grief and loss arrived on my doorstep like long-lost distant relatives. I recognized their names but my memories of them were hazy and mostly forgotten. My being quickly became enveloped by sadness and loneliness; my body shut down to its basic operations for survival. I waded through weeks of lonely depression and entered Spring tense, irritable, and numb to experiencing any sense of pleasure.
I recall walking my dog and catching a faint smell of roses a few days ago. My senses came alive in an instant, as if someone had flipped a switch. I stopped in my tracks, eagerly hunting for the source. Finding the bush, I held a dense handful of pink in my palm, closed my eyes, and buried my nose deep in its velvety petals. I inhaled slow and deep, and was immediately planted back into my body. My heart opened, slowly at first, like a cracked, barren landscape soaking up the first rains of the season. I could feel my entire being soften with each exhale. I realized I was feeling pleasure and I almost wept tears of relief. These beautiful, fleeting moments had sparked my sensory receptors and I was starting to unwind from the confinement of grief.
This is the power of death roses: a reminder that whatever we may be going through, we are still alive. Their prickly thorns and rich aroma are catalysts for sensory nourishment when our bodies become too weary to feel and emote. However small it may seem, they have a natural ability to bring us back to ourselves when we have forgotten our way. My grandmother was right. Death roses are Heavenly gifts to the soul and they are not to be used lightly.
<artwork “Soul of a Rose,” by John William Waterhouse, 1908>