Many years ago, I worked in a hospice house; there were ten beds, which were almost always occupied. Some days, there was a patient already waiting to come just moments after another had taken their last breaths. But regardless of the revolving door feel, we always made sure they were given a beautiful, thoughtful and compassionate farewell ceremony.
While the funeral home staff would prepare their loved one for transport, we would give handfuls of flower petals to each person waiting to say their goodbye. We would gather the family and staff and have them line up across from one another creating a pathway, and as they were slowly rolled past us, we would scatter the flower petals over them. I loved this gesture for many reasons; it was a moment for us to be able to say goodbye and find closure after caring for them, but more importantly was that we provided a better “last memory” for the families. That moment, the one where the body is being rolled out to the car, can be really difficult to see. The “rose petal ceremony” was our way of making those last moments a little less difficult.
The other day I went for a walk, truly savoring the beautiful sunny day, and the colors and fragrances of the bounty spring has gifted us. I came across a giant Camilla tree, which in itself was magnificent and almost too amazing to be real, but below it lay thousands of flower petals, scattered all over the ground. It was beautiful, peaceful and pretty. It of course took me back to the days of the hospice house, and the hundreds of flower petals we scattered.
I thought about the way flower petals are scattered just before the bride walks down the aisle, or when they are scattered on the floor or the bed in an attempt to entice romance. I thought about the flower itself, starting out as a tiny bud and rather quickly becoming a stunning blossom, but just as quickly as it blooms, it dies, leaving petals to fall gently to the ground, reminding us how fragile life is. I read somewhere that flower petals scattered is a sign of ever lasting peace, which is rather poignant on both a wedding day as well as the day last breaths are taken.
I can remember quite clearly those days that I stood waiting for someone to be rolled out past us. I would move the petals between my fingers, impressed by how soft and delicate they were, reminding myself their value and what they were representing at that moment. When it was my turn to scatter them, I would try to drop one petal at a time if possible, whispering small prayers or gentle wishes for their journey to be peaceful.
After the car drove away and the family left, we would sweep up the petals. I had my own personal ritual each time, where I would save one petal, or at least pick one up from the pile if it wasn’t swept up yet. I would take it outside and hold it for a moment while I reminded myself what an honor it was to care for that human, however long or short we had them, and that their life mattered. I would throw it out to the wind and ask, again, that their journey be peaceful.
I am reminded of the significance flower petals play for me personally, and this moment at the base of the Camilla tree brought it all back to me. The hundreds of last breaths I have been present for, the hundreds of goodbyes that were said, the lives that were trusted in our care and the millions of flower petals that gently fell to the ground in their honor.
I am the hospice nurse I am today because of the moments I had at that hospice house. Each last breath I was present for, each last goodbye, each tender hug, and every flower petal I moved between my fingers reminded me of how truly precious life is.