The 7 Things Houseplants Taught Me About Death Acceptance
Not a day goes by that I don’t think about death. As an obit writer, death blogger and adult orphan, I engage with my mortality every day. Even though most scary death stuff has been demystified over the years, thoughts of life’s end occasionally become overwhelming. I’m only human.
Death is so baked into all aspects of my life that I decided to counterbalance the doom and gloom with a relaxing, life-affirming hobby: plants. I didn’t realize that this cheerful diversion was about to turn my handful of losses into scores. But bringing plants into my life taught me to truly accept death.
Plants have a lot to teach us about death, grief and living well. Here’s what I learned.
1. Death happens, and there’s often no one to blame.
None of my past botanical attempts had been successful, so I decided to turn over a new leaf (literally and figuratively) by buying a new plant. My first plant — a China Doll — is still alive and well at the time of this writing. My second plant — a bromeliad — was dead as a doornail within two weeks. After a month of denial, I composted the dried husk in secret, and privately blamed myself.
It wasn’t until I joined a plant group on Facebook months later that I realized everyone kills plants. Not only that, but it’s often not even your fault. Plants will die, and if they didn’t there’d be little joy in keeping them alive.
There’s no getting around death when you take care of houseplants. Even the most seasoned green thumbs kill plants. The key to plant success is accepting that you’ll lose some along the way.
2. Life is often made from death.
I learned to resurrect the dead from a Watermelon Peperomia.
It was the pride and joy of my collection for two seasons before my Watermelon Peperomia started to look, well, off. Droopy, dull and weirdly spongey, it held on as long as it could before one day collapsing over the edge of its pot and dramatically giving up on life with me. I helplessly watched it die a slow death until it was too late. RIP. Later, I learned you can slice the leaf in half and replant it, to sprout a new stalk from each severed vein.
An impending death now represents the opportunity to create new life. Even if the propagation doesn’t survive, the pang of losing a plant doesn’t sting so much. Losing a person I love still hurts, and always will; death acceptance is not a replacement for grief. But being close to the life-and-death cycle puts losses big and small in greater perspective, and eases my death anxiety little by little.
3. Beauty is a process.
Keeping houseplants isn’t new, but this hobby has taken off lately as a popular home design trend, particularly with millenials (like me). Instagram is full of plant influencers touting a minimalist lifestyle, with pristine greenery climbing the exposed brick walls of downtown lofts. But behind the scenes, plants aren’t so glamorous. Infestations, tricky lighting, periods of dormancy, seasonality, soil spillage, watering needs and other factors make the ideal of flawless plants more of an illusion than a reality.
Age, illness, death, and decay are parts of our lives that tend to remain hidden. For some, natural aging (and all that comes with it) is even shameful. But there is no cheating death, or the perceived imperfections of age or illness: It’s all part of life.
Just like plants, life for humans can be messy. Illness, injuries, trauma and periods of dormancy affect us all. Raising my own plants forced me to be okay with dead leaves, slow growth, imperfection and the occasional casualty.
4. We are all continually in a state of life and death.
“We begin to die as soon as we are born, and the end is linked to the beginning.”
When my nepenthes’ first pitcher shriveled up and died, I waited two months before snipping off the dead matter. I didn’t want to see my beloved carnivorous plant without its hallmark characteristic, the part of it that won my heart in the first place.
When I finally got the backbone to trim it back, a new baby pitcher sprouted almost immediately. Turns out, dying plant matter takes energy from the plant, preventing it from creating new growth. When you are able to let go, you open the door for fresh life and new love.
Letting go of the old makes room for the new. It may not be that simple in the case of human loss. Experience with death can enhance your understanding of the delicate balance between yourself and the things you take care of, your own age, beauty, health and inevitable demise. Sometimes, pruning is necessary.
5. The more you love, the more you’ll grieve.
Once I became a competent gardener, I killed more plants than ever. The wonderful greenery of the world suddenly stood out, and I started taking on more plants. Plants are everywhere, and many of their human companions are willing to offer a clipping. But the more I attained, the more I lost.
Part of death acceptance is relinquishing a false sense of control over the universe. If you’re invested in your plants, they will live and prosper. Some will also die. We often don’t get to decide when the end comes, and that goes for everything in life. Living well means accepting love, knowing people and bringing more into your life if they fit. It means embracing risk.
6. Death is good for plants — and people too!
The more I build terrariums, the more I come to terms with the likely extinction of life on earth. Managing the resources of a tiny ecosystem can teach a lot about our planet.
Climate change is coming in hot, and lately there has been much speculation about the end of the world, and if it’s happening soon. At such a time, death is incredibly beneficial. As our earth solemnly marches toward a fiery dystopic future, death wipes out about 150,000 people per day globally. Each of those deaths stave off emergency levels of overpopulation.
Don’t get me wrong: We should fight for climate change reversal at all costs. Our survival almost certainly depends on it. But there seems to be no reconciling the fact that we are nowhere close to pausing our harmful emissions, never mind reversing our damage to the planet.
If extinction is our destiny anyway, I find comfort in spritzing my plants’ leaves — maybe it’s more for me than the plants (but I believe they do enjoy a simulated rain shower now and again).
7. Knowing what happens after death helps — a lot.
More than likely, the plants in my terrarium will die before I do. When that happens, I’ll clear out the dead leaves, refresh the soil, redesign the landscape with west coast twigs, moss, rocks and shells, and plant fresh life where old life once resided. If I die before the plants in my terrarium, well, that’s a similar story.
While there are still plenty of life- and death-affirming things I’d like to do before I die, I have a morbid-but-accurate idea of what will happen if I die. My body will be transported to a hospital and then to a funeral home. My apartment will be emptied and my things kept by loved ones, sold, donated or thrown away (including my surviving plants and terrariums!). Someone else will move in and begin to create life there. My body will be in the early stages of decomposition when it is lowered into a natural burial plot, where it will become a feast for the lucky bacteria and insects nearby. Grass will grow from my grave. If burial space becomes limited, my grave might eventually house other corpses too. I don’t mind: I’ll be dead. The people connected to me will grieve my death and learn from it as I’ve learned from other deaths. And that will be that.
Even if my death doesn’t follow the script I’ve envisioned for myself, it won’t matter once I’m gone. Being an undertaker of plants takes away most of the unknown of death, and over time, also the fear.
For those in the back: Death positivity offers no protection from bereavement.
I don’t mourn for every dead leaf anymore. Leaves, trees, animals, insects, humans and even my own body are future compost to me now. This bleak outlook may not be for everyone, but it saves me worrying about the what ifs of death.
But being death positive will never make you immune to bereavement. Grief is a necessary emotional process that hurts. At its best, grief can teach you greater emotional intelligence, empathy, and help you achieve a sense of peace in relation to your own demise. At its worst, grief can trigger unaddressed traumas from your past, cause issues in relationships, and can even spell the beginning of mental and physical illnesses.
That’s why it’s important to connect with others. Whether your support network is friends, family, a grief meetup group or an online forum, connection to others is an essential part of healing from loss. Another way to find guidance and perspective is by working with a grief counselor. Some people find connection in activities, volunteering, a pet or even in gardening. Whatever keeps you connected to life is invaluable when mourning a loss.
Death positivity means mourning our dead wholeheartedly, unabashedly, and actively moving through it as best we can. It means accepting that death is a natural end for every one of us. It means giving loved ones who are gone end-of-life experiences that are as informed, ethical and comfortable as possible. There is a subtle, but important, difference between missing someone and wishing they were still alive. And understanding the difference can save you (some) grief.
Originally published on BeyondTheDash.com