Death, the inevitable end of our journey, is a universal experience that touches us all. A profound event which leaves us grappling with a myriad of emotions, a profound sense of loss, and a deep longing for comfort. Throughout history, aromatic medicine has played a significant role in supporting us during such challenging times. This ancient practice offers a holistic and practical approach to grief support and in this article, we’ll delve into the many ways that aromatic herbs can support us through this shared human experience.
Grief & Aromatic Medicine
Grief is a complex emotional response to loss, which often envelops us in feelings of deep sorrow, numbness, anger, and even guilt. It's not merely an emotional experience; it also manifests physically and spiritually, resulting in symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disturbances, and a sense of disconnection. As Phyllis Light shares in her book, "The Herbal Apothecary," "Herbs can be a gentle and supportive way to help with the emotional and physical aspects of grief. They can help to promote relaxation, reduce stress, and improve sleep. They can also help to open the heart and allow for the expression of emotions."
In the face of grief, creating a supportive environment with the help of herbal medicine provides a safe haven for expressing emotions and navigating the journey of healing.
Aromatic Herbs for Grief Support
Certain aromatic herbs, known for their soothing and comforting properties, can serve as gentle companions on the journey through grief. As Rosemary Gladstar notes, “Lavender, with its calming effects, can alleviate feelings of restlessness and promote sleep. Chamomile, a gentle nervine, can ease anxiety and induce a sense of calm."
Rose, with its heart-opening qualities, is one of the herbs that Phyllis Light suggests can help open the heart and allow for the expression of emotions. Rose offers gentle support in peeling back the layers of grief, especially for those experiencing extended periods of sorrow.
Tulsi and Lemon Balm have also been traditionally used to support those who are grieving. Tulsi is an adaptogenic herb, helping the body to adapt to stress, which can help to reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and promote feelings of peace and well-being. Lemon balm is a calming, yet uplifting herb that soothes the mind and nervous system, reducing stress and offering a reprieve from heavy emotions. As Erika Galentin shares in our Aromatic Medicine Garden membership, Lemon Balm is "incredibly supportive during states of irritability, restlessness, anxiety, sleeplessness, mood swings," and encourages us to consider the idea of "nervous irritability" in the digestive system, which is a common physical manifestation of grief which Lemon Balm is also uniquely supportive of.
In our Rosemary monograph in the Aromatic Medicine Garden membership, we share that the plant has been used as a way to honor and remember those who have passed on for centuries. “Egyptian mummies were commonly found wrapped with Rosemary as a way to honor the dead. In England and Wales, sprigs of Rosemary were traditionally used in funerals and worn pinned to clothing and accessories to support the grieving process after the loss of a loved one. In some traditions, sprigs of Rosemary were placed on coffins before they were buried. This was a symbol to all spirits – both living and those who had passed on to other realms – that the dead would never be forgotten and live on in our memories.”
These herbs can be incorporated into daily rituals, such as creating personalized aromatic blends for herbal body oils, hydrosols for aromatic mists, and teas and incense for moments of quiet reflection. Robin Wall Kimmerer, in "Braiding Sweetgrass," reminds us that herbs can also be a way to connect with the natural world and to honor the person who has died.
Working with Aromatic Herbs in End-of-Life Care
End-of-life care is a significant aspect of the death journey, both for the dying individual and their loved ones. Aromatic herbs can play a crucial role in creating a peaceful and comforting environment during this time. The soothing scents of herbs can provide emotional support, promote relaxation, and help create a space of tranquility and acceptance.
Sleep disturbances and heightened anxiety are common challenges during end-of-life experiences. Aromatic herbs like Vetiver, with a deep, earthy scent, and Myrrh, an aromatic resin, are also known for their nervine qualities and can be included in herbal blends for their calming effects.
Practical Tips for Working with Aromatic Herbs
When tending to someone who is dying or supporting grieving individuals, aromatic herbs can be used in various ways. Creating calming sprays or mists for the environment can help set a peaceful ambiance. Preparing aromatic herbal teas can provide relaxation and the opportunity to slow down and tend to one’s self, an experience often set aside by caregivers during end of life care.
Herbal body oiling, a practice that involves massaging the body with herbal-infused oils, can soothe and nourish the nervous system. This practice, focusing on gentle touch and tenderness, can offer comfort to the dying individual, conveying love and deep connection.
An herbal bath can provide a soothing experience, and crafting personalized aromatic sachets can provide comfort and emotional support at the bedside.
*Be sure to keep in mind any individual preferences and sensitivities when selecting and using aromatic herbs.
Nurturing the Caregivers and Support Network
Caring for a dying loved one can take an emotional toll on the family members, friends, death doulas, and hospice workers offering care. It's important for these caregivers to nurture their well-being so that they may continue in their roles in healthy and well-nourished ways. Incorporating aromatic herbs in self-care practices, such as aromatherapy, herbal baths, and incense meditation, can provide much-needed relaxation and emotional respite.
Aromatic medicine, with its roots in ancient practices, holds significant promise in end-of-life care and grief. As we navigate the challenges of caring for our loved ones during the dying process or grapple with our own grief, let us remember the transformative power of aromatic herbs to support us. To all who provide invaluable support during these challenging times, we extend our deepest gratitude. May you find comfort, strength, and healing in the medicine of aromatic herbs.
Article Written By Summer Goon
Rosemary Gladstar. "Lavender, Chamomile, and Rose: Aromatic Herbs for Grief Support." The Herbal Apothecary, 2000.
Phyllis Light. "The Herbal Apothecary." New World Library, 2000.
Erika Galentin. "Lemon Balm." Aromatic Medicine Garden, 2022.
Robin Wall Kimmerer. "Braiding Sweetgrass." Milkweed Editions, 2013.
© 2023 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.
*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.