The Olfactory Factor
"A singer in a smoky room...the smell of wine and cheap perfume..."
- Journey 1981
How often have you heard the phrase “Stop and smell the flowers.”? A gajillion? Me too. I always think of it as a reminder to take the time to notice things “blooming” around me – in my life and the lives of others. Lately I feel like I am mastering this practice… making the choice to look for the light - the blooms! I have HAD to get good at this because life got so freakin’ dark around here.
Today, I was out on my run, feeling grateful for the recent streak of sunshine. April in Vancouver can be pretty glorious and today was no exception. The cherry blossoms and the flowers are bursting and I was taking it ALL in. I was so inspired by the day that I had even stopped, literally, to smell some roses when I got hit SO hard by what I like to call the ‘olfactory factor’. Those memories that flood back through our whole body and soul every time a familiar smell rises up. Today, those roses filled me with a sadness so deep – the smell was a reminder of the flowers the kids chose for the goodbye ceremony we held for their Dad on Good Friday…and the pure rose oil I had diffused all day, in every room, as we raised our vibration in preparation to let him go. The smell of the roses on my run drained me, temporarily, as I noticed the dense sadness and tried to feel some kind of gratitude in the experience. It wasn’t easy.
If you know me personally or have read my blog, you will know how passionate I am about essential oils. When I started using them it was mainly for cleaning, reducing our family’s toxic load and finding more natural solutions. As I began to learn more and have amazing oily experiences, I began educating and supporting other families in their oil use and helping them to slowly integrate new practices and protocols into their lives. I have been at it for a few years now! I have always been an educator in some capacity and so I love my role of going into homes, clinics, schools (or Zoom rooms, of late!) and helping people use pure essential oils as a tool for everything they could imagine. From cleaning the tub and marinating the chicken to managing sleep, stress and other significant mental health issues, I have had the opportunity to teach people about so many positive effects of the oils but it almost always comes back to the smell.
As I dove more into my spiritual growth, I found myself relying heavily on these oils to help with my emotions and those of my family. Clearing energies, setting energetic boundaries and supporting our moods became a real focus. I started learning more about the science of plants and how they interacted with the body and the olfactory system to send vital messages to the brain and encourage all sorts of awesomeness from calming the central nervous system to engaging the digestive system to come back into balance. What I found through my studies is that there is NO more powerful way to revisit the memories of your life or invoke a true desired emotion or outcome than by simply smelling a smell that you know really well. Case in point, when my “monkey mind” (the ole hamster wheel!) starts spinning in the middle of the night, I reach immediately for my Vetiver oil. One drop in my hands, inhaled deeply, sends the message to my brain that it is time to simmer right down and go back to sleep. I have trained myself to respond that way when I smell Vetiver. It is a real useful tool for my good health and an impressive party trick!
It got me thinking about the power of smell. Sometimes playing around with aromatic memories is SO FUN! Like, one whiff of Polo by Ralph Lauren and I am lying on my teenage boyfriend’s waterbed at 16, listening to Pet Shop Boys while wearing a shaker knit sweater and a scrunchie in my hair. I AM her again…my 16-year-old self. Flash forward a few years (like, about 15) to a more “clandestine” series of events with a much younger colleague… one hit of ‘Aqua de Gio’ as I walk past the perfume counter at The Bay and, well, you can imagine what comes to mind, instantly. Those moments are truly like time-travel. Powered by your schnozz.
It also got me thinking about how huge the olfactory factor is when it comes to grieving. Man, it’s kicked my ass a million times in my trek so far. Unthinkable ways, like, in my case (because Darcy was lost and there were search and rescue efforts made) at one point I had to gather clothes, heavy in Darcy’s scent, to help prepare the rescue dogs that would be involved in the search for his body. That was no walk in the park, let me tell ya. It is an out-of-body experience to find yourself rifling through the closet, sniffing for the most pungent sweater or t-shirt you can find. I actually remember thinking “Now, where is the one he was mowing the lawn in two days ago…that one should be pretty ripe…” Which leads to “How was he JUST here mowing the lawn two DAYS ago and now nobody can find him?” The memory definitely doesn’t just end with that familiar smell. It is a journey of total recall and creates a ripple effect like no other.
So was the familiar smell of popping up our tent trailer a week ago. It took me RIGHT back to a thousand and one stops along our many family road trips and camping adventures…a melancholy experience completely driven by the nose.
A little more recently, there came the time I felt compelled to go to task clearing out Darcy’s toiletries cabinet. (Side note *NEVER DO THAT! *) Darcy loved his products and his signature scents from Jo Malone. This was an excruciating task and I highly recommend that, if you lose a loved one, you get somebody ELSE to take this job on for you. Fifteen years of memories flooded my heart as I deliberately emptied and recycled bottle and jar after bottle and jar. It is an upsetting and smelly assault rivalled only by the spray of a dozen skunks. It will take you down memory lane so fast you’ll feel like you’re riding a motorbike. through the streets and markets of Bangkok. Every which way you move your head, a new wave of smells, another memory recalled or a new one created.
It’s just THE trigger I truly cannot control. I can put the pictures away and clear his clothes from the closet… I can kind of ignore it when I find a pair of his sunglasses hiding somewhere unexpected or breeze past the endless pile of mail that arrives for him…but the smells? They just creep up on us. Blindside us in a whole new way. It took almost four months to pass before one of my kids experienced this and despite all my experience with it, I was not prepared for how it would feel for Miller when he inevitably went to put on a sweater that had been out of rotation for a while. I walked into his room one day just as said sweater was coming over his head he was instantly drowning in tears. As I rushed to him, I understood in an instant. It was the last sweater his Dad had hugged him in. It smelled like Dad. Darcy felt so present. and so very gone at the same time. There was nothing to do but hold each other and cry. It was a deep knowing - it overtook us both and needed no conversation. It is just part of this thing that I wish neither of my kids had to experience.
It is too damn hard.
Of course, I will shed a little light here now. The benefit to being so fascinated with essential oils and educated in their profound effect on the olfactory system is that I recognize this as a really great tool to counter these moments of distress - using that same body system to powerfully interrupt the sadness with the smells that help us all feel good!
This powerhouse of a sense doesn't just work against us...it works in our FAVOUR too! In the same way I use Vetiver to alert my brain to sleepy-time, the kids and I are oiling up like crazy, diffusing all our favourites and stopping to smell all the flowers in an effort to lift our moods and support ourselves through the roughest moments AND add an aromatic component to all the fun times we are starting to have as we heal.
These will be the new memories we can tap into, via our sense of smell, in the future. And as life ticks along and things evolve for us, we will still get these old aromatic reminders and memories of Darcy - both happy and sad - from now ‘til forever…and that is, somehow, so comforting to me.
Til Next Time,
Heal and Be Healed.