As concerns mount in the United States about the over-prescription and diversion of opioid medications and the dangers of these medications, medical cannabis is finally making inroads in integrative treatment plans for chronically or terminally ill patients.
Charlotte Igo, a UPG conference presenter and speaker, is a specialist and trailblazer in the emerging field of medical marijuana for palliative care and cannabis in hospice settings. She is the driving force behind the first hospice in Arizona to offer a program based around alternative hospice treatments, including medical cannabis.
Beyond its well-documented abilities to reduce physical symptoms associated with life-limiting illness, Sunil Aggarwal, MD, PhD, notes in Current Oncology four specific ways that medical cannabis can help relieve “spiritual and existential suffering” related to end-of life care:
- Medical marijuana delivers a mild sense of euphoria and sense of well-being
- It enhances the senses, heightening awareness of moment-to-moment presence and allowing individuals to “stop and smell the roses”
- Medical cannabis may help to reduce psychological trauma by helping to extinguish aversive memories and resulting anxious thoughts and behaviors
- It has the potential to trigger spiritual insights that “could very well play an important therapeutic role for patients faced with the despair of a terminal malady and the loss of function that normally accompanies it.”
While Aggarwal focuses on the benefits of medical cannabis for terminally ill patients, there are, of course, others who are also suffering spiritually and emotionally during and after a terminal illness: Mothers, fathers, siblings, friends and other loved ones who are facing the imminent loss of somebody they love deeply.
At the end of the patient’s life, a new journey begins for those they leave behind; the walk through grief. In many cases, the voyage can be long and take a significant emotional and physical toll.
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The Course of Grief After a Loved One’s Illness and Loss
The “normal” grieving process was first described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 in the book On Death and Dying. Her initial five-stage model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) was descriptive, based on direct observation of people who were themselves in the process of dying. As such, it was not intended to correspond precisely with the grieving process of those left behind.
In the decades since, the Kübler-Ross grief model has been refined and extended. Even so, the term “normal grieving process” is a misnomer.
Grief is a different experience for everybody. It doesn’t progress in a single, straight line. It has no particular set timeframe. Grieving people may return to “previous” stages over and over again as they negotiate the complicated emotional landscape of adjusting to a new life without their loved one in it.
For those who also spend months or years caring for a severely ill child, spouse or loved one, the earliest stages of grief—shock, numbness, denial, anger, fear and panic—may begin at the loved one’s diagnosis. This is anticipatory grief, and may reappear throughout the entire duration of the loved one’s illness.
Loneliness and depression are common at all stages of caregiving and grief, as well as sleep disturbances and anxiety, emotional outbursts, anger and fear.
When Life after Loss Doesn’t Get Better: Recognizing and Treating Complicated Grief
The acute stage of grief is said to end when the bereaved are able to function and focus on new relationships, patterns, finding hope and reaching out to help others. That’s what the parents of Cashy Hyde did when they formed a foundation in their son’s name, The Cash Hyde Foundation to raise awareness of medical cannabis and pediatric cancer. Some people arrive at this point within six months after a loss; for others, it may take a years.
For others, however, reaching this “new normal” may not happen quickly, smoothly, or easily.
Complicated grief is different. In around 10 percent of people, rather than fading with time, grief symptoms either persist as strongly as appeared at the time of the loved one’s death, or even grow worse.
People with complicated grief generally display four or more of the following symptoms:
- Continue to have intense longing, craving, or pining for the person they lost
- Are bitter about their loss
- Cannot accept the death
- Feel their life has no purpose
- Focus on little other than the loved one’s death
- May have sleep disorders (sleeping too much or too little)
- Ruminate on traumatic and/or disturbing memories or thoughts about the loved one’s illness and loss
- Feel emotionally numb after the loss
- Have general difficulty moving on after the death of their loved one.
If these symptoms persist for more than six months, a professional therapist may diagnose complicated grief.
Complicated grief is more likely to occur when a close caregiver has lost a loved one to cancer, AIDS, or other severe life-limiting illness—unsurprisingly, many of which are illnesses for which cannabis is an appropriate palliative or hospice treatment option.
Left untreated, grief—even uncomplicated grief—can morph into depression.
According to the Mayo Clinic, some additional common risk factors for complicated grief include:
- A loved one’s sudden, unexpected or violent death
- Death of a child
- A close or dependent relationship to the deceased person (parent or spouse)
- Lack of a strong support system or close friendships
- A past history of depression or other mental health issues
- Traumatic childhood experiences (e.g., as abuse or neglect)
- A general lack of resilience or adaptability to life changes
- Other concurrent major life stressors (financial problems, job insecurity, etc.)
Many of the symptoms of complicated grief mirror those of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), both of which are among the medical conditions that can be treated with medical cannabis.
Conventional medical treatment for complicated grief is generally psychological therapy, along with a prescription for antidepressants. But prescription medications, of course, are not the only option for helping to cope with this constellation of symptoms, including anxiety, sleep disorders, depression, perseverating on aversive memories, and the inability to move on that characterizes complicated grief.
Medical cannabis for grief may be an integrative option, along with appropriate grief therapy.
Are You Having a Difficult Time Adjusting After a Loss?
You are never alone.
United Patients Group has assembled a directory of medical cannabis professionals who are passionate practitioners of integrative medicine and who understand the benefits of medical cannabis for a wide range of needs. You can use the directory to find help in your area or reach out and schedule a consultation with us directly.