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Grief and Smell

Dr. Bob Baugher

So, you saw this title and thought, “What does grief have to do with smell?” Well, let’s find out.

Think about it: Your brain is encased in a dark environment and the only way it can determine what’s going on in the world is via the senses that feed it information. Of all the senses smell is the winner for having the greatest variety of stimuli that the brain can differentiate. While we can discriminate several million different colors and about a half million different sound tones, research has shown that our brain can single out more than (are you ready?) a trillion different scents! These can be categorized into ten basic groups such as fruit, toasted and nutty, chemical, and pungent.

Smell works when scent-carrying molecules travel up our nasal cavity to our olfactory bulb and onto areas of the brain that stimulate memory. If the smell is associated with an emotional event, such as the death of a loved one, the memory of the event is easily triggered. This is why we cannot forget many of the events associated with a significant death no matter how hard we try. Furthermore, emotional memories can also stimulate the part of the brain that can bring on the “fight or flight” response in which there is a sudden physiological increase in heart rate, blood pressure, sweat response, and respiration.

This triggering process may be one of the reasons for the so-called “grief attack.” Have you ever had the experience when, seemingly out of nowhere, your body goes into fight or flight mode? In some cases, you are able to clearly identify the trigger: a sight (such as a picture or anything visual) or a sound (such as a song) that reminds you of the person who died. However, in those situations in which the grief attack seems to come out of nowhere, it may be due to a smell that entered your nasal cavity without your awareness. Here you are feeling your heart pounding and finding it difficult to breathe and perhaps crying, feeling light-headed and saying, “Where did THAT come from?” It is one thing for this reaction to take place in your bedroom. It is quite another thing when it happens at work, at a party, or out shopping. Unfortunately, this out-of-control experience is a common grief reaction. While it most often appears during the first year of bereavement, it can still sneak up on us years later. My mother had a friend, Rona, who introduced her to Country Western music. I have many memories as a teen-ager listening to my mother (who couldn’t carry a tune—sorry, Mom) singing along with the radio. Sadly, at age 67 she died from cancer. Twenty years later I’m sitting in a theatre-type auditorium on a cruise ship when a man gets up on stage and belts out, “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Instantly my hands go up to my face. I am in tears.

Since you cannot anticipate every sight, sound or smell that enters your environment, the question is: What can you do when you find yourself in the throes of a grief attack? The answer is: Self-talk. Your self-calming words can go something like this, “It’s OK. You’re having a grief attack. Just let it happen. It’ll be OK.” I wish I could give 10 or 20 suggestions on dealing with the many types of grief attacks. But because of the millions and millions of potential triggers out there, you (and I) will never be able to anticipate them all. All you can do is let it happen, assure yourself with self-talk, and get through it. As you know, grief will forever be at some level in your life. Your loved one is in your memory and your heart forever. And, isn’t that what love is all about?


Dr. Bob

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