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How Psychedelics Are Helping the Dying Make Peace With the Other Side

I interviewed a real 'death doula' about the future of end-of-life care. Fear of the unknown? Try tripping balls on LSD

There are four major fears people have about dying. First is the process: pain, discomfort, helplessness. Second, the fear of what’s next, if anything; what happens when this ride is over? Third, what philosopher Thomas Nagel describes as the deprivation of all the good stuff life rewards us with (so, basically, FOMO). And finally, a fear of a life not fully lived.

What can help alleviate these anxieties as one nears the end of life? Tripping balls on LSD.

Alua Arthur is a death doula — the founder and CEO of Going With Grace, a team of “end-of-life planners” who guide you through the practical, spiritual and emotional stuff that inevitably comes up as you prepare to die.

“I support people through death,” she tells MEL. “I support healthy people too, when they start thinking about death. I help them make plans, and then when it comes time to really enact those plans, when they’re nearing end of life, I help them get clear on the fact that this is happening. I work with them and their family, help wrap up their affairs, and if there’s any sort of ritual they’d like to do at their end of life we make that happen.”

Basically, treating funeral services like how I tend bar — talking frankly and openly with a smile on everyone’s face. And why not? Avoiding talking about death isn’t doing us any favors. According to a now-global network of doctors, ministers, undertakers, academics and everyday (but quite informed) folk fondly dubbed the death-positive movement, we’re limiting our ability to enjoy life by refusing to talk about and practically consider our deaths.

Arthur would agree. She is also an attorney, adjunct professor and ordained minister, and she gave a hell of a talk in Boston last month about psychedelics (the title: “Gently Opening the Doorway to Existence”). It was part of the 2018 Death Salon, the largest public event thrown by the Order of the Good Death — a group, founded by mortician Caitlin Doughty, that advocates “a culture with a more open, honest engagement with death.”

Increasingly, Arthur says, the death care community (yes, death care) is making space for drugs like LSD and psilocybin in how we humans engage with our mortality. It helps people process their fears around death, Arthur explains: “If you’re familiar with the psychedelic experience, you are familiar with the place where things are no longer what they used to be, where you are making new sense of the experience you’re having.”

Science is coming to a similar conclusion. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) recently completed its first double-blind study of treating end-of-life anxiety with LSD and found positive trends in anxiety reduction after two sessions with the drug. (The second phase of the research is forthcoming.)

New York University also recently published the results of a 2016 study, “Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial,” confirming that doses of psilocybin not only quickly allowed terminal cancer patients to conquer their fears and anxiety over dying, but those fears and anxieties remained dormant long after the end of the patient’s trip.

One NYU subject was Richard, 53, who was dying of cancer and concerned about how his death was going to affect his children. After a psilocybin dose, he came to a “really powerful realization” that it was his mission to teach them about death in order to alleviate their fear, too:

Yes, I’m afraid of dying and I’m afraid of the unknown, but I can’t really do anything about that. … I really felt completely transformed, you know, I had a mission. I am a parent and I’m dying and who else are they gonna ask, you know? Who better to ask: ‘What is it like, how do you feel?’ And I just have to do this, I have to talk to them and I gotta talk honestly and we have to be open and share our feelings.

In studies dating as far back as the early 1960s, Alua says, people treated with psychedelics as they were nearing the end of their lives “felt themselves connected to something much bigger than life on this plane, started to feel whatever their role in life was complete; that their purpose was fulfilled by living itself.”

They were, in other words, no longer afraid.

Perhaps this was the conclusion Brave New World author and hallucinogen scholar Aldous Huxley came to when, in 1963, it was clear the laryngeal cancer he’d been battling would end him, and he requested a shot of LSD in his bicep. His last words are rumored to be: “I thought so.”

But let’s be real about what this treatment is — and is not. No one today (well, no one willing to talk about it or try to get government funding for it, anyway) is injecting the terminally ill with acid to help them cross over, like Huxley.

What researchers are doing with psilocybin and LSD is administer doses of one of these drugs to people with diagnosed terminal illnesses to help them face and, ideally, conquer their fears and anxieties about their deaths.

“The psychedelic experience means you are in a place that you are willing to bet that your perceptions are a gamble,” Alua says. “That state of mind is a great opportunity to start exploring what might be out there, which is altered states of consciousness.”

As Ram Dass and Timothy Leary — both names now synonymous with hallucinogens — described in 1964’s The Psychedelic Experience, “You must be ready to accept the possibility that there is an unlimited range of awareness … that can expand beyond the range of your ego and your familiar identity.”

How would things change for us — the grieving and the dying — if we all had a chance to open our minds like this in order to process an event like death?

Liana Gillooly, development officer for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, spoke about this in her TEDx Talk, “Is There a Better Way to Die?” “Perhaps, if we welcome this conversation into our homes,” she says, “we can transform the traumatizing grief that so often comes with [the death of someone close] into what it really is: love.”

My biggest question: If you’ve done acid, do you develop a better idea of what dying is going to be like?

“Not necessarily,” Alua says. “But if you’ve done acid, you probably have some awareness of the letting go you need to do, and also the total surrender to whatever the fuck is going on.”

I thought so.