The memory of the scent of the disinfectant squirt on my hands I used prior to entering my client’s hospice room still permeates my nostrils weeks later. If that is what lingers for me, what do the dying smell on their last few days?

Our sense of smell is linked to the limbic system which governs emotions, behaviour and long-term memory. The olfactory centres of the brain continue to function even when someone is unconscious. Therefore, a pleasing aroma will still be registered by the subconscious mind, and hopefully make the dying process more pleasant. It doesn’t matter what the smell is, as long as it’s associated with memories of happiness.

Aroma therapy has a role in improving the quality of life especially in the dying process. Using essential oils and aromas sparingly can provide comfort to the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual states for those dying and their caregivers. I have sprayed a hospice room with lavender hydrosol, and moments later, a nurse walked in and said, “Oh, doesn’t it smell nice in here”.

The sound of gentle music and the waft of aromatherapy came from behind a patient’s closed door as a palliative nurse friend did her rounds. She mentioned this was comforting for the hospice staff as they dispensed with the meds and other duties.

How to respect no scent zones? Sometimes I may spritz myself with a rose or lavender hydrosol before visiting a client. The aroma from this is no stronger than using most soaps, shampoos and toothpastes. Also ask for permission on the unit ahead of time.

Aromatherapy helps to:

  • Promote relaxation (often improves sleep patterns)
  • Alleviate anxiety
  • Reduce depression
  • Reduce pain and suffering
  • Aids in digestion

Even if the best you can do for someone is to revive some pleasant memories while death calls, then you have done something meaningful.

Aromatic washes for the terminally ill can be so effective. The final rites of passage are to support a sense of serenity, confidence and centering in the letting-go process, with a sense of surrender.

When it is clear that the person is nearing their last day, it may be a good idea to stop using any strong aromas in the room. This may distract the individual, keeping them longing to continue on in their earthly life.

Many traditions recognize the period between death and burial as sacred and there are many rituals to be held to honour this time. One of the most beautiful practices is anointing and washing the body to prepare for burial. This now has become another lost art and has been professionalized, taking the care away from family and friends.

Katie, a dear friend, we bathed her body with infused sage water; a daughter speaks lovingly to her mom as she washes her mother’s body with saffron water. Death ends a life, not the relationship. This is one last gesture we can do as that relationship begins to morph to another level. Supportive rituals of respect and emotional participation can assist family and friends in the process of loss.

Allow yourself to open to the magic and mystery of using medicinal plants and essential oils to care for your loved one.

Written by Rayne Johnson, a Death Doula, End-of-Life Consultant and founder of Doing Deathcare Differently. She is a graduate of the Contemplative End-of-Life program at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. With 30 years as a massage and reiki therapist, she understands the importance of helping to ease the journey for the dying as well as for the family.

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