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Herbs for Hospice: Preparing the Body, Heart, Spirit and Soul for the Next Life Cycle with Plant Medicines

On Sunday, May 5th, 2013, here in Madison, WI, we celebrated Herb Day.  The weather was beautiful, and Olbrich Gardens was alive with people celebrating and learning more about what plant medicines have to offer.  My talk this year was different from years past. Below is the handout that I offered. It is not intended to solve problems, or cure. It is intended to begin a discussion about death and dying, and how we might make warmer, more personal and aesthetically pleasing the experience, instead of neutralizing it or hiding from it.

The mind may go, leaving a body that forgets, or the body may go, leaving a mind to contemplate suffering and the natural cast system of life. Regardless of the path you are on now, how will you process and mature into the inevitable- the end of life?

What we chose to do with our end is personal, and is also dictated by our resources-financial, physical, mental, and fate. Regardless, as we age, our fears begin to morph into, “Will I get what I need in my later years? How will I go? Will I be cared for well?”

The answer for some may be dying at home, but for many it is a sterile environment; one that strips the sensual and the natural-with white walls and hard lighting. Regardless of the place, our end of life is made far easier by people in hospice care.

Hospice workers are some of the most progressive in the health care industry. They strive to facilitate life’s end as wholly and naturally as possible, often combining western and alternative medicines, with the art of listening, and the empathy needed to transmute angst and resentment that drives emotional and physical pain.

Hospice and the Alternative Health Assessment

In herbalism, the care that people receive is shaped from need and a health assessment.  We get specific per person. In hospice, this may look different as the situation at hand is different.  But I find that there are things that all people need.

  • To be listened to
  • Have some say and understanding of what is used.
  • Be met where they are, and accepted for it before pushing for movement and change.
  • Have their senses, head, heart, spirit, soul, and hands engaged to varying degrees.
  • Find a common thread from their lives to tie into their therapy. “My mother grew rosemary, and find the scent soothing.  It reminds me of…”

Choosing and Applying Plant Medicines

We apply plant medicines according to the situation at hand with the intent to engage the whole person. Within that, plant choices and their  methods of application need to be pleasurable to the person receiving the therapy, fit with the western medical model.

When I consider what is necessary to create a sustainable complimentary health program in a medical model, I consider these things:

  • Hospice friendly in application; take specific hospice needs into account*
  • Drug interaction friendly
  • Affordable
  • Grow easily and in great abundance locally
  • Be as effortless as possible to incorporate into the rhythm of the day
  • Have few contraindications.

*Symptoms specific to hospice: nausea, poor appetite and digestion, pain, terminal agitation, spiritual and psychological pain. Fear, grief and anxiety.

Methods of plant application may be:

  • Burning herbsnot for everyone, unless it is their tradition
  • Bathing in essential oils or teasI recommend using aromatic teas, such as chamomile, lavender and rosemary; or Epsom salt baths with essential oils.  I don’t recommend oily baths due to the slippery tub factor.
  • Aromatherapy/inhalation or room application cotton balls for bedside tables or pillows at naptime work great, are inexpensive, and accessible 
  • Topical application and body work with plantsespecially hand and foot rubs with infused oil and something nice to smell that is soothing, healing and/or anti-inflammatory
  • Internal consumption of tea, tinctures, food, honey I’m not a big fan of herbal syrups as they are too sweet, but infusing plants in raw honey and using them in teas is excellent. Tinctures can easily be slipped into other things: yogurt, pudding, teas with honey, smoothies, applesauce
  • Sleeping with essential oils or plants to dream, or carrying them as a talismanthe cotton ball with a drop or two or a cutting from a plant
  • Drawing and observing plants –can be done inside with potted plants or outside
  • Growing and making the medicines with them instead of medicine making, for those who can still do, organize craft projects; putting together dried herb sachets for pillows and drawers, or tying together bunches of fresh herbs to hang in rooms.

Plant examples: sage, rosemary, lavender, chamomile, peppermint, lemongrass

  • Reading and writing about plantsor being read to, for those interested in their plant
  • Foot baths teas: lavender, chamomile, lemongrass, peppermint, yarrow

Aromatherapy and Inhalation

Aromatherapy is a wonderful medium for stress and end of life.  Scent perception occurs in less than a second with body wide effects. It bypasses organ system processes and overrides conscious thought, changing people’s minds in an instant.  Once you try it for yourself, you understand how energy moves, and vibrations in us can be lowered, matched or raised to bring relief.

In hospice, scent can be used to change the mind, thus helping people achieve a more peaceful place with difficult subject matter, such as grief from loss, or an old memory that is bothersome. Scent can be used to alleviate pressing issues such as agitation, insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, emotional and physical pain.

 Application Note: Formulas for stress relief, anxiety and insomnia should be applied to the feet, heart and back of the neck. The veins in the feet bypass the liver and run directly to the heart and respiratory tract.  Foot application is a direct way to calm the heart, nervous system, and cough. 

Plant suggestions:

  •   Essential oils: atlas cedar wood, frankincense, grapefruit, lavender, lemongrass, mandarin
  •   Tinctures: milky oat, holy basil, yellow dock root, chamomile, passionflower
  •   Teas: holy basil, chamomile, peppermint (only as a tea), oat straw, elephant tree
  •   Plant cuttings for the home or room: lavender, rosemary, sage, roses, yarrow, mints

Quick list of Remedies

Many oils do similar things.  Let the client pick their oil if you can. Stick things in your pocket-parts of plants, cotton balls with scent on them or little bundles of herbs.  Other fun things that are a good experience for the senses –small tufts or balls of yarn, rocks or little bags of sand.

Nausea, low appetite with poor protein and fat digestion:

  • Teas: gas and bloating-peppermint, lemon balm, holy basil, lavender;

from nervousness -lemon balm, peppermint, lavender;

nervousness w/ acid reflux-chamomile

  • Inhalation: from nervous agitation-essential oil of lavender
  • Tinctures: poor fat digestion and low appetite: yellow dock root, holy basil

gas and bloating: holy basil, peppermint


  • Inhalation of Essential oils: frankincense, grapefruit, lavender, mandarin, lemongrass
  • Plant cuttings of: lemon balm, peppermint, rosemary, lavender, chamomile
  • Rose water spray on pillows or in a room
  • Teas of chamomile, lavender, oat straw, lemon balm, rose
  • Tinctures of: milky oat seed (extremely beneficial over time), holy basil, lemon balm

Insomnia Note: I typically avoid tea for insomnia with my clients- it makes them have to potty at night!

  • Essential oils of: lemongrass, lavender, frankincense, mandarin, rose
  • Tinctures: fresh milky oat tincture, chamomile (watch out, it is antacid!), lemon balm

Spiritual & psychological pain – Fear – Terminal agitation

  • Lavender: Lavender is the helping Grandmother spirit. It sooths rough spots in the soul that have been marred by stress and time.  I also like to think of lavender slowing down time, helping us to alter our reaction to things that are heavy triggers, and keep hold of ourselves and all of our parts when we are stretched thin.
  • Frankincense: For people dealing with bridging to the other world, frankincense can help them reconcile old emotional wounds and past pains, supporting them in calling back parts of their soul that had been displaced through trauma. I also like to use frankincense in Post Traumatic Stress and Panic Disorders. It is an excellent dreamtime oil.
  • Grapefruit: The spirit of joy, adventure, and new beginnings without bitterness. It’s Latin name, “paradise”, means paradise.
  • Mandarin: Conjures images of childhood, and a sense of going back in time.  It is a scent that calls people into the dream world, and facilitates sweet dreams.
  • Rose: The spirit of rose is sedative, and all encompassing, as noted in the strength of its scent. It is protective and sweet, and holds space for the heart to go where it needs to in a calm and centered manner. It is specifically indicated for fear, shock, anxiety and grief. Rose essential oil is very expensive. I recommend spraying rose water.

Sample recipes

Air Spray Recipes:

  • Rose water in a spray bottle
  • Just under 4 oz. of distilled water with a tablespoon of alcohol in  spray bottle; add 20 drops of lemongrass and 15 drops of lavender.  Shake well before each use!

Calendula Lip balm/Healing Balm

  • Combine 3 oz. of calendula infused oil, 1 oz. jojoba oil, ½ oz. of beeswax in a double boiler. Heat until beeswax melts. Add 10 drops of lavender pure essential oil. Put in salve containers or lipbalm tubes. Allow to harden. Label! (They can be found at SKS Bottle and Packaging online)

Simple Arnica Salve for Pain and Soreness

  • Follow instructions as above. Substitute arnica infused oil for the calendula.  Add 10 drops of rosemary or eucalyptus, and 10 drops of clove or ginger pure essential oil.  (Not for lip balms!)

Essential oil sample formulas for application through inhalation or in oil formulas

When applying to cotton balls, just a few drops will do.  When putting in carrier oil blends, stick with a 1% dilution (about 7 drops per 1 oz. of oil)

  • Immune Support Formula: lavender, frankincense, and lemongrass.  Boosts immune function, increases lymphatic circulation, is anti-anxiety and sedative.
  • Fear and Transition: frankincense, mandarin, Altas cedar wood
  • Insomniacs Dream: lavender, sweet mandarin, lemongrass; apply to the feet 20 min. before bed, or apply to a cotton ball and put in the pillow

Quality at end of life is essential and often difficult.  By naturalizing the world for those suffering is a harbinger of hope that life goes on in a different form and way than it did before, and that that is okay.

At the talk, an older gentleman asked me if I believed we could trick fate. That I do not know.  But I do believe what I have learned.

The Dagara tribe of Ghana believes that we pick our souls purpose before we are born, laying road blocks in our way along the path of existence to keep us in line with that purpose.

I believe it is not only for fulfillment  but also for learning and transmuting what we need to in this life.  That we are born to people we choose, in a body we need, in a manner we were supposed to so that life lessons and soul purpose are realized as well as they can be.

Do we trick fate, earn it, or choose it? I still don’t know. But I think shining a light on it and how we die helps us accept and understand it better.

To end, I want to link to one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite people. http://margaretmassey.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/feeding-dementia/



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • This is really wonderful. How we treat the dying and dead says so much about a culture. Thank you for this very soulful and helpful essay.

    • Thanks so much for your comment.  Perhaps you’ll add your own anecdotes here as well. Warm wishes, Kathy

  • gem

    thank you for this… also flower essences can be used at this time for great effect, whether used orally, added to baths, or used as a room mist (can be added to floral waters if essential oils are too strong, or even just water). All plants have spiritual aspects as well, although some have a stronger affinity. Lavender also assists souls to transition. I think this article is part of our movement in the west to bring sacredness to this great transition once again.

    • Thanks for your comment.  It is wonderful that we have so many tools that can be used in hospice.  I also love that everyone gleans from them their own best uses.  Warm wishes.

  • mary

    Do you know of any herbalists that works with hospice patients in the California bay area. Thanks!

    • Hello! Thanks for writing. I’m sorry to say that I don’t. I recommend calling your local herb stores to see if they know of anyone. You’re in SF, which is rich with herbalists. You might also call the Tucson Herb Store. I highly respect Amanda’s work (she’s the owner). She may know someone. Good luck, and warm wishes, Kathy

    • Hello, I am an herbalist, End of Life Doula and Dying Consciously Educator. I work with hospice in the Los Angeles Area and is currently building a network of hospice workers to provide care. Please send me your information. Although this was 3 yrs ago, we can for sure start to build and be resourceful
      Lynn Young