Can I be completely honest with you? The last two years have been doozies. I mean pick-you-up-and-throw-you-down fire walks.
In the first year I lost my job at a place that held my heart and my core relationships. I went from being surrounded by people I loved in a work environment to absolute emptiness: crickets. (Insert existential crisis here.) That same winter, I lost two dogs, a horse, and my dad. It was an ocean of grief. Just when I thought I had my sea legs, my aunt passed away and we realized the place we’d called home for 17 years wasn’t home anymore. If I’d wanted to, it would have been easy to see it all as a steaming pile of sadness.
I have my family, friends, animals, and husband (oh, my beloved, kick-ass husband!) to thank for the strength and courage it took to navigate that time without just walking off a proverbial or tangible cliff. We took comfort in memories. We imagined what our loved ones would want to see us accomplish. And we began doing those things. We managed to channel our heartache into amazing change and completely transformed our lives. I’ve achieved huge goals that I know make my dad proud in the hereafter. I’ve embraced a new path and jumped with both feet into the cold, dark water knowing that all things—even these things—happen for a reason and they aren’t happening to punish me.
Then, on August 17th, I learned that my stepmom passed away unexpectedly while traveling. To say her transition was a surprise is like saying Ebola has a nasty bite. Sharon was young, vital, and healthy. She was also my biggest cheerleader and one of my closest friends. I trusted we had decades to look forward to together after my father’s passing, that we would continue to have our hours-long phone conversations for years and years to come. I never imagined she wouldn’t be here to encourage, poke, and embrace me. With her, my father was still very much alive and within reach. Without her, I felt like I lost an otherwise indelible connection to him forever at the same time I lost a cherished confidant, soul sister, and fairy guide mother.
At first, the truth of it was paralyzing. Feelings of despair, helplessness, sorrow, and anger gripped me. Slowly, though, I found real comfort in knowing that she is with my dad and also with all of us, always. Probably more close than ever. I look to rainbows, butterflies, hummingbirds, and shooting stars for comfort–and answers. And I leveraged the tools I have come to know so intimately to help me focus, channel, and move my sadness: I started blending with the oils that have already consoled and comforted me substantially over the last two years. And that’s when I realized I am now somewhat of an expert on essential oils for grief and loss.
Please understand that significant loss demands real attention to your well being—grieving requires an expansive level of self-care that extends well beyond aromatherapy. Ideally, it should include nourishing foods, time with compassionate friends and family, real rest, and room to cry, breathe, and contemplate–not to mention TIME. That said, essential oils have contributed significantly to my healing as they have supported the energetic outcomes I needed to heal, mourn, celebrate, and recover.
Essential Oils to Consider to Support Grief & Loss
The loss of a loved one can surface many turbulent emotions: grief, sadness, despair, helplessness, rejection, anger, frustration, regret, guilt, fear, insecurity, isolation, abandonment, and hopelessness to name but a few. To wit, there are a variety of essential oils and associated energies we look to in supporting the grieving process. The doctrine of signatures provides some fundamental alignments that inform the underlying energetics of these oils based on their plant source. To wit, the oils are organized according to plant part.
Just as every oil has individual energetic properties, each also has unique safety concerns—not all oils are safe for use in every way. Some—like the Cinnamons—can burn the skin in topical application, others—like the citrus fruits—can be phototoxic. As always, learn and apply appropriate safety guidelines and explore contraindications for the oil you want to use, your intended application, and your intended recipient before creating your blends. (You’ll find some specific ideas for uses of these oils at the end of this article.)
Like the trees from which they come, woods generally help us to stand tall. They encourage our inner strength and remind us that growth, like that of a tree, is ultimately marked in the passage of time, not in a single moment. Much as a tree has rings that mark its development, so, too, our lives are the sum of our experiences. Woods can be powerful reminders that while “this” is indeed happening and having a marked effect, it, too, will pass and we can stand strong through the fire, the storm, and the flood.
Trees typically rely on expansive roots to anchor and ground them. Not surprisingly, they carry strong grounding energy with a focus on the energy that surfaces above the ground: they emphasize the growing action that results from the grounded source.
Cedarwood (Juniperus virginiana) Courage to preservere. Cedarwood facilitates our ability to stand strong and endure challenging emotional times. It is at once grounding and encouraging of forward thinking in that it holds us steady in unsteady times while asking us to be confident about moving forward.
Cinnamon Bark (Cinnamon zeylanicum) Penetrating, warm comfort. Just like bark protects a tree, Cinnamon’s warm and invigorating action helps to protect us in uncertain times. Cinnamon Bark provides a safety shield as we face the outside world in troubling times and encourages us to remain actively engaged in our own lives as we navigate the turmoil within. (Be sure to use a safe dilution using Cinnamon for topical application.)
Sandalwood (Hawaiian) (Santalum paniculatum) Contemplative stillness. Sandalwood has long been relied upon to quiet the mind, encourage contemplative meditation, and clear muddied thoughts. After the loss of a loved one, Sandalwood is particularly helpful in releasing ties and calming leftover emotions. It brings a sense of clarity and offers peace and stillness.
In nature, resins serve to protect and heal wood, trees, and shrubs from deep wounds. When a tree is wounded, the resin emerges to seal and heal the energetic cut. Similarly, resin-sourced essential oils serve to heal emotional wounds and protect us from energetic upset that threatens our growth and stability.
Historically, resins such as Frankincense, Myrrh, and Opoponax have been used in conjunction with ritual and meditation, often as incense or aromatic offerings. They energetically honor and celebrate safe, contemplative introspection.
Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) Calm and centered. Frankincense helps to soothe overwhelming thoughts surrounding “shoulds” and “woulds”. It supports peaceful examination of one’s mental and emotional processes. Frankincense also slows the breath to help you calmly navigate otherwise unsettling thoughts.
Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) Tranquil, reverent mind. Myrrh brings a sense of inner stillness and peace particularly where you feel rejected or isolated after the loss of a loved one. It helps to reconnect the physical and emotional bodies where jarring news has created a sense of separation. It is particularly effective in addressing feelings of helplessness as it allows for a healthy, reverent “emptiness” when we are otherwise full up of emotion.
Fruits represent the tangible manifestation of a seed’s potential. They are in every respect the “fruition” of a seed’s promise. The aromatic citrus fruits in particular are bright, colorful reminders of life realized—they are typically uplifting, joyful, and cheering in their action.
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) Joy and light. Bergamot’s cheerful, comforting aroma delivers powerful antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and restorative energy. It’s bright energy encourages letting go of stagnant and unfulfilled emotions so we can move forward enthusiastically. It restores a sense of delight and awe in the world around us. (Note that Bergamot is phototoxic and should not be used topically on areas that may be exposed to sunlight in the 36 hours after application.)
Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi) Optimistic energy. People, there is a week on my calendar in 2013 that I got through solely because of Grapefruit—it was sunshine in a bottle during an otherwise dark and trying time. Grapefruit’s sparkling, sunny fragrance dispels anger and blame and eases frustration, restoring our outlook to one that feels possible, positive, and bright. When you are feeling overwhelmed by loss and paralyzed by fear about the future, Grapefruit is your new best friend. (Here again, be aware of phototoxicity issues.)
Lemon (Citrus limon) Clarity and cleansing. Where confusion reigns, Lemon can help clear your mind and allow you to focus while lifting you up mentally and emotionally. Its strong association with cleaning and clearing make it a powerful ally when you need to cleanse dark or muddy thoughts. (Avoid topical use of Lemon on skin that will be exposed to sunlight in the 36 hours after application as it is photo toxic.)
Flowers are nature’s sweet, delicate promise. They represent the possibility of fruit to come, remind of us life’s beautiful and fragile nature, and bring color and joy. To delight and attract pollinators, they are often imbued with ridiculously beautiful, showy, and delicate shapes as well as intoxicating, sweet aromas.
Flowers typically represent self-confidence, love, and emotional support. Flower-sourced oils often have energetic action reminiscent of their gentle, beautiful nature and pleasant, comforting fragrance.
Chamomile (Roman) (Chamaemelum nobile) Peace and comfort. Roman Chamomile soothes feelings of abandonment and brings peace and comfort after the loss of a loved one. It eases over-thinking and restores us to our heart center. Its sedative and anti-inflammatory nature cools energetic heat and encourages balance.
Kunzea (Kunzea ambigua) Safety and security. Kunzea offers unique energetic support when your loss was particularly shocking or unexpected; it helps heal the trauma of the news and restore a feeling of safety. When you are burdened by thoughts or feelings that went unspoken before your loss, Kunzea can help heal the deep emotional pain that surfaces when you are left holding what went unsaid.
Lavender (Lavandula angustafolia) Forgiveness and Healing. When loss leaves you feeling burdened by guilt, shame, or an unresolved pain, look to Lavender to help soothe and heal you. Lavender encourages balance, creates calm, and begins the gentle work of recovery. Its delicate, fresh aroma is a powerful but gentle antidepressant. Where some floral aromas can be “sickly sweet” and overwhelming while you recover, Lavender provides a gentle, herbaceous, uplifting introduction to healing energy that typically won’t trigger too strong of an energetic response.
Linden Blossom (Tilia vulgaris) Love and kindness. Linden Blossom’s unique floral-honey aroma made it a go-to in my self-care. The honey fragrance suggests the sweet things in life and opens the heart. Look to Linden Blossom when tension and stress overwhelm you or when you feel that others lack appropriate compassion for you or your loved one. Linden Blossom will draw you out to remind you of the big picture and help you find comfort navigating space with those with whom you are otherwise having trouble connecting.
Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara) Support and hope. Neroli helps restore our hopefulness that things will settle into a divinely guided and orderly outcome. It quells unexpressed anger and reminds us that things will sort themselves out allowing us to release the need to control or direct every. single. detail as we navigate our loss. Aligned with the Crown chakra, Neroli imparts a sense of connectivity with a higher order and transcendent energy. A single drop or two is typically all you need—too much will be too strong.
Rose (Rosa damascena) Compassion and self-love. Rose is perhaps the ultimate essential oil for grief and loss. It heals despair, soothes grief and shock, releases traumatic energy, and serves as a source of deep and comforting self-love. That said, I recommend that you look to Rose after the initial phase of your grieving as its powerful energy can come too soon if you look to it in the days immediately following your loss; there are often other emotions that need to be addressed before Rose’s energy can serve us appropriately. Until those other things are reconciled, the smell of Rose is actually likely to upset or repel us.
You’ll find Rose in two forms: Rose absolute, which is solvent-distilled and Rose otto, which is the “true” steam-distilled essential oil of Rosa damascena. I recommend Rose absolute when you are ready to experience and embrace the heady, floral Rose fragrance in earnest as the absolute most accurately imparts the flower’s aroma. I recommend a single drop of Rose otto when you want Rose’s energetic properties, but aren’t quite ready to engage the smell; Otto delivers a much more subtle and complex fragrance that is less overwhelming when a single drop is used.
Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata) Tranquility and happiness. Ylang Ylang’s exotic, heady aroma helps you remain connected to the joy, delight, and happiness that remains in your life. It tempers rage and imparts a sense of tranquility and peace. Like Neroli, Ylang Ylang has a very strong aroma—you won’t need much to enjoy its benefits and too much can lead to a headache.
Leaves & Cones
In the plant world, leaves serve as a plant’s respiratory organs—they translate light, support photosynthesis, and secure against water loss. In aromatherapy, leaves typically help strengthen us against being overly emotional (i.e., moving too much water energy) and provide us with nourishing energy to help us remain strong. In addition, leaves serve to deepen our breath and fill us up emotionally.
Cinnamon Leaf (Cinnamon zeylanicum) Penetrating, warm comfort. Like Cinnamon Bark, Cinnamon Leaf is warming and comforting. It helps to reinvigorate our appetite for life as well as our willingness and ability to be present. It heats up our desire to get back into living when we are otherwise inclined to hide in a corner with a tonnage of Moravian cookies. (Be sure you use all Cinnamon oils in a safe dilution when you intend to use them for topical application.)
Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) Transition and steadfastness. Friends, I think I’ve used about a quart of Cypress oil from 2012 to today. As my life began to shift and the changes driven by my losses were put in motion in earnest, you could find Cypress everywhere around me: we put it in our shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand soap, cleaning spray, car diffusers…
In addition to being spiritually and physically cleansing, Cypress is calming and strengthening. Like its source stands tall, Cypress can help us to stand tall, firm, and strong during times of major turmoil. It should be your go-to when you have to move forward through major life transitions. Seriously. If you are navigating major change that requires you to stay strong in your core while moving through new, unknown territory, pick up some Cypress, like, yesterday.
Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) Balance and security. Geranium strengthens fundamental Qi-energy. It encourages appropriate, personal communication and supplants anger and hostility with inspiration and intuition. When individuals around you respond in troubling or inexplicable ways to a loss, Geranium can help you to engage with them. It encourages appropriate action and enables us to be present to both give and receive.
Sweet Marjoram (Origanum marjorana) A warm embrace. Marjoram offers a gentle, reassuring “hug” that encourages letting go of racing, obsessive thoughts that do not serve you. It promotes self-care and works quietly to heal the physical body so you have the fortitude to remain emotionally present, engaged, and calm. Its uniquely herbaceous aroma is easily embraced; it’s a perfect choice when blending for a manly-type or gender-neutral setting as it is not overwhelmingly sweet or perfume-y.
Not surprisingly, roots are naturally grounding: they anchor things, draw nutrients in, and source water for the thriving of their source plant. As you might imagine, they provide stability, balance, and security. Roots provide the hidden, beneath-the-surface support that helps us stay steady in the world that is visible to others. Of course, where a loss is that of one with whom we have deep roots–through direct lineage, as a result of much shared time or due to a deep connection–roots are powerful symbols of our relationship, too.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Motivation and Will Power. Ginger invigorates and motivates us when we are otherwise feeling stuck or uninspired. Its warming action grounds us in our core and heats up our desires. It also encourages us to actively accomplish goals that have been buried in our subconscious. Ginger is particularly useful to inspire action when you are feeling burned out or energetically drained.
Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanoide) Grounding and stabilizing. Vetiver helps to ground us after a loss and anchor us in our truth. It maintains a healthy connection to both the roots of our inner self and restorative earth energy. Its earthy aroma is appropriate to any gender-neutral blend.
Ideas for Using Essential Oils for Grief and Loss
There are a variety of ways to leverage essential oils to support recovery from the loss of a loved one. These are but a few of the ways I’ve used them over the past two years to provide comfort, encouragement, nourishment, and healing. While I have suggested combinations that were effective for me, I encourage you to explore and discover the oils or blends that our most powerful and compelling for you. As always, you should check safety considerations and contraindications for the oils and the blend’s intended recipient before you begin your blending.
A simple inhaler is perhaps the easiest and most discreet way to keep the power of essential oils in your pocket. Many companies offer aromasticks just for this purpose. You simply add your oils to the cotton swab provided, insert the swab into the capsule, lock the bottom, and inhale the oils through the opening before replacing its protective cap.
If you don’t have an aromastick available, a few drops of the same oils on a tissue or cotton ball in a small jar will allow you inhale the aroma of your chosen oils just as easily.
When I was in California sorting out details for my dad’s service, I relied heavily on an inhaler made with 6 drops each of Grapefruit and Frankincense. The combination of the bright Grapefruit and soothing Frankincense offered real comfort by keeping me alert, positive, and grounded.
Anointing is a simple and easy way to add energy to an individual item. You only need a drop of your chosen oil for the action to be effective. If you want to use several oils at once, I recommend creating a stock blend from which you can draw a single drop.
Anointing involves applying a single drop of oil to an item to imbue it with the given oil’s energy. For me, the primary item is a necklace that contains a small amount of my father’s ashes—I simply apply a single drop to the string from which they hang.
My favorite anointing oil is a equal parts Rose otto and Geranium essential oil combined in a stock blend from which I place one drop on the string. Another go-to is Linden Blossom which I have as a C02 Total from Aromatics International. After combining the Total with a small amount of jojoba, I apply a drop of the jojoba to the necklace. I typically share aloud whatever thought I want to share with my loved one as I anoint my item.
Note that not all items will like being anointed: essential oils can discolor or stain many items. If you want to anoint a picture frame, trinket, or the like, I recommend doing so in an unsightly place like the back of the frame or the bottom of the stand. If you aren’t sure about applying essential oils to an item, err on the side of caution, especially if the item is sentimental and irreplaceable — anoint a candle near the object instead.
There are a wide variety of diffusers available that allow you to infuse a room with the aroma and energy of pure essential oils. The best diffusers will not only disperse the fragrance, they will also address ionic energy in your space.
I’m fortunate to have a fancy diffuser from Puzhen that I use almost every day in my blending and massage studio. When I want to ground, heal, and support my ability to remain present emotionally while working, I rely on a combination of Cypress, Vetiver, and Lavender. Here again a stock blend of two parts Cypress, two parts Lavender, and one part Vetiver does the trick. Use the stock blend in accordance with your diffuser’s specific instructions for best results.
If you are hoping to experience a contemplative stillness in conjunction with your blend, incense may be the way to go. The serenity of the rising smoke and reverence it encourages is unsurpassed. You’d also be surprised how easy it is to make.
You can make your own incense using “blank” charcoal incense sticks that are available from any number of suppliers. Be aware that you will need a lot of essential oil to create just a few incense sticks so it can quickly get expensive. That said, essential oil incense sticks offer an unbelievably rich and easy way to experience the energy of your chosen oil(s).
The obvious choices for incense are those that have been used ritualistically for centuries: Frankincense, Myrrh, and Sandalwood. Together they create a mellow, calming, resinous fragrance that encourages meditation, respectful contemplation, and deep inner work. Ginger, Kunzea, and either of the Cinnamons also make a delicious aroma and yield a fragrance that is more specifically energizing and uplifting.
To make a volume of incense sticks, you will need several milliliters of essential oil(s) in which to soak your incense blanks. Simply combine the oils you want to use and pour them into an olive plate or corn dish. (Plates for olives or corn cobs are typically long and narrow enough to accommodate the stick and concentrate the oil in a “line” down the center.) Place your blanks in the oil(s) being sure to cover and saturate all of the charcoal on your sticks. You can also place the oil drop-by-drop on individual sticks to saturate them, just be sure not to drip on your work surface, skin, etc. You will need approximately 15-20 drops of essential oil for every stick of incense you want to make.
Room or Body Spray
To lightly coat your whole body or quickly and simply infuse a space with your desired energy, you can look to a basic spray. You can use distilled water, rain water, or hydrosols as your carrier and just a few drops of essential oil—5-6 drops total per ounce of carrier—to create your blend. Simply combine your desired oils and add them to your carrier in an appropriate spray bottle.
Room or body sprays can be particularly effective when you don’t “own” the space you are trying to infuse or when you require a more subtle way of using the oils. After my beloved aunt’s passing, I spent a good deal of time at my mom’s helping to reconcile and prepare for my aunt’s celebration. Since my mom is not exactly into incense and my aunt’s celebration wasn’t held in our home, I used a Neroli, Roman Chamomile, and Ylang Ylang spray to clear my immediate space and anoint my person in a more understated way.
When using sprays, remember oils and water don’t mix, so it’s important to shake the bottle vigorously to mix your blend as much as possible before you spray. To avoid sensitization from having too much oil emerge in a single spray on my body, I often use a small amount of Solubol dispersant in my body sprays to help dissolve the essential oils in the water or hydrosol; I don’t worry about it for linen or room sprays.
Favorite spray blends have included:
- Rose hydrosol with Sandalwood essential oil
- Cedarwood and Vetiver in purified rainwater
- Lavender hydrosol with Sweet Marjoram (room spray only)
- Lemon and Cedarwood in purified rainwater
- The tiniest amount of Neroli and Roman Chamomile in purified rainwater
If you have the time, the resources, and the do-it-yourself gene, a candle is a wonderful tool to leverage essential oils for grief and loss. My stepmom taught me to light a candle to burn continuously for three days immediately after a loved one’s passing to help shine light on their transition and their path to eternity. As you might imagine, a candle is the first thing I created when I learned of my stepmom’s untimely passing.
If you’re going to the trouble of making a candle, I would highly encourage you to use pure beeswax. It not only has a longer, more pure burn than petroleum-based paraffin or GMO-soy, it also brings a delicious honey fragrance and “bee” energy to bear. Since bees are associated with community, connectivity, and the sweetness of life, theirs is powerful and positive energy to draw down.
To make a candle, you will need a double boiler within which you can safely melt your wax, an appropriate fire-safe container for your candle, and a wick of appropriate thickness and length along with approximately 1 milliliter of essential oil(s) per ounce of wax. I also recommend you wipe down your double boiler with a small amount of jojoba before adding and melting your wax as it can be hard to clean up afterwards otherwise.
Simply add your essential oils to your melted beeswax and slowly pour them into the fire-safe container into which you have carefully set your wick in the center. You’ll want to support the wick with a popsicle stick to keep it from moving, shifting, or falling over to the side when the hot wax is added. Trim the wick to ensure it does not burn too high or too hot; the size will depend upon your wick and your container. Allow your candle to cool for 6-12 hours depending upon its size so that it sets completely before you burn it.
For my candles, I have used a combination of Cedarwood, Cypress, and Vetiver, Linden Blossom Total and Geranium, and Rose, Ylang Ylang, and Neroli. Note you’ll need less of the stronger fragrances like Ylang Ylang and Neroli in your candles.
If you want expert instruction on making your own aromatic beeswax candle, look to Andrea Butje of Aromahead—she has an amazing YouTube video available that expertly details the process.
For many of us, self-care is synonymous with taking a bath. That whole “Calgon, take me away!” mentality is deeply seated in our subconscious. Since water is the element of emotions, a hot bath can be the perfect vehicle as it allows you quiet time in which to soak, relax, and contemplate deep-seated feelings.
I typically make my bath salts with a combination of Epsom salts and Himalayan salt. The comforting pink color of the Himalayan salt marries with the minerals it contains to provide nourishing to the body, mind, and spirit; Epsom salts help to cleanse and support the body. I often add a small amount of jojoba or melted coconut oil to add a luxurious texture and help disperse the oils.
To make your own bath salts, combine Himalayan salt and Epsom salts to equal a total of six ounces. Add anywhere from 25-30 drops total of your chosen oil(s) along with about three to six tablespoons of carrier oil (if desired) to your six ounces of carrier salts; mix until well blended and store in an airtight, light-protected container. You’ll have enough for 5-6 baths using approximately one ounce of bath salts per bath.
To promote peace and emotional healing, I relied heavily on equal parts Lavender and Sandalwood in my bath salts—they have a particular synergy that is soothing and gently uplifting. If I know I won’t be exposed to the sun in the near term after my bath, I also enjoy Bergamot (10 drops) and Kunzea (20 drops) in a six ounce blend.
With so many essential oils to choose from, there are countless ways to enjoy and combine them to support emotional recovery, encourage healing, and provide relief from your sadness. I hope and trust you’ll engage them personally to discover the oils and blends that uniquely support your process.
If you are currently in a trying time after the loss of a loved one, I send you my condolences along with love and comfort—may you quickly be restored to hope and find consolation in your cherished memories. Be gentle with yourself and take good care — godspeed in your healing. Bless and blessed be.