Death sucks. There’s no other way to say it. The next time you’re at a funeral searching for profound words of reassurance, just stop—simply acknowledge that death sucks for the ones left behind and grief can be excruciating.
The truth is, grieving is also a natural part of the human experience and something most of us are forced to endure. Mourning, or the process of moving through the stages of grief, can last for the rest of our lives. So, what can we do to ease the pain? Literature commonly recommends time, community, spiritual connection, and a little extra effort to indulge in the things that feel goo to you. Many experienced mourners argue that weed, specifically, should be added to the list.
Dan Wolfson, a New York-based psychologist who specializes in working with bereaved children and adults, describes the grief immediately after a loss as “really raw. It kind of rocks our foundation and is a very tense and profound experience.” He notes, “acute grief is generally time-limited…we don't stay in that space forever,” but also acknowledges that “grief is something that never goes away entirely. Our grief is always a part of who we are and there's no timeline for it.”
That pain was evident as Jessi Cox, a 36-year-old from Portland, Oregon, describes the passing of her mother, who died from brain cancer three years ago. “My entire family was broken from my mom's death. It was horrific,” she says. She tells me about the challenges of balancing her grief with her responsibilities as a mother of four and a demanding full-time career at a tech startup: “I was sobbing in between calls…I wasn't going to lose my job on top of losing my mom. I still had to hit my quota, and I just remember feeling like, this sucks so much. I want to just mourn my mom.”
Traditional antidepressant meds aren't generally recommended for grief. Wolfson explains that grief and depression may co-occur, but they're two distinct issues. “We're going to expect some experiences that might look like depression, that person's experiencing sadness, the person's experiencing withdrawal,” he says. “But they are still in the process of adaptation to loss. So it wouldn't be indicated to prescribe an antidepressant during that time period, nor an anti-anxiety medication.”
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Some suggest that cannabis may serve as a medication to help patients ease and process grief. In fact, as Seattle-based hospice and palliative medicine physician Sunil Kumar Aggarwal points out, “The late Dr. Tod Mikuriya, one of the 20th century medical cannabis pioneers, who had extensive clinical experience with cannabis, proposed a unique drug category for it—an easement. He wrote that use of cannabis can help to relax obsessive and mood-driven cognitive patterns and put them into emotional perspective.”
This was one reason Cox chose to use cannabis to ease her grief. She illustrates the ways weed helped her adapt to life without her mom. “What I love about cannabis is that it keeps me positive, keeps me focused on the good and not the bad,” she tells me. “It's definitely a balancer rather than making you ‘not feel.’ I think it just helps you kind of identify what those feelings are and think about them in a different way.”
And she prefers it to drinking. “Smoking cannabis helped me deal with the emotions in a way that was constructive instead of destructive. When I drink, it's more destructive, I think about how robbed I truly am, and how it was Marlboro and all of the tobacco companies that took my mom, and I start getting angry,” Cox says. “But when I smoke [marijuana], I think more like, well, my mom had her own free will. She was an educated woman and she was possibly too good for this earth. I have more constructive thoughts that are balanced with good.”
Wolfson adds that self-regulation is imperative when using any substance, especially during times of grief. “We really don't want to be numbing. We want to be able to make a space for emotional experience and to really be noticing how our grief is moving.”
And while he specifies that he doesn't endorse relying on any substance as a strategy for adapting to loss, he also acknowledges that there are things that help facilitate the process. Wolfson encourages people grieving to “build a space for positive experience…have a dessert, go for a walk in the garden, play with a puppy, see your family, see children in your family.” He adds that taking care of yourself is important in order to give yourself some respite from the loss that you're experiencing. “I guess that's where I think, some people take care of themselves by smoking pot. It’s something that some people do for joy and for pleasure.”
It must be also mentioned that cannabis—like alcohol—does have a potential for addiction, even if it's a fairly low risk of getting addicted compared to alcohol. It’s still something to consider, since grief can increase the risk of addiction to any substance. So adults choosing to use cannabis during grief should do so with caution. Getting high should enhance your life, not be an escape from it.
If you do want to smoke weed during mourning, please do it responsibly and use caution. New cannabis users especially should be aware of THC-induced anxiety and panic attacks which are real risks of overconsumption. If possible, talk to a non-judgmental mental health professional about a comprehensive grieving process.
Cox says that after implementing weed into her grief ritual, her sleep and mood improved. Friends in the cannabis industry also rallied around her, and their support also soothed her grief. This isn’t surprising as studies have shown social support can help improve grief outcomes. “It wasn't just the physical cannabis herb. It was also the people in the cannabis industry,” she says. In addition to extensive emotional and mental support, her community showered her with donations of her favorite strain, Tangie. “Sometimes I joke, the only flowers I received when my mom died were the literal cannabis kind.”
Wolfson says during times of grief, it’s important “to experience positive emotion, to begin planning for the future, and to have aspirations that we're working toward.” In Cox’s case, instead of wallowing in despair, she and her husband Travis chose to embark on a new business opportunity and began the staffing firm for cannabis businesses that now operates in multiple states.
In addition to the many physiological benefits, cannabis may also enhance a user’s spiritual connection. “An ancient religious text from the Indian subcontinent—the Atharva Veda—expresses the traditional belief that cannabis was provided to humanity to provide relief from distress," Aggarwal explains. "So, these properties could certainly aid the bereaved, along with bereavement counseling, family and community support, and mourning rituals.”
Using cannabis to enhance a spiritual connection is exactly what Jo (who prefers not to use her last name for her career's sake) from New Jersey did when her husband passed away. She was 41 when he died. “The first time I smoked after his death was the day after the funeral. It was me, my adult daughter, and my husband's mother,” she tells me. “We wanted it to be a celebratory day. Although a horrible anxiety came over me initially, after a while a calmness set in, and a sensitivity about what was going on with a focus on just being at peace and celebrating life.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.