(Grieving Creatively, Part 1)
When I smell candyfloss, I am transported in memory to my childhood by the sea.
When I smell mothballs, I remember visiting my uncle and aunt when I was small in that same seaside town. Their house seemed filled with that rather distinct odour. This leads me further down a veritable memory lane, including running races with my cousin who now sits as a peer in the House of Lords!
When I pass someone walking on the street who fairly reeks of tobacco, I am reminded of my daughter Catherine, who loved her hand-rolled cigarettes. I smile.
Johnson’s baby shampoo? That has to be a reminder of little Pax who died at the age of 3.
Sometimes when I’m driving through a town, I’ll come across the distinctive smell of metalwork. Unlike the smells above, this does not evoke good memories but rather the opposite. It reminds me of an office I worked in that was located close to a metalworks. It reminds me of a job I came to detest and an unfavourable time in my life.
So let’s return to smells that are enjoyable.
When I pass wild roses on a walk, I will pause to take in deep breaths of their fragrance. It is a peaceful moment, not one from the past, but one in the present.
When the smells of freshly baking bread waft upstairs to here where I sit in my little home office, I think with appreciation of my husband John who does the cooking in our household and without whom I really don’t know what I’d eat.
And… well this could be a long list, so rather than continuing endlessly, let’s look at what’s behind the power of smell.
Our sense of smell can be a powerful tool in our grief journey
For most of us, certain smells evoke happy memories and also bring comfort, and this can be very important as we cope with our bereavements.
There is a some science behind this.
Smells are closely tied to the emotional centre in our brain. According to scientists, “Smell and emotion are stored as one memory.” (Read more about this.)
Perhaps that’s why so many of the bereaved will retain items of clothing from their loved one. You might bury your face in the folds of their clothes, inhaling the particular smells that remind you of them. Perhaps you won’t wash these items but will keep them safe, hoping the scent will remain with you for as long as possible.
On the other hand, not all smells provoke good memories. For instance, that distinctive ‘hospital smell’ can be quite a sad trigger… It can be so difficult to walk back into a place where our loved one was treated or died, and the barrier might be the smells that we are confronted with.
The power of smells isn’t only about the past, of course, but also about now. Going for a walk in nature can relieve tension, and there is science for this too. Walking in a forest is relaxing partly because pine, fir, cedar and cypress trees contain the phytoncides such as alpha-pinene and beta-pinene which make up the essential oils of many plants and trees. These were found by researchers to actually decrease levels of the cortisol stress hormone. (Read more.)
All of this to say, smells can be so evocative in our grief journeys, in both helpful and troubling ways.
Grieving creatively: Find comfort in your sense of smell
The goal behind this series of articles (to be continued) is to give some ideas for different activities and ways to live with your grief and find comfort in the midst of sorrow.
What could you do with your sense of smell? We’re all different and none of the following might appeal to you, so it’s really just a couple of ideas to get you started.
If you’ve kept an article of your loved one’s clothing, perhaps take a deep whiff. What are the components of the smell?
Is there a particular perfume or cologne that reminds you of your loved one? Do you have a leftover bottle to take a sniff from or maybe wear yourself?
Did he or she enjoy coffee? How about making a cup, holding it in your hands, and breathing in its steam? Or savouring the bouquet of a glass of wine?
Or maybe what you’re looking for is some joy in the moment. How about going to a park, to an area of woodland, or the beach. Close your eyes, breath deeply. In and out, slow breaths.
What are your favourite smells – for memory or comfort? Please do share in the comments!
A bit more on the science of smell and memory
In a 2004 study published in Chemical Senses, adults were given olfactory, auditory, and visual cues and then asked to recall memories that were triggered by those cues. The study found that scent-induced memories were much older than those triggered by sound or visual cues. 1 Other studies have found that adults can remember twice as many memories if they are associated with a particular scent.
The brain plays a key role in the association of scents with memories. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions, behavior, and motivation. Additionally, the amygdala is located very close to the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. Both the amygdala and hippocampus are a part of the limbic system, which controls emotions and memory, among other things. Interestingly enough, the sense of smell is the only sense that is directly linked to the limbic system.