Flowers for the Living, Flowers for the Dead



Flowers for the Dead

“Go ahead. Arrange and rearrange the stones on top of your beloved’s grave. Keep arranging those stones for as long as it hurts to do it, then stop just before you really want to.

Put the last stone on and walk away.

Then light your candles to the living. Say your prayers for the living. Give your flowers to the living. Leave the stones where they are, but take your heart with you. Your heart is not stone. True love demands that, like a bride with her bouquet, you toss your fragile glass heart into the waiting crowd of living hands and trust that they will catch it.”  Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me, p. 196.

There is no need to rearrange the stones on Vic’s grave. Our sons David and Anthony balanced granite and shale over his ashes in August 2008 and, even though the cairn looks precarious, it stands firm.

I follow most of Kate Braestrup’s advice and light my candles to the living. Prayers? Those too go to the living. Trust in living hands? That is coming, slowly, cautiously.

Flowers for the Living

In 2009, my throat caught when I read Braestrup’s line, “Give your flowers to the living.” I did give my flowers to the living, but I couldn’t forget the dead. I remembered the life I expected to live with Vic, the Brandywine tomato juice that would drip down our chins, the Labrador retrievers we would raise, and the love we would share. I needed to honor that lost life and still do, but as years pass, I dedicate more flowers to the emergence of my new life.

This morning, I arranged the first gladiolas of the season on the flat shale over Vic’s ashes. Then I leaned into the stately red oak to feel the strength of our marriage and the life we created together,  pressing my cheek into the rough bark and absorbing the power of the roots through the soles of my boots. Nearby, I visited a cluster of basswood trees that lean away from one another, creating an earthen circle between the trunks where I can stand. Here, I offered flowers and family prayers to the living—Anthony, David, David’s partner Liz, and me, plus anyone who joins us in the future. Here, at the basswood trees, I give thanks for my life as it rises from darkness into day.

In the garden, the gladiolas bloom profusely. Until fall, I’ll place long stems in the circle of the living family trees, but I’ll also lay a few crimson and coral glads on Vic’s cairn, remembering the strong foundation on which I stand. My new life emerges from the hard work and good love of what has passed, so I plan to remember what is gone while rejoicing for what lives on. For now, perhaps always, I offer my flowers to the living and the dead.


What sorts of simple or elaborate rituals have you created in your life?  See my blog “Creating A Grief Ritual: Love, Loss and Continuing Bonds” for more ideas.  The website has many articles about creating meaningful grief rituals. For example, Paul Bennett writes about a simple but powerful ritual in a chapter from his book, Loving Grief. Visit the bereavement section of my website or my other blogs, for more articles on managing loss.

  1. Gladioli were once the flower of funerals and yet they make me glad to be alive. What a wonderful way to honor the past and the future. When Sam died, I too felt the urge to have flowers to remind me of life. And so I bought myself a bouquet every week for a year to remind me of the life and love we had built together. And this summer my heirloom pink poppies came back after two years dormant and I’ve just harvested the seeds. Planning for the next growing season.

    • Jill, I love the thought of saving seed for the next season. It’s another way to honor the archetype of death and rebirth, loss and renewal. My vegetable garden has fewer vegetables and more gladiolas than in the past, so this time of year I give flowers to friends, put them in vases in my house, and take them to the woods. In the fall, I’ll dig the bulbs, winter them over in the cellar, and next spring they’ll be ready to begin again–and each year there are more bulbs, giving me hope for my expanding new life.

  2. Thank you, Elaine…two days ago, I accidentally heard the religious hymn that my grandmother loved so dearly…bittersweet to remember her laughter and love…but I’m so grateful I had the privilege of getting to know her. Blessings to you in both your grief and emergence into life, Gita

    • Thanks for your memory, Gita. It reminds me of a Youtube video of Japanese children sharing their losses in a classroom. The kids were afraid to tell their stories and expose their sadness, but when they did, they felt lighter about their own loss of a parent or grandparent and more empathetic and attuned to each other’s sadness. I hope you can sing the hymn to yourself and your friends. Blessings back your way.

  3. Elaine….this is so beautiful. I’m honored you and David shared the sacred spaces of Vic’s cairn and the basswood trees with me, so that I can feel and see the places as I read your powerful words. xoxo

    • Dearest Liz, you have your very own designated basswood tree! I’m glad I showed this secret corner of my life to you, and now I’m daring to show it to others in words and photos. I am honored to have your loving presence in my family circle.

  4. Jeez, Elaine. Goosebumps. You reach down deep and speak it. I love you for your ability to do that.

  5. This is so beautiful and inspiring, Elaine. Thank you so much for sharing these wise words. They give me much to think about as I prepare to lay my mother’s ashes to rest this summer in a beautiful spot I’ve chosen for her in my mountain sanctuary: beneath a thick canopy of trees, beside a bold stream, where I, too, will rest some day. I

    • Thank you, Jeanie. It’s wonderful that you will have this place of natural beauty in which to remember your mother. I imagine the comfort of visiting this site, protected by the tree canopy and reminded by the “bold stream” of the movement of time. May you always feel the Mother’s love.

  6. Thanks, Elaine, for reminding us that we don’t have to forget the dead when we give our flowers to the living. Every day I am reminded of my husband, Adrian, in some way. The pieces of our shared life are still with me, enriching my present. Sadness itself is another flavor of daily life.

    • Lynn, I appreciate your reflections because I know you’ve been there, have written about it, and are finding your way into a new life built on the old one. Thank you for your wonderful website combining your art, your grief, and your reflections.

  7. Elaine, my dear, what a powerful quotation you’ve shared at the beginning of your piece! And what a beautiful description of how you’ve applied Kate Braestrup’s stunning words to your own grief journey. I just love your writing ~ Thank you for sharing this! ♥

    • Thank you for your kind words, Marty. This quote from Kate Braestrup is a knock-out, and as you can tell, it helped me articulate my particular point of view. Thank you for all the sharing you do to help and educate others. With love, Elaine

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