The fragility of life has become painfully apparent like never before in our lifetime. After two intense years of loss, we’re not only grieving over what has been but also what could have been: For an uncertain period of time, joy became a scarcity, unable to panic-buy or order for next-day-delivery, and was replaced with the loss of loved ones and our access to safety, community, and connection.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that grief is about life as much as it is about death.
We know that with death as a prerequisite, grief becomes inevitable – and yet, we’re still surprisingly bad at dealing with it. Now that it looks like we might find ourselves in the midst of changing public opinions on the powers of plant medicines to combat our mental health crisis, with AWAKN requiring exclusive rights to MDMA research only shortly after opening the UK’s first ketamine assisted therapy clinic and research hinting that we might be able to replace antidepressants with psilocybin, could psychedelic therapy be extended to helping us cope with death?
“Several high dose, non-dual experiences on mushrooms obliterated my fear of death,” an anonymous Redditer tells me.
“My fight or flight can still be aroused, and I certainly don’t want to die, but the existential terror is no longer there. The fear came from believing that death was a total annihilation of self; I now understand that I am not the body, and it is only the body that dies. This was not my intention going into the experiences but it has been a profound change. Other changes include no longer being a cynical materialist, finding my spirituality, letting go of anger, and forgiving my parents.”
The authors of a study examining the effects of the South American brew ayahuasca on grief describe losing a loved one as one of the most painful experiences that humans face:
“Feeling stunned or shocked, emotional numbness, mistrust of others, bitterness over the loss, confusion about one’s role in life, a diminished sense of self, difficulty accepting the loss, and moving on with life are normal reactions when bereaved in the aftermath of a death of a loved one.”
Their study showed that 92.3% of the 50 participants experienced positive effects on their grief symptoms after taking part in ayahuasca ceremonies hosted by indigenous healers at the Temple of the Way of Light in Iquitos, Peru. The healing process included an increase in ‘decentring’, also known as ‘detached mindfulness’ and high levels of acceptance, which is considered a key part of change in grief treatment. As some participants experience a reencounter with their deceased loved ones, the authors of the study also believe that this could have a positive effect on people’s attachment styles that are maintained with their loved ones after they die.
From a clinical standpoint, the effects could be attributed to the properties of chemical compounds found in the stems of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, which ayahuasca is partly made out of. They reduce the breakdown of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine – the main pharmacological mechanism of some antidepressants – and the tryptamine N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in ayahuasca acts as an agonist of 5-HT-2A and sigma-1 receptor sites, which is also associated with antidepressant, anxiolytic, and psychoactive effects.
Although ayahuasca’s impact on the participants’ healing was promising, without a placebo group it’s unclear whether the brew was entirely responsible for their improvement, and how much was due to for example the spiritual setting of the ceremonies and other variables.
The story of Aldous Huxley’s wife injecting him with LSD on his death bed is well-known amongst psychonauts, but Western science’s exploration of psychedelic and spiritual healing has been seriously held back by its controversial history and the war on drugs.
Meanwhile, in parts of the contemporary Middle East, cold poppy seed tea is sometimes given to people during funerals to help them deal with feelings of grief and pain, as Michael Pollan writes in his recent book This is Your Mind on Plants. The poppy plant was originally cultivated in the ancient civilisations of Persia, Egypt and Mesopotamia, and while it’s today associated with the opioid crisis, it was once called ‘Destroyer of Grief’ by physicians who believed the plant was of divine origin. Likewise, ayahuasca has been used by indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin in ceremonies for centuries.
“I’m not sure why ayahuasca is different but ever since I’ve tried it my life has completely changed,” Zurlia tells me, who experienced her first ceremony in Covid-ridden November 2020 with the guidance of Love and Life Awakening. “I just started looking at death and every occurrence in a much different way. It changed my perspective of absolutely everything.”
Dealing with the loss of a 10-year relationship and family members dying of Covid-19, Zurlia decided to escape to Mexico and attend an ayahuasca ceremony with three of her friends.
“I used to believe in heaven and hell, but during the ceremony, I saw that the soul simply reincarnates and is here to learn lessons and ascend, but if those lessons aren’t met, then we come back. I also saw we are all part of the same universe and we are all connected in a way! Sounds crazy, but that was my takeaway, so I started seeing death as non-existent because the soul never really died.”
It’s worth noting the spiritual connotations both plants hold for their users: ayahuasca derives its name from the inidigenous Quechua language and translates to ‘ancestor vine’ or ‘vine of the soul’, and opium made from the poppy plant has had many names throughout its lifetime including ‘hand of God’ and ‘sacred anchor of life’.
When speaking to Leanne, who completed her training as a death doula last June and seeks to incorporate psychedelics in her practice, she tells me that although this wasn’t formally discussed during the course, many participants hinted at the connection between death and psychedelics:
“There’s a theory that DMT is released as we reach the end of life, and that for people who are having visuals, you have to honour them as real for the people. What happens is people think they are going crazy, or they totally deny that visual for somebody, which is such an unfortunate thing that happens. So for doulas, or for anybody who knows that if the person is saying, ‘Oh, there’s Mary, my whoever’, you encourage it, you don’t shut it down. That’s amazing in itself, that we possibly do that at the end of life.”
Studies have already looked into the effects of DMT, known for inducing near-death experiences. Scientists have found a strong association between near-death experiences (NDE) scores and the Mystical factor, which gives people a sense of unity or continuity between the self and the external world, also known as ‘dissolved ego boundaries. Psychologist and neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris has suggested that these drugs offer us a reminder of one’s closeness with nature so that the afterglow of these psychedelics serve as an epistemic reminder after our trip.
“One person that I work with has had an NDE. He flatlined for six, maybe four minutes. So he has had that experience but has also had psychedelic experiences. And that was always my parallel, they don’t seem to be all that far away from each other. If we can die before we die, that’s the catalyst to living life. We don’t have to die physically in order for that to happen.”
Leanne believes we can rediscover our relationship with death by intentionally confronting our fears during a trip. The connection we feel to nature while on psychedelics is crucial: Too often, death is a medical event and dying is a sign of medical failure, rather than a biological process bound to happen to us all. Honouring this process, Leanne thinks, can help us reconnect with the dying and remind us what it’s like to die surrounded by a community instead of a hospital.
We have already started offering some people the option to prepare for death with psychedelics. Double-blind studies have shown that a single dose of psilocybin can significantly decrease depression and anxiety, specifically death anxiety, as well as increase the quality of life in patients with terminal illnesses. But for as long as plant medicines such as magic mushrooms remain class A drugs with only a few private researchers gaining rights to obtain them, we’re still far away from making this part of an optional healing resource for all.
Leanne tells me about a teaching in yoga philosophy that says Abhinivesha is the root of our suffering. It’s the fear of death, the fear of change, she tells me. If both the former and the latter pose an inevitable threat to our mental wellbeing, it’s worth exploring whether psychedelics can not only help us live but ultimately die well.