How can Aromatherapy help with grief?

What I love about essential oils is how they make you feel. You can lean on them like an old familiar friend to help you through tough times whether that is sleeplessness, over tiredness, anxiety, agitation, lack of concentration, or grief.  

In 2021 my mum died suddenly at home. I had just arrived at work, a new job, week 3, teaching and that morning I was feeling pretty good. Only a few weeks ago I had been stressing over the prospect of this job, thinking I couldn’t do it, shedding tears with my mum as I worried about my self care going down the pan as I knew it would be a sink or swim start. But that morning, as I drove to work, I felt I’d turned a corner; I could do this, life was good. Then I got a phone call. I left work, wondering if I would ever return (I did) and drove home to devastating news. But the worst thing was only half an hour earlier whilst I’d been thinking all of those positive things in the car that morning, my mum had died. In fact, she had already died and I didn’t know.

These thoughts haunt me still and as we approached her one year anniversary late last year, I thought about this a lot. My mind was whirring over the last time I had seen her, what she was doing in the days leading up to her death, looking at her last texts, her last social media posts, our last conversation and thinking ‘this time last year, mum was alive’. And then, ‘this time last year my mum had died and I didn’t know’. 

Grief is a lonely experience because it is unique and everyone has their own way of coping. All relationships are unique so the grief you feel is based on that relationship. I felt as if someone had pulled the rug from beneath my feet and I felt I was falling and floundering. What I wasn’t prepared for was the overwhelming sadness. I missed my mum so much. It was immediate and I wondered how I was going to manage. I’m very fortunate; I have a loving caring brother with whom I can share my grief with, a loving caring husband who looks after me, and loving caring children. But I was still sad and felt very alone.

I lost a parent – ‘it’s normal’ I rationalised. I had lost my dad to slow and painful cancer when I was in my 20s which was hard. My mum died suddenly, happy in her own home, surrounded by everything she loved. Although it was awful for us, it was good for her. She was frighted of dying. She didn’t know she had died. She felt no pain. I take a huge comfort from this.

Grief is a complex and contradictory process and as an Aromatherapist I have turned to my oils to support me. Oils are inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Some oils such as Lavender and Tea tree can be applied directly onto the skin but most oils we blend with a carrier oil or salts or put into a diffuser or burner. It’s safer this way as essential oils are volatile, unstable and should be used with care. Those tiny molecules extracted from plants are powerful; they can be stimulating, balancing or relaxing and we don’t know exactly how they interact with our bodies as it can depend on many things. There is on-going research into the main indicators of oils and how we can use them to our benefit.

As Aromatherapists we blend oils through consultation by listening carefully to what people tell us, we treat the person, holistically. Grief, for example, is not one thing. It is feeling overwhelmed, it’s not sleeping very well, it’s worry, it’s anxiety, it’s sadness, anger, brain fog, confusion, it’s getting things out of perspective, it’s arguing with the people you love, it’s not doing your job very well, it’s coping and not coping, it’s reassessing, it’s depression, it’s over eating or not eating the right food or not enough food, it’s drinking too much, it’s isolating, it’s all of these things and more.  So we can use oils to manage these symptoms and blend according to plant families, indicators, body systems, aroma, chemistry. It’s a formula we call synergy but an experienced Aromatherapist will also use intuition. Sometimes you just know which oils to blend and often when you look at the rationale behind the choice it’s seems incredible how you got there because it was ‘right’. So what oils did I choose for myself today?

Today I focused on one oil in particular: balancing Sweet Marjoram, Origanum majorana. Distilled from the flowering herb, it is part of the Lamiaceae plant family known for balancing the endocrine system as well as being anti bacterial, respiratory and anti viral. But I find myself reaching for it to help relieve symptoms of stress, tension, anxiety and insomnia.

Like many oils, it has a rich history in folk lore and has long been associated with encouraging sleep and contentment. Known as the ‘joy of the mountains’ it was given to married couples and planted in graveyards to bring peace to the departed as well as help the living connect with a departed loved one. It is warming, relaxing, gentle and protective, considered to spread joy and good fortune.

Studies have shown that Sweet Marjoram actively calms our nervous system by lowering sympathetic nervous system activity (feelings of fight or flight) and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system – a network of nerves that relaxes our body after periods of stress and danger. When we are in this parasympathetic state, our blood pressure is lowered and so the overall effect is calming as well as strengthening. In addition, Marjoram can help soothe an over-active mind, reducing obsessive thinking often associated with deep emotional trauma such as grief, loneliness, ptsd, and shock. It is sedative so excellent to use before bedtime relieving insomnia and calming that hyperactive mind. 

Today I’m blending it with the fresh citrus and strengthening aroma of Bergamot and the calming,  heady but hugely positive Ylang Ylang. Together these oils bring me joy as well as peace. 

If you are grieving, there is support out there through the NHS, Cruse and Mind as well as local support groups and counselling. Click here for more information and support.

Contraindications: avoid in pregnancy and be careful if you have low blood pressure as these oils can lower your blood pressure and can be sedatory. 

References: Jennifer Peace Rhind, Aromatherapeutic Blending, 2016. Rosemary Caddy, Essential Oils in Colour, 1997.