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Ghost Story, 2017 rooney mara
Ghost Story, 2017(Film still)

How perfume helps us grieve

The right fragrance won’t cure sadness but can help us acknowledge and commemorate, perhaps even celebrate, those we have lost

Scrolling through the fragrance-fanatic universe of PerfumeTok, you’ll quickly be convinced that perfume toys with your emotions. The scents dominating the feed seem to blend aromatherapy, self-care and a dash of Machiavellian storytelling. Think of The Nue Co’s Mind Energy or Vyrao’s Sun Ræ, which both promise altered states of mind, or Phlur’s viral Missing Person perfume, which is said to smell like whomever you miss most

If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you won’t have to smell Phlur’s viral perfume to understand the aroma of absence, though. Every mourner has a scent that reminds them of the person they’ve lost, whether it’s Chanel N°5, freshly bloomed roses, or coffee grounds. For me, it’s Eternity by Calvin Klein, the perfume habitually worn by my late dad. For Zoë Lind van’t Hof, a medical herbalist who lost her mother nearly a decade ago, the scent is jasmine. “Whenever I catch a whiff of it, I’m still transported back to my mom’s hug,” she says. Perfumer and scent artist Frank Bloem, who created a series of end-of-life scents for funeral museum Tot Zover, has a similar story: a friend suddenly burst into tears when smelling one of his scents during an atelier visit. “As it turns out, something in the scent reminded her of her dad’s perfume,” he says.

Perfume may be able to make people cry, but can it also help them grieve? After all, Bloem notes that perfume is intrinsically rooted in funeral rituals. “In Ancient Egypt, fragrances were used in burning or other rites, symbolising the transition from the terrestrial to the celestial,” he says. “White lilies remain popular in funeral bouquets, partially because of their strong scent, masking the scent of death. Similarly, Florida water is still used in many mourning rituals.”

Bloem explains how these scents work on an emotional level: “Perfume isn’t a drug, it doesn’t chemically alter your body. But it’s a powerful tool for raising emotions and memories, as long as you associate those memories with the scent in question.” 

He takes the scent of lavender, commonly known for its soothing qualities: “That’s not because the smell of lavender is inherently soothing. But rather because we’ve been trained to associate this scent with calmness. For example, because your mom sprayed lavender oil onto your pillow when you were a child.” Like certain sights or sounds, scents evoke memories. However, neuroscientists have proven that the memories sparked by scent are more subconscious and emotionally intense than those sparked by a picture or a song. “Inhaling natural perfume oils is known to stimulate the limbic system, which is the area of our brain linked to regulating emotions,” explains Constanze Saemann, founder of the aromatherapeutic perfume brand Basium

Smelling my dad’s perfume ignites more than just the memory of him. Between the top notes and heart notes, I hear him whistling in the shower, recall the wrinkles on his skin, his flannel shirts, leather flip-flops and cigarette smoke. I see sunshine through our old, grubby window and feel ease and languorousness – just like I did as a teen. Similarly, the smell of jasmine doesn’t just remind Lind van’t Hof of her mom’s hugs. For a moment, she’s actually in the hug, reliving details that were too mundane to commit to memory or pictures, but are now oh-so valuable.

In a world where grief is often misrepresented as a series of steps to complete – the final one being ‘letting go’ of the deceased – such an intense emotional memory jog doesn’t seem very conducive. Yet therapists increasingly argue that mourners benefit from reinventing (rather than ending) their relationship with the deceased. In her paper, “Helping the Body Grieve”, therapist Dyana Reisen explores how mourners can do this using sensory cues. Touching a loved one’s flannel shirt, listening to their favourite song or smelling their lotion can give you new access to old memories, ones you have subconsciously stored in your body. She also highlights the therapeutic potential of scents that mourners don’t yet associate with the deceased. Lighting a scented candle while going through holiday pictures, for example, can help disentangle positive memories from the pain of loss. 

Besides, perfumes for grief already exist. One of its iterations you might know: Byredo’s De Los Santos. Developed by Ben Gorham in the wake of losing both his dad and his close friend, the perfume draws on mourning rituals across the world. Spraying it on my skin, I catch notes of sage, Palo Santo and incense. Like grief itself, Byredo’s scent lingers around me as I go about my day. It smells decadent, like mourning and celebration: commemoration. But even before Gorham developed De Los Santos, Lind van’t Hof had set out on a similar mission.

“After my mom passed away, I realised scent was still a profound way of connecting to her, but also to calm myself,” she explains. So, she developed a fragrant, essential oil balm, containing notes of lavender, chamomile and bergamot, meant to calm. But it also has strong whiffs of rose and frankincense, hinting at the ritualistic, passion, love and the experience of intense emotions. “Grief has no predictability in terms of when you feel it,” she says. The purpose of the Grief Balm is to have a scent that you can carry with you and apply when needed. “It’s about creating a ritual, knowing it’s okay to feel grief however or wherever it comes up.”  

I agree with Bloem that perfume isn’t a drug. But that’s exactly how it can help people grieve. It doesn’t mask your emotions nor chemically alter your brain. “It’s also not bad for your body, it won’t harm you or get you addicted,” says Bloem. The right composition won’t cure grief but will help you acknowledge and commemorate, perhaps even celebrate. Crucially, it helps disentangle loving memories from the pain of loss: the reason why that person is reduced to memories in the first place. It has base notes of sadness, sure. But there are top notes of nostalgia and remembrance too.

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