Essential oils and grief
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
Part I of II
The experience of grief following a death or significant loss can be complex. No one has exactly the same experience even if you are grieving the same person, or a similar relationship. When a death or significant loss happens we lose not only the person/pet/etc. but our relational understanding of the world through the connection to that soul no longer present in our life. This makes everyone’s process and expression of grief a unique journey. Some folks use stages or the grouping of symptoms to describe grief, and this is good for a bit of construct and language; useful as long as we understand that stages do not have to occur in a linear manner.
I am witnessing that essential oils are best utilized through inhalation for relief from the emotional suffering experienced with grief and loss. From a biological standpoint when we breathe in an essential oil the olfactory nerve carries the chemical components of the essential oil to the brain. The areas of the brain impacted by the olfactory nerve are key in understanding what relief the oils may bring. Two important locations where the olfactory nerve ends are the hypothalamus and amygdala. The hypothalamus mediates emotional responses, regulates pituitary hormones and controls things like hunger and thirst. The amygdala makes up a significant part of the limbic system, which controls emotional responses like anger, pleasure, anxiety and fear while also attaching emotional content to our memory.
Still with me? Part I of Blending for Grief, will describe a range of emotional reactions using Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ model and offer a selection of essential oils to provide comfort.
Often times what a person may experience initially when faced with death (or loss) is an emotional reaction like numbness, shock or disbelief. Some essential oils that assist with bringing us out of the haze and into a new version of reality are, Kunzea, or Kunzea ambigua ; Melissa, Melissa officinalis; Roman Chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile; and Myrrh, Commiphora myrrha.
I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
While Kunzea supports the body’s natural response to stress, Melissa can help restore clarity during confusion. Its high aldehyde content acts as a sedative, both cooling and relaxing to the central nervous system. The high ester content in Roman Chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile provides a balancing effect to the body both physically as well as emotionally. Myrrh calms the mind inviting a sense of inner stillness. It provides warmth and grounding and has been suggested to help connect the physical and emotional bodies when jarring news creates a feeling of separation or disconnect.
Anger begins the process allowing a person to experience the reality of their loss. Anger may be a difficult emotion for some to experience. A blend using essential oils of Grapefruit, Bergamot, German Chamomile, Blue Cypress, Spikenard, Helichrysum and Yarrow encourage emotions to rise, relax then release.
Grapefruit or Citrus paradisi is well known for promoting uplifting emotions and soothing feelings of tension and frustration. Bergamot, Citrus bergamia relaxes both mind and body. German Chamomile or Matricaria recutita offers grounding in stress related conditions as well as acting as a tonic to restore health and vitality. It has been found to be calming but not depressing. Similar to German Chamomile, Blue Cypress, Callitris intratropica contains chamazulene, which gives the essential oil its dark color, and has been said to soothe feelings of tension, frustration, irritability and moodiness. Nardostachys jatamansi, or Spikenard has been valued as a precious herb through history and its use dates to early Egypt. However, this essential oil is taken from a medicinal species classified as endangered in 2015, by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Please use it responsibly or substitute it for one of these other amazing oils. Helichrysum, or Helichrysum italicum works on the emotional level, rather in the same manner as it does with the physical body, healing current as well as old emotional wounds. It can restore balance, sooth nerves decrease tension and stress related conditions. Yarrow, Achillea millefolium was selected to help release bitterness or rage that one may not be aware of.
Another experience of grief can be marked by upheaval, change and escape from reality. Questions like, “What if”, or bargaining with a higher power in return for the person, or the health of the person facing death is common. Bargaining allows the brain time to adjust to reality and may even provide a sense of hope. As one begins to awaken and see the bargains are not effective, gentle grounding, support and comfort is brought to the forefront with the essential oils selected; Sandalwood, Clary Sage, Benzoin, Palmarosa, Neroli.
Sandalwood, Santalum album can be used to alleviate depression and promote inner stillness. More on Sandalwood included with essential oils addressing depression. Be aware that Sandalwood is on the endangered species list. Problems with illegal harvesting are happening in countries such as India, Sri Lanka, China, the Philippines and Indonesia. Sustainable efforts are being made on farms in Australia with both Santalum album and Santalum spicatum. Please be wary of the Hawaiian Sandalwood as this is another species threatened by overuse.
The psychological properties of Clary Sage, or Salvia sclarea are similar to its energetic ones providing relief for mental fatigue and nervousness. Benzoin, Styrax Benzoin can calm center and reassure and is known for its soothing, stabilizing and nurturing qualities. Palmarosa, Cymbopogon martinii stabilizes the heart and nervous system and has been distilled since the 18th century. It is used in both Oriental and Ayurvedic medicinal practices to stabilize the heart and nervous system and is noted for its ability to calm where there is tension and exhaustion. Neroli, Citrus aurantium var amara, was chosen to reestablish a link between the disconnect, neroli relaxes the nerves and uplifts the spirit. It can provide a sense of calm thereby reducing depressive and anxious features.
What cannot be said will be wept.
Depression may be experienced as the reality of the loss settles in. Symptoms may range in duration and include feelings of emptiness, a withdraw from social activities, feeling numb, head fog, feeling overwhelmed, feeling hopeless even suicidal. If symptoms are pervasive or persist the condition may require professional medical or psychological support. If you feel suicidal please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, by calling 1-800-273-8255. Essential oils that can assist with a depressed mood are Neroli, Bergamot, Grapefruit, Yarrow, Sandalwood and Thyme. Neroli and Grapefruit were chosen to create some space in the mind, allow for a breath. The physical body is provided a tonic with Thyme and a bit of lift in energy from Bergamot. Yarrow is included to release bitterness and encourage movement through the fog.
Neroli, or Citrus aurantium var amara has been used medicinally as a gentle tonic for the nervous system. Current research is looking at the positive benefits neroli has on mood elevation. Bergamot, or Citrus bergamia can provide an emotional uplift. It may also help to lesson a headache, relieve insomnia and regulate appetite. These physical symptoms may occur within any of the stages of grief, but are common complaints linked to depression. Yarrow, or Achillea millefolium, has been suggested to assist those with depression release bitterness and hidden rage. It has been suggested that Citrus paradisi, or Grapefruit relieves anger, blame and self-criticism, and may help alleviate the feeling that one “should” have done something differently. Santalum album, or Sandalwood has anti-depressive qualities. The use of sandalwood is vast, it was used in the Tang Dynasty by Tibetan monks, ancient Egyptians and Vedic texts and is estimated to have been used by humans for almost 3000 yrs. Sandalwood may help to ground and protect one energetically as they begin to accept a new reality. Thymus vulgaris, better known as thyme can dispel despondency and help to release self doubt. Thyme can purify, give courage and assist with sleep, calm nerves and headaches.
Using Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ model four stages of grief were reviewed while a selection of essential oils were reviewed to assist with the intensity of physical, emotional and energetic symptoms related to loss. The blog following will explore acceptance and match essential oils for support and integration into a new life. Safe practices will be discussed along with ideas for varied uses of essential oils for relief and support with grief and bereavement.
Aromatherapy for grief and loss, Untamed Alchemist; https://theuntamedalchemist.com/2014/08/27/aromatherapy-for-grief-loss/
Stillpoint Aromatics Website; Stillpointaromatics.com
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Mikiko Kadohisa; Effects of odor on emotion, with implications; US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3794443/
Queensland Brain Institute; The University of Queensland Australia; The limbic system; https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain/brain-anatomy/limbic-system
Gabriel Mojay, Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit; 1997.
Valerie Ann Wormwood, Aromatherapy for the Soul; 1999.
Fatemeh Bina, PharmD, PhD Candidate1 and Roja Rahimi, PharmD, PhD; Sweet Marjoram; A Review of Ethnopharmacology, Phytochemistry, and Biological Activities; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5871212