There's a feeling right now that the ground isn't solid anymore. Worries about how bad everything could get - or already be. A loss of human connection. A loss of norm. Of routines. I've heard people say they wake up feeling "raw." The collective experience? Grief.
As we move through this time of global pandemic and social unrest, so many of us are experiencing an all-consuming, heart-wrenching emotional process. For some, it is grief around the loss of loved ones. For others, grief may be about the loss of work or the life they had been living. Or for others, symptoms of grief might express themselves in concern for the state of the world, and the painful experiences so many people are having. For some of us, it might not be clear what we are grieving, but a pervasive sense of grief is ever-present.
As we all work through this traumatic time in our history, the world could use a little help to heal our hearts. And cannabis may be just the thing to help.
It turns out that cannabis has helped many works through the mourning process of healing from grief. And there is even science backing up those who say cannabis can help. From a personal level, I know it has helped me process my grief in incredible ways.
First thing's first - let's talk about the grief cycle.
What is Grief?
Simply put, grief can be described as the anguish and pain you experience from loss. It is usually associated with the loss of someone or something you love - and it doesn't always have to include people.
The 5 Stages of Grief
There are typically five to seven stages or emotional behaviors we experience as we work our way through the experience of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These patterns of behavior were laid out in the 1969 book, On Death and Dying, by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. To this day, most, if not all people, process grief in this order, and through these stages.
Here's where cannabis comes in.
How To Deal With Grief - With The Help of Cannabis
My first significant experience with grief was the death of my grandmother when I was in college. I had been close to her my whole childhood, and she passed away suddenly. After that, my grief-stricken grandfather's health deteriorated quickly, and he passed on the next year. I was so overcome with sadness, and I didn't handle it very well. I also didn't have cannabis to help.
The grief of their passing was too intense for me to bear. When I let myself feel anything, I felt so flooded by emotion; my instinctual response was to shut down, become numb, do anything to dissociate from how I was feeling. I kept myself busy. I watched a lot of TV. I focused on school and friends, and I avoided my family because they reminded me of the loss. I kept things at a surface level. I didn't want to feel the grief, so I cut myself off from my emotions entirely. And honestly, I moved on without ever processing my pain.
More recently, I lost an aunt to cancer. I had been very close with her throughout my childhood and felt tremendous grief, followed by that strong impulse to dissociate and ignore - but this time, I had cannabis to help.
It's interesting because many believe using cannabis causes people to dissociate from their experience. But when I used marijuana, far from detaching, I was able to feel what I was feeling. It was a stark contrast to my earlier grief experience, where detachment felt like the only option.
In my studies of meditative traditions, I've found one key piece of advice for dealing with painful experiences: being present with the knowledge of pain is what helps the pain to shift. This is precisely what cannabis helped me to do - and it has made all the difference.
Instead of catapulting between emotional flooding and detachment, I experienced a sort of middle ground where I could be with the feelings of grief and sadness and anger and experience the sense of love and gratitude I had for this person I was grieving. I was able to cry and be with the grief. I was able to share my memories of her with loved ones and talk about her with family. I even found myself processing residual pain that I never dealt with for my grandparents.
In the midst of being with these painful emotions, I found I could also experience positive emotions like joy, love, and appreciation - something that didn't happen when I was detaching before. This helped me find comfort between the moments of intense emotion - which made them easier to bear.
All in all, cannabis helped me with grief by letting me be with how I was feeling and move through it. It didn't take away the sadness, but it softened and helped me be a bit kinder to myself.
The Science of Cannabis and Grief
Of course, I'm not the only one who has found cannabis to be helpful during grief. Many cannabis users report similar experiences using cannabis for grief, and this use goes back as far as 1800 BCE when ancient Assyrians used marijuana as a treatment for grief. In modern times, there hasn't been much science looking at cannabis for grief specifically. There has been a fair bit of research investigating how cannabis can improve your mood and help when you're feeling blue.
For one thing, studies on cannabis show that using cannabis can bring about an immediate improvement in mood and lifting of depressive symptoms. This emotional boost is likely because both THC and CBD, cannabis' primary cannabinoids, can have antidepressant effects similar to SSRI's - enhancing essential chemicals like serotonin, which may drop during periods of grief. While both cannabinoids can help, some studies point to higher ratios of CBD being more helpful for easing depressive symptoms.
Certain terpenes (the chemicals responsible for flavor and aroma in cannabis) may also help with this process. Limonene, a terpene also found in citrus, and alpha-pinene, which is in pine needles, are well known for their mood-boosting properties and may help with the depressive states common during grief.
This means that higher CBD cannabis options, particularly those with mood-boosting terpenes, may be particularly helpful for people processing grief right now.
It should also be noted that some studies suggest that cannabis can cause depressive symptoms to worsen when used over long periods. Still, other studies found no association between cannabis and worsening depression, and report that this association disappears when factors like socioeconomic factors are controlled for.
The scientific jury may still be out on long term use of cannabis for depressive symptoms - but in the short term - like for a period of intense grief - it can be helpful.
For myself, I know I'm grateful to have cannabis at the ready as I dive into processing the new sense of grief emerging right now. If you are feeling lost swimming in despair, don't let yourself drown or detach. Try a little cannabis and see if it helps. You may find yourself working with grief in a whole new way.