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Aromatherapy in Palliative Hospice and Death Care

Palliative Hospice Care has come a long way on so many levels: in terms of finding the right pain medication, building specialized care centers, more conversations on dying and death and with other improvements. What I do see the need for, are more non-medical ways of supporting the dying and their families such as complementary alternative therapies.

Nurses used to offer nightly back rubs and/or family cared for their loved one in a more intimate setting as home where there were the familiar scents and comforts. With healthcare becoming so specialized there is more chance of disconnect between the professional and the dying person.

I had the great opportunity in participating in a two year research project, the PIM (Paediatric Integrative Medicine). Three modalities, reiki, massage and acupressure/acupuncture were offered in the Paediatric unit of the Stollery in Edmonton, Alberta. We began in Oncology then to Cardiology and General Paediatrics. I was part of the reiki and massage teams where I witnessed first hand, how our work brought relief not only to the child, but to the parents and the nurses. Results now show that there was a 50% improvement in the three symptoms we were treating, pain, nausea and vomiting. Our hope is that in time a therapist from all three modalities will be available on a daily basis in the hospital.

What does this have to do with Aromatherapy you may ask. Well, it is part of Complementary therapies and another way to offer support alongside the medical healthcare. I studied massage and aromatherapy in the early 80s and have witnessed many changes. Massage schools have popped up all over and aromatherapy is written about with essential oils being sold in drug stores, department stores like Winners and Walmart. There is more hype around aromatherapy due to MLM companies catching on. In one way this is very good and in another way I have great concern about the quality of essential oils being marketed as well as certain myths and misinformation being taught.

There are great resources that I totally respect and trust and it is important to know where the information is coming from.

Those who have a terminal illness and are actively dying already are overwhelmed and vulnerable, and aromatherapy can interfere or be of benefit and offer a gentle way of support.

Aromatherapy has a role in improving the quality of life by helping to relax, alleviate anxiety, reduce pain and suffering and improves sleep patterns. There are aroma patches created that are convenient to use especially in scent free areas in medical and care facilities.

There are simple ways to incorporate aromatherapy, and the unique possibility to go further into how to use essential oils safely, how to use aromatic washes with aromatic plants, anointing, understanding the importance of intention and so much more.

Find out more about using Aromatherapy in Palliative Hospice Care and join a community that cares.

If you have not joined yet contact Rayne Johnson: Death Doula/Palliative Massage & Aroma Therapist at

Green Burials & different shades of Green

There are many people, especially baby boomers, looking into more Earth-friendly ways to care for the dead. Three categories of green services are currently discussed in the funeral industry: green funerals, green burials and cremation.

A Green Funeral requires two elements: no embalming and a biodegradable casket.A Green Burial is a burial of an unembalmed body in a biodegradable casket without a burial vault or a grave liner.

Cremation is the act of reducing a corpse by burning, generally in a crematorium furnace or crematory fire. The remains (often called cremains) are not “ashes” in the usual sense. They are dried bone fragments that have been pulverized in a device called a cremulator. Cremains, which are not a health risk, may be buried or immured in memorial sites or cemeteries, or they may be legally retained by relatives or dispersed in a variety of ways to a variety of locations. Cremation certainly uses far fewer resources than traditional burial, but it has its issues. The biggest is that it burns fossil fuel.

No Embalming – in green funerals, the body is preserved for viewing through refrigeration and the use of dry ice (or techni-ice). Though the Environmental Protection Agency regards formaldehyde as a “probable” carcinogen, other international agencies, including the World Health Organization, consider it a far more dangerous chemical. Embalming fluid containing formaldehyde has the potential to seep into ground water. Embalming is unnecessary for viewing and provides no public health benefits.

Green & Biodegradable Caskets can be made of plain wood, cardboard or a form of papier Mache.

Burial Vaults or Grave Liners. A vault is essentially a large box made of concrete. Originally developed to deter grave robbers in the late 18th century, vaults are sold today as necessary to keep the ground from sinking and markers from moving. No state or federal laws require use of a vault, though a cemetery can insist that one be used. Americans annually bury 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in the form of vaults.

Green Cemeteries are cemeteries dedicated to green burial. These cemeteries do not allow embalmed bodies or burial vaults. All caskets must be biodegradable. Other restrictions on grave markers and native plants are being discussed. The nonprofit Green Burial Council offers a list of “approved providers” who facilitate green burial within conventional cemeteries in eight states. And in Canada the Green Burial of Canada indicate the cemeteries that of Green Burials.

Home Funerals are funerals that take place in a private home, not a funeral home. The body is preserved through the use of dry ice. Family members wash and care for the deceased’s body. Home funeral providers, sometimes called “death doulas,” offer assistance to families much like midwives assist in the birthing process. Since bodies are typically preserved with dry ice, home funerals are more ecologically sound than those that use embalming.

Home Burials are burials on private land. Information and advice on how to be buried on your own land can be found at

There are two organizations in the States providing direction on green funeral practices — The Green Burial Council and the Natural End (TM) Network.

The Green Burial Council has developed standards and a certification program for green funerals, green burial, green cemeteries and green funeral products. Visit their website at

Natural End (TM) Network has a list of providers who have pledged to follow natural funeral practices. Visit their website at

In Canada visit

(This has been adapted from Green Burial Council and Naturalend)

Rayne Johnson

How I learned about being a Death Doula in 1997

A tribute to my dear friend, Kate, whose death day is today, May 24th.

3 cycles of 7 you have been gone. I still hear your laughter and see your smile and tears.

Your death did not take away all those close times we shared- all those happy and painful times especially in nearing the end as you so courageously met each day, each moment. You truly lived until you died and even then you live on. So clearly, death does not end a relationship it only ended your earthly body.

You were your own Death Doula. You did a lot of life review, you did your planning with updating your Will, POA and Personal Directive. You designed your own headstone and asked a friend to build your casket. You delved into a lot of books on dying and death, you had many conversations and so so much more.

You are a big part of why I do this work now, as you were the best teacher to show me how to be a Death Doula from the heart. 21 years ago today you took your last breath.

I offer the scent and smoke of sweetgrass giving thanks for our relationship. Please accept this offering of love and respect where ever you are now and for the place you are in my heart always.


Aromatherapy- Sacred Aromas & Essential Oils for Dying and Death Care

The memory of the scent of the disinfectant squirt on my hands I used prior to entering my client’s hospice room still permeates my nostrils weeks later. If that is what lingers for me, what do the dying smell on their last few days? Our sense of smell is linked to the limbic system which governs emotions, behaviour and long-term memory.

  The olfactory centres of the brain continue to function even when someone is unconscious. Therefore, a pleasing aroma will still be registered by the subconscious mind, and hopefully make the dying process more pleasant. It doesn’t matter what the smell is, as long as it’s associated with memories of happiness.

  Aroma therapy has a role in improving the quality of life especially in the dying process. Using essential oils and aromas sparingly can provide comfort to the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual states for those dying and their caregivers. I have sprayed a hospice room with lavender hydrosol, and and moments later, a nurse walked in and said, “ Oh, doesn’t it smell nice in here ”.

  The sound of gentle music and the waft of aromatherapy came from behind a patient’s closed door as a palliative nurse friend did her rounds. She mentioned this was comforting for the hospice staff as they dispensed with the meds and other duties.

  How to respect no scent zones? Sometimes I may spritz myself with a rose or lavender hydrosol before visiting a client. The aroma from this is no stronger than using most soaps, shampoos and toothpastes. Also ask for permission on the unit ahead of time.

Aromatherapy helps to:                                                                                                               ● Promote relaxation (often improves sleep patterns)                                                         ● Alleviate anxiety                                                                                                                         ● Reduce depression                                                                                                                    ● Reduce pain and suffering                                                                                                       ● Aids in digestion

  Even if the best you can do for someone is to revive some pleasant memories while death calls, then you have done something meaningful.

  Aromatic washes for the terminally ill can be so effective. The final rites of passage are to support a sense of serenity, confidence and centering in the letting-go process, with a sense of surrender.

  When it is clear that the person is nearing their last day, it may be a good idea to stop using any strong aromas in the room. This may distract the individual, keeping them longing to continue on in their earthly life.

  Many traditions recognize the period between death and burial as sacred and there are many rituals to be held to honour this time. One of the most beautiful practices is anointing and washing the body to prepare for burial. This now has become another lost art and has been professionalized, taking the care away from family and friends.

  Katie, a dear friend, we bathed her body with infused sage water; a daughter speaks lovingly to her mom as she washes her mother’s body with saffron water. Death ends a life, not the relationship. This is one last gesture we can do as that relationship begins to morph to another level. Supportive rituals of respect and emotional participation can assist family and friends in the process of loss.

  Allow yourself to open to the magic and mystery of using medicinal plants and essential oils to care for your loved one.

Rayne Johnson studied in 1984 at Toronto School of Aromatherapy then in 2005 with Martin Watt from the UK. She is a Certified Advanced Aromatherapist. And specializes her massage practice in Palliative Care. She is also a Death Doula & End-of-Life Consultant.

Join Rayne for her next Sacred Aromas & Essential Oils for the Dying and Death Care Webinar February 27th, 2019                                                                                         For more information:               Call Rayne at 780-267-5007

Easing the suffering for another

We may not always be able to take the pain away for another however I believe we can help the suffering aspect. I have been learning about the difference of pain & suffering for years and incorporate the teachings in my ‘Compassionate Care for the Dying’ workshops.

In a nutshell pain is the experience we have and suffering is how we relate to the pain. Basically suffering is the story around the pain.

I got to understand this first hand last Saturday with a migraine, lying in bed most of the day with a cold damp cloth over my face. In the past when I have had a wicked headache I usually stay held up alone in my apartment. Although this time I had the need to call my grand niece to see if she could bring me over a salad so I would have something to eat later in the evening. She always makes beautiful salads that I’m forever grateful for.

Within the hour she came over with a dish, placed it in the fridge, brought me a camomile tea to my bedside then read me a few stories from the book ‘Politically Correct Bedtime Stories’. And told me a bit about her day as her little Corgi dog Foxy snuggled along side us.

The pain in my headache was still lingering however my suffering had lessened. The stories I may have been telling my self while alone in the pain would have intensified making the pain more unbearable.

We don’t know how our caring for another will make a huge impact!

Cherished momentI have read my grand niece many bedtime stories.
IMG_1772   …and now she is reading for her Grantie…it continues to warm my heart.

Integrative Medicine

I was part of a panel of speakers last evening at the University of Alberta, presenting to a group of health science students for their Interdisciplinary course. The topic was ‘working collaboratively in their future professional practice’ with the focus in palliative care .

All the other presenters worked for Covenant Health/Alberta Health Services…eg. Social Worker, Pharmacist, Rehabilitation Medicine (OT, PT), Chaplain, Nurse and MD with the Edmonton Palliative Consult Team. And myself in private practice specializing in Palliative/end stages with  Massage Therapy/Reiki/Aromatherapy and my reiki colleague.

It was a very informative evening full of stories and practical aspects of the work. And for those students who stayed to the end received a Reiki demonstration. What I found most interesting is that Complementary/Integrative Therapies are still not a part of the collaboration with AHS/Covenant healthcare professionals. Sometimes I can be naive…if we say we have a holistic health care…to me that means these including therapies that have been around for eons.

The power of human touch helping those who have gone through so much in their medical care, poked and prodded having all kinds of tests and chemotherapy/radiation done…then reiki and massage to help restore that sense of wholeness as much as possible. And aromatherapy, using sacred oils to help in the transition at end of life, using lavender to help calm the patient and caregivers.

My hope is that there are massage and reiki practitioners hired in every hospital and hospice in collaboration with the care team.

In 2014- 2016 I was part of the paediatric integrative medicine (PIM) program at the Stollery for two years and in this study children in Oncology, Cardiology and General Peds could have the choice of receiving massage, reiki or acupuncture/acupressure. We worked on newborns who had open heart surgery, children receiving chemotherapy treatments, children with a Berlin heart (a mechanical heart keeping them alive), young babies-failure to thrive, children with pneumonia and many other cases. I witnessed first hand how our work on the units not only affected the babies and children, however, helped those stressed out parents who most of them were in there 24/7. Many of the nurses could see the affect of our treatments and welcomed us onto the units, a few Doctors did as well. We are now awaiting the results.

Another takeaway from being a part of this panel of medical professionals last evening…was the future of these 140 or so students…how will they bring their knowledge and their being into their profession. How will they carry the many stories they will begin to accumulate?

What does Integrative Medicine mean to you?

Palliative Massage

How Palliative Massage can help…

Touch is one of the first ways to communicate with a newborn, and one of the last ways to connect with a dying person.

Massage can still offer pleasure as one begins the journey of active dying. Family and friends who often feel there is nothing they can do for their loved ones can offer some caring touch. One does not have to be a trained massage therapist to do so. (A back rub used to be a part of the nurses’ role, a part of a hospital visit.)

Palliative massage provides:

  • Comfort and relaxation
  • Touch can ease feelings of isolation and loneliness helping to restore a sense of well-being, feeling safe and of belonging. (the oxytocin factor).
  • Symptoms like anxiety and depression may be lessened.
  • Enhances sleep quality
  • Light abdominal massage can aid in digestion. (As Cicely Sanders said “bowels are of upmost importance.”
  • Massaging pressure points may prevent bed sores by increasing the circulation. (frequent repositioning of the client is also necessary).

After 32 years as a massage therapist, and years working in Palliative care (in various capacities), I now specialize in Palliative massage as part of my End of life Doula work. I love teaching family and caregivers a few easy techniques to help their loved ones.

Some contraindications: On or near cancer lesions and tumor sites, enlarged lymph nodes, sites of radiation, medical devices (such as iv and catheters) bruising and any suspicious areas. Application of deep or intense pressure is also not recommended. Consult with their Doctor or a trained massage therapist when in doubt.

Note: Massage treatments are covered by some health care plans.

Rayne Johnson specializes in Palliative massage, is a Death Doula/Consultant and use of Sacred oils for the dying. Edmonton, AB.

For more information, contact Rayne at 780-267-5007

Death Doula- Doing Deathcare Differently

We have made leaps and bounds in care for the dying with medical advancements, pain management and funding directed to research. Where is this path leading us? As Stephen Jenkinson says we are a death illiterate culture so what is missing?

That is one reason I feel so passionate about Death Doula work, it brings in a much needed personalized service for the dying as well as the families.

Contact Rayne Johnson for more information 780-267-5007

White Buffalo Woman

Guardian of the North