The article Death, Hope, and The Psychedelic Experience was originally published on Microdose.
I am a person of hope and potential. As a two-time cancer survivor in the sixth decade of my life, I have seen many things. My seven grandchildren have been a blessing, But as time gets shorter, I wonder more and more about death and end-of-life care and how psychedelics can help.
This article looks at the use of psychedelics and the guidance of chaplains, doulas, hospices, and retreats that offer entheogenic experiences in a bid to help ease the impact of death passage.
Why Psychedelic Chaplains, Doulas, Hospices, and Retreats?
End-of-life chaplaincy has long been about being a companion for those in their last moments. However, recent studies have looked at the role that psychedelics can play in helping to ease an individual’s anxiety and pain during these times. We are only recently beginning to understand how these substances can bring peace and comfort to those facing the end of their life. When administered by a qualified professional and with proper aftercare, psychedelics can help individuals confront fear and come to terms with death more meaningfully than conventional methods. Providing an altered state of consciousness allows people to engage the unknown and come to terms with things they have been struggling with. This understanding will enable us to provide comfort, solace, and a sense of peace for those on the threshold of death.
It is heartening to know that the concept of a psychedelic chaplain, or spirit guide, continues to be explored by Harvard Divinity School. A growing body of research points to how psychedelics may benefit people facing death and mortality. As we face death, anxiety, depression, fear, uncertainty, and memories of life may surface. For those in transition, it’s been shown that psychedelics can help us connect with loved ones who have died. They allow us to communicate with them energetically, to say goodbye more meaningfully, to remember and resolve. This can be a great comfort to those grieving the loss of a loved one.
Matt Zemon, author of Psychedelics for Everyone, shared an experience with me about his Mother on The Mindfulness Experience Podcast. It was a profound moment for him that helped to resolve pain and trauma. This was unsurprising, given a 2015 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology examined how psilocybin might help people cope with grief following a loved one’s passing. The researchers found that this psychedelic drug positively affected how participants experienced closure following their loved one’s death. In particular, participants reported experiencing feelings of peace and acceptance after taking psilocybin.
Psychedelics can act as a conduit for us all to explore different spiritual worlds, allowing us to gain further insight into the world around us in ways that would otherwise not be possible without being under the influence of these substances. Ultimately, whether used for contemplating death or exploring other realms of consciousness, psychedelics may offer an invaluable tool for those who wish to make sense of life’s ultimate mysteries of life and death and one’s contribution and connection before reaching its end.
Studies conducted over the last decade by researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found that psychedelic-assisted treatments can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in people with a life-threatening illness and improve attitudes toward death in healthy volunteers. A study involving cancer patients revealed that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy drastically reduced anxiety symptoms and depression compared to traditional talk therapies. Similarly, an Imperial College London study has shown that psilocybin-facilitated psychotherapy can substantially improve mental health for people with depression who do not respond to conventional treatments. Moreover, hallucinogenic substances such as ayahuasca have been found to reduce levels of psychological distress among participants involved in other studies conducted at Yale University School of Medicine.
Yet, another study at the New York University School of Medicine found that psilocybin-assisted therapy allowed participants to confront mortality more openly than standard cognitive behavioral therapy did. This finding suggests that psychedelics may allow us to contemplate mortality with less fear and resistance than is typical in our everyday lives. Furthermore, given its capacity for spiritual exploration, there has been speculation about how psychedelics could connect us more deeply with ecological processes and promote collective action to heal oneself, relationships, environment and care for one’s legacy.
Working with Death Anxiety
Psychedelics offer a unique opportunity to explore our fears and anxieties about death and the legacy we leave behind by helping us to meet our mortality head-on and come to terms with death. We can ease the transition from life to death, look at our attachments, and prepare for the next stage of our journey. We still don’t know much about psychedelics and their potential role in end-of-life care. Yes, more research is needed to determine safety and efficacy. But, early evidence suggests that psychedelics may hold great promise for helping people face their death gracefully and with dignity. There is evidence that psychedelics help facilitate spiritual or existential experiences, which can be profoundly meaningful and transformative for people in this stage of life.
Evidence from clinical trials shows that psychedelics, such as psilocybin, can help alleviate the symptoms of end-of-life anxiety in patients with life-threatening diseases. This is thought to be due to the ability of psychedelics to alter brain activity and induce a deep sense of relaxation and peace, allowing patients to cope with their condition more effectively. Additionally, psychedelics often have short-term side effects that are relatively mild compared to conventional pharmaceutical interventions for anxiety, making them a safe and viable option for these patients. While more research is needed in this area, it seems that using psychedelics as part of palliative care may be an effective way to help end-of-life patients manage their anxiety and improve their quality of life during this challenging time.
Psychedelic Chaplaincy is growing in the United States. The field is new and growing, with spiritual care providers of faith-specific and interfaith approaches supporting those undergoing psychedelic therapy. As clinical trials, legalization, and adoption continue, chaplains will continue to be included in the therapeutic team, providing emotional and spiritual guidance for patients. Chaplains are trained in cultural sensitivity, giving spiritual care to anyone. They have empathic self-awareness, non-reactive and stable presence, compassion-based resiliency, spiritual and religious assessment, and ethical decision-making skills.
This list will get more significant as awareness and acceptance of these medicines grow.
Jamie Beachy: Psychedelic Chaplaincy – Naropa University (https://www.naropa.edu/podcast/jamie-bcheachy-psychedelic-chaplaincy/)
Lynda Elaine Carre’, Holistic Palliative & Hospice; Psychedelic Integration Wellspring Passages of Hudson Valley, New York LinkedIn
Colin Eckstein, MA Psychedelic Guide, and Inter/non-faith Chaplain linkedin.com/in/colineckstein
Keith Fiveson, M.Div, Interfaith, Mettatouch Ministry, Loving Kindness & Touch www.workmindfulness.com www.mettatouch.org
Chris Giuffré, Associate Chaplain at Scripps Mercy. LinkedIn
Angela Lutzenberger, MDiv, BCC – Interfaith Chaplain at Hospice of Southern Maine, LinkedIn
Daan Keiman: Spiritual Caregiver & Facilitator at Psilocybin Retreat in the Netherland – (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=komLCzg_eAE
Sam Shonkoff: Professor of Jewish Studies at GTU https://www.lucid.news/chaplains-become-psychedelic-guides/)
Marta Rubinart Rufach, Ph.D., Chaplain, Psychology with Heart https://www.martarubinart.com/
Seraphim Schwab, Director of H.E.R.O.E.S and The Healing Tree Therapeutic Services.https://www.thepsychedelictherapist.org
Seraphim Schwab, Director of The Healing Tree, told me, “you can not prepare anyone for what they will experience. I try to ensure they have another person they trust to sit with me so they see a familiar face if they hit an anxious moment. I do what I can to educate the families on the medicine, what they might see, and how they can care for their loved ones until they pass while keeping myself available for follow-up if needed.”
Hospice and Palliative Care Centers: We increasingly see that hospice and palliative care centers may offer psychedelic-assisted therapy for end-of-life care when plant medicine becomes legalized and provided by healthcare professionals. The use of psychedelics in this context is used primarily to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression associated with the dying process. We will see these centers staffed by qualified professionals such as doctors, nurses, social workers, spiritual counselors, and other specialists dedicated to providing compassionate and individualized care to patients and their families during the most challenging times.
Cedar Psychiatry https://www.cedarpsychiatry.com/psychedelic-palliative-care
Aquilino Cancer Center, Maryland, psilocybin-assisted group therapy work positively impacts patients’ experiences during cancer treatment.
The number of available hospice or palliative care programs is limited at this time, given the legalities. Still, due to their existing oversight systems, palliative care programs are advantageous in providing psychedelic-assisted therapies safely and effectively. Medical professionals employ various techniques to maximize beneficial results from the sessions, including tailored patient evaluation, mindset preparation, a comfortable session environment with knowledgeable guides, and post-session counseling. In addition, clinicians must remain on standby in case of any adverse events that require immediate attention during or after the experience. Shoshana Ungerleider, M.D., an internist at Crossover Health in San Francisco, founder of the organization End Well, said. “We want people to be able to live fully until they die. If psychedelics are given in a controlled therapeutic environment with trained clinicians who can help them do that, then these medicines should be more widely available.”
Death Doulas: A death doula is a nonmedical professional trained to assist with end-of-life issues such as managing stress, organizing paperwork related to death, creating meaningful rituals around passing away, providing emotional support after losing a loved one, etc. Some death doulas are also knowledgeable about psychedelics and may be able to help navigate the process of obtaining them via prescription or other means. Here are a few that I have come across.
The Diaspora Psychedelic Society https://www.diasporapsychedelicsociety.org/ is a vibrant global community focused on using the power of psychedelics to assist those navigating end-of-life experiences.
Christina Ingenito, LCSW, Petaluma, CA – Website
Michael Henry LLB Law – Website
Heather A Lee – LCSW
Catherine Durkin Robinson – The University of Vermont’s End-of-Life Doula Program – Website
Angela Ward, RN – Nurse in Seattle, WA – Psychedelic Support
Lisa Yeager, MSW, LICSW, CPTR, Bellingham, WA US – Psychedelic Support
End of Life Doula Alliance (EOLD) is an organization that helps people navigate the dying process through education, advocacy, connection to resources, and support. The EOLD team comprises a few experienced professionals who are well-versed in using psychedelics during end-of-life care.
Abby Lutz, RN, and Death Doula- 704-740-8700, email@example.com LinkedIn
Suzanne B. O’Brien, RN and Owner, Doulagivers, firstname.lastname@example.org
Heather A. Lee, LCSW, email@example.com
Dr. Pamela Kryskow, MD, firstname.lastname@example.org
Francesca Arnoldy, EoL Doula, Author, EoL Researcher, email@example.com
Dr. Manish Agrawal, MD, Aquilino Cancer Center, Sunstone Therapies, firstname.lastname@example.org
Brian Richards, PsyD, Sunstone Therapies, email@example.com
Christine Caldwell, EoL Psychedelic Care Educator.firstname.lastname@example.org
Psychedelic Death Doulas are specialized members of the end-of-life care team dedicated to providing compassionate support and guidance to those in transition. Abby Lutz, an experienced Registered Nurse and Certified Death Doula in Colorado shared the incredible story of Gay – her client – who she worked with to create a meaningful death through psychedelic-assisted therapies such as Ketamine and legal entheogens. With Abby’s help, Gay could explore music, movement, and dance that brought her a sense of joy and peace at the end of her life. With Abby’s help, Gay danced her last dance before dying with her family nearby.
Psychedelic-assisted therapies allow people to find greater insight into their lives and death itself, which is not always achievable without the aid of psychedelics.
Psychedelic EOL Retreats: Psychedelic tourism with retreats focusing on death and dying offer experiences in a safe setting under the guidance of experienced facilitators. Depending on the type of retreat chosen (such as focusing on healing from grief or understanding life’s purpose), some retreats may offer guided rituals using psychedelics for those dealing with a terminal illness or preparing for death. The goal is usually physical healing from any illnesses and mental healing through introspective exploration facilitated by psychedelic substances like ayahuasca or ibogaine in combination with other practices such as meditation and breathwork.
- Ian-Michael is co-founder of Holos, an organization of holistic healing centers and communities, launching first at https://holos.global.
- Beckley Foundation
- Roots to Thrive, Dr. Pam Kryskow – Website
- SoundMind Center https://soundmind.center/
As we continue to uncover the many potential benefits of psychedelics as powerful medicines, they may provide valuable alternatives for dealing with physical and emotional experiences that accompany end-of-life care. While more research is needed, these treatments could be especially beneficial when conventional pharmaceuticals or other options are unsuccessful or cause adverse reactions. Given the immense suffering experienced by many individuals at the end of life, exploring the potential benefits of psychedelics, the research shows that they could have profound implications for improving quality of life and supporting a meaningful transition into death.
Ultimately, whether or not psychedelics can be helpful at the end of life depends on several factors, including an individual’s beliefs and preferences regarding death and mental and physical health status. However, those open to exploring these substances’ use in this context may offer a powerful tool for facilitating a conscious transition through this pivotal moment in life.
The science and research at John Hopkins Medical Center, Imperial College London, NYU Medical Center, and Yale all show the potential benefits of psychedelics in end-of-life or palliative care settings. This includes reducing anxiety and depression in patients and helping them come to terms with their mortality and reflect on their life experiences. By studying these effects in more detail, researchers hope to develop effective treatment protocols that healthcare providers can use to help patients struggling with end-of-life issues. This could significantly improve the quality of care for individuals facing terminal illnesses or other aging-related health challenges. Psychedelics may seem like an unusual strategy for coping with death, dying, and challenging experiences associated with end-of-life. However, research suggests that psychedelics have the potential to help people deal with their fears surrounding death and dying, as well as the grief and mourning that often accompany the loss of a loved one.
While more research is needed to understand how psychedelics can help people navigate the unique challenges associated with death and dying, I believe that these studies point the way toward a future where pain and suffering may be alleviated by these substances that have the potential when dealing with these difficult experiences.
Authors Note: This article presents research and should not be considered advice. However, the author is an MDiv and offers mindfulness-based, psychedelic-assisted guidance for individuals grappling with end-of-life concerns. For more information, go to http://WorkMindfulness.com — and listen to The Mindfulness Experience podcast.