I was taught growing up Jewish in New Jersey that when someone dies, you cover the mirrors and sit with your thoughts; you either bake something or send a basket of dried apricots, assorted nuts, and bitter-sweet chocolates. Then, you drop the assortment off and sit shiva, or if they’re Catholic, you go to lunch. It’s a familiar ritual that feels more like a western formality, where attendees text in the corner of repasses, unsure of how to behave in the presence of grief, murmuring conversation, passing smiles of discomfort, and ultimately getting on with it. But if you’re the one everyone is sitting shiva for, the one people’s conventional ‘if you need anything’ is directed toward, it is much harder to get on with.
“If there was more of a genuine willingness for people to share the weight of trauma, grief would feel lighter,” says Jonathan Davis, an Australian author of the upcoming book Visionary Mental Health. He and his partner lost a young child a few years ago. In agony, they decided to sit in an ayahuasca ceremony as a way to further confront their pain.
Ayahuasca, the modern hispanicized spelling of a Quechan word that translates to “vine of the dead” or the “vine of the soul,” is an indigenous Amazonian brew that combines the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis shrub to induce a deeply spiritual experience because of the active psychedelic chemical substance N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). According to Davis, western culture focuses too heavily on private grieving through a suppression of emotions instead of healing through difficult spiritual and emotional work. He feels strongly that the ayahuasca experience gives people an opportunity to fully be present in their grief, allowing for what he describes as ‘real healing’ to occur.
More mainstream avenues of psycho-therapy and grief support groups are helpful to an extent, but grief lingers, making its symptoms hard to pinpoint and tough to remedy. Even on a beautiful spring day, the slightest passing breeze can somehow act as a reminder to grieve, forcing attention back toward the depressing reality that we are all going to die. That is what grieving has become for me ever since my dad died suddenly five years ago. When bouts of grief come about, on one hand I mourn the death of my dad, and on the other, it feels like I mourn the eventual death of myself.
My personal story of grieving is one of many. The reality is that people are turning to ayahuasca to help them grieve in a more profound way in hopes of bringing about a deeper and longer-lasting healing for their souls. Some report ayahuasca facilitates a communication with the spirit of the dead, others report a flooding of memories and detailed reliving of the past. This is my take on healing through ayahuasca, told in conjunction with the stories of others, people trying to fully understand the pain of death and how to incorporate that wisdom into life moving forward.
“Ayahuasca can connect you with the spirit of your ancestors, and allow you to converse with them,” says Fredy Apaza Huarhua, a Peruvian tour guide who is training with a maestro of ayahuasca in the Sacred Valley to learn how to become a shaman. “We have an understanding in Peru that life doesn’t end when you die. It continues. It’s a cycle.”
No one teaches you how to grieve. Schools won’t prepare you for the loss of a friend or sibling, and neither will your family. Maybe this is because it seems both impossible to deal with grief and to convey what it feels like when someone you love dies. Still, grief is something everyone goes through at one point and is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as “the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person” (to me, a clinically vague definition that does not begin to describe the true feelings of grief). David Kessler, a renowned grief counselor, along with other counseling therapists around the world, points to universal stages of the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, and ultimately finding meaning. What makes the ayahuasca experience so radical in its approach to grief counseling is that it helps people find meaning first, fundamentally minimizing the pain of each previous step.
Life changes in a blink of an eye is what I found myself jotting down on a red-eye flight from London back to New York, when I found out my father passed away. I was 19. It didn’t feel right. It was sudden, but the news somehow felt mundane. On that just-like-every-other morning in May, five years ago, my dad developed an allergy to a familiar dental anesthetic. The investigative report we received in the mail some months later said that he went in for a root canal, joked with a friendly hygienist, reclined in a leather patient chair, slipped into unconsciousness and never came back.
Since then, I’ve tried to overcome the symptoms associated with grief. I’ve tried grief counseling, grief support groups, grief yoga, even online grief worksheets that encourage the writing of posthumous goodbye letters as a way to close the chapter and move on. But, I didn’t want to move on. The last time I had seen my dad was when he dropped me off months earlier at the airport. All of the conventional coping methods helped a bit, but the hole in my heart remained unfilled. The depression lingered like heavy shackles.
I learned that grief is nothing we expect it to be. I couldn’t believe my reality was mine. My situation felt foreign. At the end of the day, when the condolence calls stopped and when the baskets started to rot because nobody touched them, I was left with the knowledge that I would never see my dad again. That permanence felt imaginary. It was too much to handle. All I could think about was how I wanted one more meeting, one more hangout, so I could say goodbye. I felt robbed of a lifetime of memories so it didn’t feel like too big of an ask for just one more conversation, one more drink at the airport bar before final departure time was called. But who was I asking?
Little did I know that some months later, I would get what I wished for. Sitting in a darkened Maloca, an inherited tribal log house in the Sacred Valley of Peru, across from the ethnopharmacologist Dr. Dennis McKenna, an ayahuasca ceremony afforded me such an opportunity to hang out with the spirit of my dad once more.
I was willing to try anything that claimed to subdue the depression that stays after losing a loved one. In this search, I came across an obscure research article titled “The Potential Use of Ayahuasca in Grief Therapy” by Dr. Débora Gonzalez from the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS). The study compared 30 people who had taken Ayahuasca with 30 people who had attended peer-support groups, finding that the participants who had used ayahuasca exhibited lower levels of grief in comparison. The study used the Present Feelings Scale of the Texas Revised Inventory of Grief (TRIG) to measure grief levels. In the research, participants reported encountering their deceased loved ones through the emergence of biographical memories and experiences of profound emotional release.
As absurd as it sounds, people report that ayahuasca opens a channel to communicate with the dead. It’s like that scene from Black Panther where T’Challa drinks the purple Heart-Shaped Herb and is able to have a final conversation with his dead father; or like in Star Wars where Obi-Wan Kenobi returns from the dead to give Luke Skywalker advice. Except this isn’t a movie, these encounters occur in real life, eyes closed or opened, in the screens of our mind, and they feel very real.
“Ayahuasca can put a person in contact with someone who died, ” says Kerry Moran, a former foriegn correspondent from the US, who’s now an integrative psychotherapist living in the Sacred Valley of Peru.
But if you’re the one everyone is sitting shiva for, the one people’s conventional ‘if you need anything’ is directed toward, it is much harder to get on with.
How could this be possible? Surely if there was some method for communicating with the dead, grief therapists across the world would be touting the use of Ayahuasca as a miracle drug, spreading the word at mental health conferences from Iquitos to Los Angeles. This isn’t the case, though. There are only a few reputable academic research articles on the potential use of ayahuasca in grief therapy. But ayahuasca is illegal and the absence of scientific consensus on how to go about standardizing dosage, and whether participants will receive the medicine in a ceremonial context versus a more clinical setting makes it difficult to study. But whether in a clinical setting or in some apartment in Brooklyn, ayahuasca can help people feel as though they are making contact with someone that has died.
For Leah Dorion, a paramedic from Saskatoon, Canada, ayahuasca provided an opportunity to see her sister who had recently passed away from a drug and alcohol overdose. “I saw that she was somewhere safe and healthy, looking down on her children. I knew she was okay and I knew that I could stop worrying,” Dorion tells DoubleBlind. Her story is one of many. I’ve spoken to dozens of people who report similar experiences where ayahuasca makes them feel more at peace with grief. Many of them wish not to be named in fear of repercussions at work and in their social lives. Nonetheless, their stories shed light on the perceived ability to communicate with the memory or soul of the deceased.
Every story ends tragically if you follow it until the end. Think about it: We all die, and death is tragic because it is ostensibly final. We get to experience the miracle of existence and the price we pay is evermore. Reconciling this reality is a daunting task, and oftentimes we need help coming to terms with our own mortality. Research coming out of New York University (NYU), Johns Hopkins University, and Imperial College are justifying what people around the world have been saying for generations: Psychedelics can make the onus of death feel softer and easier to manage.
We know from psychiatrist Stanislav Grof’s research that LSD and dipropyltryptamine (DPT) helped terminally ill patients minimize their fear of dying because the experience formed a connection with something spiritually greater than themselves, helping to form the idea that maybe death is not so absolute. Similarly, psilocybin helps cancer patients experience relief from anxiety and apprehensive thoughts about death. However, fewer academic studies have been conducted into how psychedelics can help someone deal with grief. Generally, the psychedelic experience can feel like death or ego death, allowing people an opportunity to connect to their souls and to understand that the ephemeral body is disposable.
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Life changes in a blink of an eye; as a kid that’s what I remember adults saying. I never understood those words growing up because I had no context for them, just as I had no context for other common phrases I would hear around the dinner table, stuff like: let bygones be bygones or no one is going to hold your hand in the real world. It’s only when something deeply unimaginable occurs, something that makes your stomach churn with every passing thought and movement, that makes a person understand the magnitude of grief. Sooner than I would have hoped, I discovered the context for this phrase.
The ayahuasca experience changes our internal philosophy about life and death. Many people who take the sacred brew like to say that it feels like 10 years of psychotherapy in one night. Psychologist, Rachel Harris, PhD, author of the book Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD and Anxiety, advocates for integrating any psychedelic experience with ongoing psychotherapy. “In therapy there is a process that allows for bigger learning and deeper changes in life,” she says. Of course, we’re all changed by a loved one’s death, but grief appears differently for everyone. Harris describes grief as a sudden initiation into a private club and lightheartedly chuckles that the most spiritual her mother got was when she said that “people live on in you when they die.”
In fact, Dr. Chris Timmerman, a postdoc student and researcher at Imperial College’s Psychedelic Research Centre in London, believes that the ayahuasca experience can permit access to a mystical experience that allows a person’s understanding of the “nature of reality to shift,” allowing a deeper form of healing to occur. His work has compared near-death experiences with the ayahuasca experience. Timmerman and a team of researchers intravenously administered DMT, the active psychedelic chemical found in ayahuasca to 13 volunteers. After the experience they were asked to fill out a questionnaire that determined if they had met the criteria associated with people who had gone through near death experiences. When I told Dr. Timmerman and Dr. Harris about my experience feeling the presence of my father during a ceremony they were not surprised. Dr. Harris questioned whether I actually was communicating with the soul of my father or if I was projecting a memory of him during the ayahuasca experience. She went on to say: “We are all changed by a loved one’s death. It is an invitation of sorts, we begin to move on to the next generation. And we do face our own mortality in a different way. Ayahuasca does really help with that. You do know it is called the vine of the dead. There is a long tradition here for ayahuasca piercing the veil.”
No one really knows what happens to us when we die. For the living left without a loved one, memories of those who’ve passed illustrate our lives moving forward. Blue jays become signs of a person’s memory, and numbers are sometimes confirmation of a presence, when the world feels alone. These thoughts make the heaviness of grief feel lighter. To those who question the validity of these occurrences, to you I ask, well what is real? Isn’t reality subjective? It’s easy to dismiss a story as fantastically outrageous. It made little sense to me at first that people reported encountering the souls of their deceased loved ones on ayahuasca until I had the experience for myself. “Whether or not there is actual contact with the dead doesn’t really matter. What matters is that people are healing from these experiences,” says Moran, who leads a ten-week online course to support the post-ceremony integration process.
Françoise Bourzat has practiced guiding ceremonies with psychedelic mushrooms for the past 30 years. She is a somatic counselor and one of the lead consultants on an ongoing F.D.A. approved research trial on psilocybin assisted therapy for Covid-related grief in California.
“The Covid-related grief is especially complex because people cannot be near their loved ones when they die, and people are dying alone,” she says over the phone from a hotel room in Jamaica where she and Chris Adrian, a pediatric-palliative care physician at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, and plan to continue organizing a retreat for healing parental grief with psychedelic mushrooms. Currently, she is working with parents whose child committed suicide at 17 years old.
“People can connect with the spirit of their child. Absolutely. And they get a sense of presence that is beyond the form and it’s profoundly reassuring and reconnecting,” says Bourzat. “Of course, a lot of parents report to me also that what they’re connected to is the message from the child telling them to move on and have their life and not to stop their life within their grief—that that is not what they wish for the parent.”
Gonzalez, the author of the ICEERS paper on the potential for ayahuasca in grief therapy, attributes the suicide of her close friend as the inspiration for her scientific inquiry. She used her research as a way to honor his memory and hopes that in ten years, the world will be more accepting of psychedelics so that families can come together “maybe in the cemetery or maybe in their houses, to drink ayahuasca to honor the dead and to open the doors of the mystery.” Gonzalez says that ayahuasca may one day be viewed by the scientific community as a therapeutic medicine to help people alleviate the symptoms of grief.
From the experience of taking ayahuasca, Stormy Brannon, a dental hygienist from Texas, was able to surmount the pain associated with the difficult family decision to remove her grandmother from life support. As the amber-colored ayahuasca broke down in her body, Stormy found herself struggling to breathe. “I could feel how much [my grandmother] was struggling, as if I was in the hospital with her,” she says. “And Ayahuasca asked me: Can’t you feel how much pain she was in?” After this experience, Stormy says she felt more at ease with her grandmother’s death.
Extreme grief, extreme confusion, extreme distress can resolve. It is not like grief gets cured or healed or goes away, but it lessens. It gets to a point where it is more workable. The person who uses ayahuasca to work through the emotions that arise from losing a loved one can go back to their family, often with a new sense of calmness that can help the family in their collective grief. Ayahuasca is just one form of psychedelic therapy to approach symptoms of grief (but others can include psychedelics like MDMA, LSD, and mushrooms).
In America, we don’t really talk about death. And we aren’t provided with sufficient information from schools and culture to properly deal with the pangs of losing a loved one. Etiquette and religious practices from the late nineteenth century determine that black is generally appropriate to wear in states of mourning, and that women should formally grieve their children for one year. I never realized how little we are taught about how to grieve until my dad died. I desperately found myself scrolling through the internet, sifting through pages of self-help grief books, trying to find a way to lessen the pain.
I sat shiva. I tried reciting the mourner’s kaddish, but the Hebrew has always felt distant. Jewish mourning traditions felt more customary than effective at first. Now that five years have passed without him, I’m able to reflect deeply on his memory without breaking down completely. May 10th marked his Yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death). My family visited the cemetery as we do relatively often. I picked up a rock, placed it on his headstone, and silently wept. It sort of came out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting it. My brother and mom placed their hands on my back, reminding me that they are there. It is something about five years that says there is no turning back.
In Sheloshim, the first 30 days of mourning, during late nights of despair, I found myself researching different religious views on death. Hindus believe in the transmigration of souls through a process of birth and rebirth known to many as reincarnation, an idea that when a person dies their soul in a sense migrates to a new physical body beginning a new life. It’s satisfyingly warm to think my father’s soul is out there roaming earth anew. I hope I will bump into him some day. I think that maybe I already have.