What are things we can do to help a loved one when they are ill or dying? What can help us navigate this life transition?
Touch can be one of the last truly meaningful gifts we can give a loved one. A touch can reassure, it can soothe. A touch can protect and tell someone you love them and tell them they are not alone.
Many years ago, when I lived in London I trained as a massage therapist and had a few clients that I slotted in around my main job. What struck me was how hungry their bodies, their souls were, for touch.
I recall a woman who had been single for some time, crying on the massage table when she realised she had not been touched by another human being for years. There was the woman whose traumatic relationship with her father had resulted in her losing the feeling in her left arm, and after a series of treatments, started to feel things in the arm again. She said like she felt she was 'starting to thaw'. And there was the beautiful Brazilian man who lay on the massage table and surrendered himself to the simple act of me washing his feet. His arms would fall off the sides of the table casting him in the image of a religious tableau. Each of these people reminded me how touch is a basic need and can be a universal salve.
In a palliative care situation, touch can be the simplest and most meaningful form of communication.
In a palliative care situation, touch can be the simplest and most meaningful form of communication. It can be the thing we can do for our loved one at a time when often we feel so helpless. It may be that you are only able to touch their hands or their feet because of pain or other medical issues, but that act of touching can give you both so much. Using a special oil for this touch, to anoint the skin of someone you love, can be a very special experience.
Sometimes though it is true that touch can feel awkward. It may not have been something you ever did with that person. I created the Archeus Anointing Oils to help break through those barriers. In a way they help ritualise touch, which can be a real aid. Using the oils can allow yourself to drop down into the moment, to convey love through touch, to think about how these oils and their ingredients have been used in these moments throughout time. They can turn awkwardness and helplessness into care and compassion.
We are faced with occasions and situations where we are not sure how to touch the ones we love. Death is definitely one of those occasions. I so clearly remember sitting by my mother’s bed in a hospice room after she had died. I so wanted to touch her, but I just didn’t really know what to do. I stroked her face and her wrist and then just kind of sat there. I felt self-conscious and awkward. If there had been something that would have helped me almost ritualise the touch I think it would have been easier.
The act of anointing would have helped me say goodbye.
This experience also motivated me to create the Archeus Anointing Oils. In a way they help ‘give permission’ to be able to touch a loved one after they have passed. I look back and I wish I had thought of them then. I would love to have gently and lovingly massaged her arms with the oil. I would like to have touched her face with it in a way to help me touch her face. I would have felt I was doing something for her while creating a final connection with her. The act of anointing would have helped me say goodbye.
As I started to develop the oils I embarked on a journey of exploration of how oils were used through time at the time of illness and death. I have made Archeus Anointing Oils with plant oils and resins that were being used thousands of years ago. Myrrh is a resin from a tree growing in the harsh arid regions of the middle east. It has a beautiful deep almost smoky aroma. Spikenard was an incredibly valuable oil and it is said that Mary Magdalene washed the feet of Jesus and anointed them with Spikenard when he was brought down from the cross. Geranium had wider use in the Mediterranean, while violet flowers and leaves were used symbolically to represent a mother’s love. Beautiful Frankincense is another gorgeous resin that was used in funerary processes, including embalming mummies in ancient Egypt. I think it is also no coincidence that these plants and resins all have strong antibacterial, antiviral and antiseptic properties – all let's face it, are very handy attributes when dealing with a dead body. I use olive oil as the base in the same way as it was millennia ago and also because symbolically olive is a plant of peace.
My mother died in a clinical sphere, but I have thought a lot about those who are able to die at home. My grandmother died in her home and for the last few weeks of her life I cared for her with the help of a truly wonderful nurse. Towards the end, one of the things Gran loved the most was when I massaged her feet and lower legs and her hands. It gave us a connection in the growing absence of conversation. After she died we gently washed her body, laid her out and I sat by her side waiting for other members of the family to arrive.
Myrrh, Spikenard, Frankincense are all plant resins and extracts that have been used in illness and death over thousands of years
Reflecting on this, I extended the ways Nature can help us at this time by making a body wash from hydrosols, which is the aromatic water captured when distilling plant matter, infused with essential oils – all of which have been selected for their antibacterial, antiviral and antiseptic properties as well as their beautiful aroma. I have also added some Archeus Plant Essences. These work at an energetic level and can help us emotionally. You can read more about them in this blog. I think that working with beautiful natural products at this time adds another layer of care and compassion to the process. After washing, the Anointing Oil can be used again.
And finally there are the Archeus shrouds.
My experimentation with dying natural textiles with medicinal herbs started a couple of years ago when I wanted to ‘wrap a friend in goodness’. This led to me making scarves and then bed linen and then I found myself thinking about how beautiful and caring and kind it would be to wrap the body of a loved one in this gorgeous fabric. The fabric I use is handwoven using certified organic cotton, which is then hand dyed with a selection of healing herbs.
How beautiful and caring it would be to wrap the body of a loved one in a shroud infused with botanical extracts
The shrouds are available in a range of colours which occur due to the plants used in them. The fabric is woven for me by a collective in Kerala that is working hard to preserve the traditional handloom skills in the region. I then work with them on the selection of herbs to use to infuse and colour them. The bolts of fabric are sent to me back here in Hawke’s Bay where they are sewn (often by me!). The shrouds have been approved by the NZ Natural Burials organisation which is wonderful. They can also be used in caskets.
I was talking to a very talented seamstress the other day who said she could envision people buying one of the shrouds and then embroidering and embellishing it for their loved one and then putting it away carefully for the eventual time it is needed. Maybe that could be another Archeus workshop!
My motivation for creating these products that take us from those moments of care when touch is the greatest communicator through to the final goodbye, is to help Nature help us make these times and transitions as caring and gentle and supported as we can. It is Nature we came from and Nature we return to and so my wish is to have that connection made beautiful throughout.
Death is a natural part of life. It can be scary and heartbreaking, but it can also be a beautiful release. How would you like to be cared for when you die? I'm interested in your thoughts on this topic and also do let me know if you would like me to run workshops and talks to demonstrate how to use the oils, washes, essences and shrouds here at the Archeus Apothecary or in your region.
With light and love