It makes so much sense that we’d want to avoid our grief. The side effects can be unrelenting: emptiness in the stomach, pressure in the chest and throat, hypersensitivity to noise, shortness of breath, palpitations, muscle weakness, lack of energy, insomnia, headache, dry mouth. And the psychological responses—fear, anger, sadness—can manifest in guilt, irritability, withdrawal, feelings of depersonalization, or worse.
Grief is the brain's way of rewiring itself in real time. Which, of course, is partially why it's so incredibly painful.
In many ways, grief is our brain's way of rewiring itself in real time. Which, of course, is partially why it's so incredibly painful—the brain must actually create new neural pathways. “Grief fulfills a function of adaptation to an entirely new reality,” explains board-certified sleep and internal medicine physician Dr. George Samuels. “It’s what allows an individual to face and adjust to the environment.” In essence, that surreal mix of physical pain and intense emotions we feel when grieving is really what allows us to recalibrate. It makes bad news feel less fresh each morning.
In other words: it’s necessary. And when we avoid it, we are more prone to what’s called “complicated grief”—intense and debilitating symptoms of mourning that can last for more than a year after the loss. We’re also prone to an increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and morbidity.
But this past year—whether from a layoff, divorce, break-up, death, social unrest, or the general loss of “normalcy” and stability—there has been more than enough grief to go around. And, thanks to an ever-growing legal cannabis industry—which exploded in 2020 into a $17.5 billion market; a 46 percent increase—there’s also plenty of weed too. It’s not exactly a silver lining, but maybe it’s a mossy-green one. Because when it comes to grief, cannabis just might help.
Alcohol can take those who are grieving out of the present, but cannabis can help manage emotions.
My own relationship with weed is tightly rolled up with my relationship to my family—from the time my brother and I got grounded for wake-n-baking before high school to when my mom got breast cancer five years ago and started smoking. First, she smoked because of the chemotherapy side effects, but, once her health improved, she’d continue to sneak out with my brother and I to smoke joints in the backyard—only for my dad to walk out and catch her like a cat with a canary as she exhaled.
And now weed and family is also tightly rolled up with grief for me as well. Late last July, in the middle of a global pandemic, my mom was hospitalized indefinitely. The chemo from her breast cancer had resulted in stem cell damage, causing her to develop therapy-related acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive form of blood cancer.
I packed up to move home to Chicago after nearly nine years in New York. And, all at once, I was grieving. I grieved the healthy parent I thought I would hug after we were all vaccinated; I grieved the life I had built in Brooklyn for almost a decade. But at least I was moving to Illinois, a state where medical and recreational cannabis had already been legalized.
According to medical social worker Silvi Saxena, I’m not the only person who has used cannabis to soothe the pain of a loss. In her decade of working in hospice care, Saxena has found that cannabis “can be a really great support for those struggling with any kind of grief,” she tells me.
Unlike alcohol, which can take those who are grieving out of the present, “cannabis is beneficial for managing many emotions derived from grief,” Samuels tells me. Weed helps us stay in our grief by stimulating cannabinoid receptors and making the present more tolerable. Humans have intricate endocannabinoid systems that regulate mood, appetite, and sleep—all of which become compromised when we grieve. “Our body makes and maintains natural endocannabinoids and our body has receptors all over to process and distribute these molecules,” Saxena explains. With cannabis consumption, “our body uses these same receptors to give you the feeling of being relaxed and less anxious and depressed, which oftentimes drives the emotions related to grief.”
For anyone considering using cannabis to cope with loss, it’s important to proceed conscientiously.
Sativas can help people recharge and add some zest to their routine, helping them process pain.
First, understand what strains and terpenes to use. For the most part, indicas—which often contain more of the sedative terpene Myrcene—are more suited for night and thus can be used to help with insomnia; sativas—which often contain more of the uplifting terpene Limonene—might be better for curbing anxiety and improving focus to get through the day. “Sativas can help people recharge during the day and add some zest to their routine, helping them process pain,” Samuels notes.
As for the best way to consume weed, it ultimately depends on the intensity of your grief. Edibles take longer to kick in, but the effects can be more powerful. Still, when I’m in an intense wave of difficult emotions and looking for immediate relief, “it may be better to smoke cannabis,” Samuels recommends.
On the other hand, the slower come-down from edibles can be therapeutic during more prolonged periods of grief, which could be particularly useful when dealing with the loss of a loved one. “Depending on the other issues with the grief, it could be advisable to have both edible and smoking form available,” recommends Saxena.
Of course, using cannabis to cope emotionally can be a slippery slope into abuse for veteran smokers. And new users run the risk of getting too high—a move that can make them feel more anxious, depressed, and unstable in their grief. So, whatever end of the spectrum someone falls into, it’s best to have a plan in place.
“Specifically, individuals who are in grief and want to relax could set a consumption goal and enjoy its benefits for a specific time as a therapeutic mechanism,” Samuels says. In other words, don't smoke all day—set aside a time when you can do it with intention.
And for new users with lower tolerances, Saxena recommends having a partner: “If someone is available to support you, that is advisable.”
As my mom’s leukemia spreads to her brain and her condition declines rapidly, I’ve found that, even as a longtime recreational user, the buddy system is probably a good idea—especially when it comes to fresh, debilitating grief. I know I need to experience this grief without being obliterated by it, and that can only come with support from family, friends, therapy, writing, and all the other forms of self care that cannot be replaced with weed.
But on days that I’m too deep in my emotions to ask for help, there is a small comfort in knowing I can smoke it.