Moving Through Grief With Cannabis
by Camille Baldwin
In American culture, the topic of grief is elusive. An outcome of death (an even more elusive topic), it’s not something we handle well. Our society’s support for the bereaved focuses squarely on the immediate aftermath of a loss. If you’re part of a religious community, there are rituals to mark the grieving process, and support networks to provide comfort and help with daily needs like food and transportation. If you’re lucky enough to have a workplace that offers paid leave for bereavement, you can take some time off for work. But for the grieving, it’s only when the dust settles and everyone (including you) has to return to regular schedules and commitments that you only begin the long journey of facing the enormous vacuum that is loss.
We act as if grief is tantamount to feeling sad, disappointed, alone, angry; not new emotions, but we assume they’re simply piled on top of one another. That’s not untrue, but grief is so much more. It truly is a vacuum - a suction from existence of all in your life that you assume to be true and that you love unconditionally. Grief is not an emotion or a passing phase. It is a death of your known world. And from the ashes, a new identity must be formed.
We expect people to tie their emotions in a bow and get back to work. Yet grief doesn’t follow a schedule or a structure. It doesn’t fit neatly into our calendars for work, activities, and relationships. It is a profound force not unlike ocean currents; ever present, but stronger or weaker based on external variables like wind, temperature, and even gravity.
Our culture has too few tools to help us understand and deal with this force. Tools to learn to swim in waters that were once calm and controllable, but are now dark, choppy, and unpredictable. Therapy, books, friends, and family, are all wonderful, but they’re life vests until you’re alone again with your thoughts. How does one learn to swim in new waters?
I learned by smoking cannabis.
My mother passed away in August 2015 from a five-year battle with ovarian cancer.
I’ve experienced the loss of other loved ones, but this death was different. I had never experienced agony of this magnitude. I was utterly unprepared and ill-equipped; everyone is until they’ve experienced it.
The process of grief is so disorienting that it forces you to be mindful of all your habits, activities, and generally how kind you’re being to yourself. I didn’t immediately think of smoking cannabis as a way to “treat” my grief. I’ve been a regular smoker for years, so it was already a natural comfort for some R&R. But smoking during this process made me realize that cannabis was having a profoundly positive impact on the way I faced my emotions.
An analogy I once heard about stress seems to apply here: each of us has a “cup” allotted to stress each day. Various things can fill up the cup - small things like traffic, or larger things like a fight with a loved one. Keep adding to the cup and it overflows. Grief is like starting each day with a cup that’s already partially full. If I didn’t smoke, I would come home from work feeling overwhelmed about all that had happened in a day, wanting to get space from those thoughts because there were deeper issues brewing underneath the surface. But I found it extremely difficult to face anything below the surface because I was wound too tightly from having to get through a day. When I did smoke, it allowed me to dive deep below the surface-level emotions I had, down to the depths of where raw pain existed. It created a safe space for me to go there and face that pain because it removed all the structures and judgments I would otherwise place on my emotions.
In other words, when I didn’t smoke, I found myself constantly evaluating and explaining my emotions to try to get them to go away. But when I smoked, I would simply feel them. Which is what I needed to do most.
My emotions weren’t so heavy every time I smoked; it allowed me to observe what I needed most and go with that. Sometimes I needed comfort, so I’d snuggle under a blanket with my cats. Other times I needed to contemplate, so I’d watch Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson. And there were the times when I needed to look at my mother’s picture, talk about her, and have a good wail of a cry.
My big takeaway from this experience was learning how to listen to what I really needed and to be kind to myself about whatever that need was. I grew to better anticipate the waves, ride them, and enjoy the times when there weren’t any waves at all for a moment (which eventually did happen).
This was a lesson I now apply to life outside of the grieving process. There are always disappointments, rejections in life; in a way, those are “micro griefs”. And now I can better deal with those unapologetically. I’d like to live in a world where more people understand how to do this for themselves. That is a world with cannabis. A world where it’s accepted not just a medicine, but as a tool for living better.