Potential Use of
, Marc Aixala
, and Magı
The death of a loved one is ultimately a universal experience. However, conventional
interventions employed for people suffering with uncomplicated grief have gathered
little empirical support. The present study aimed to explore the potential effects of
ayahuasca on grief. We compared 30 people who had taken ayahuasca with 30 people
who had attended peer-support groups, measuring level of grief and experiential
avoidance. We also examined themes in participant responses to an open-ended
question regarding their experiences with ayahuasca. The ayahuasca group presented
a lower level of grief in the Present Feelings Scale of Texas Revised Inventory of Grief,
showing benefits in some psychological and interpersonal dimensions. Qualitative
responses described experiences of emotional release, biographical memories, and
experiences of contact with the deceased. Additionally, some benefits were identified
regarding the ayahuasca experiences. These results provide preliminary data about
the potential of ayahuasca as a therapeutic tool in treatments for grief.
grief, ayahuasca, peer-support group, therapy, continuing bonds
OMEGA—Journal of Death and
!The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
ICEERS—International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research & Service, Roosendaal, The
Centro de Estudos em Desenvolvimento Humano (CEDH), Faculdade de Educac¸a
˜o e Psicologia,
´lica Portuguesa, Rua Diogo Botelho, Portugal
Autonomous University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
Department of Clinical Pharmacology, Hospital Universitari Germans Trias i Pujol (IGTP), Badalona, Spain
´lez, International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research & Service, Carrer de la
Cendra, 8, 08001 Barcelona, Spain.
Grief associated with the death of a loved one is nearly universal, being one of
the most painful experiences we will all likely have at some point in our lives. In
the early aftermath of a death, people can experience feeling stunned or shocked,
emotionally numb, diﬃculty accepting the loss, mistrust of others, bitterness
over the loss, confusion about one’s role in life, a diminished sense of self,
and diﬃculty moving on with life (Prigerson et al., 2009). Healthy and adaptive
people typically ﬁnd the uncontrollable emotionality of acute grief disconcerting
or even shameful or frightening (Zisook & Shear, 2009). When some of these
symptoms persist for at least 6 months and are associated with signiﬁcant func-
tional impairment, they have been called prolonged grief disorder (PGD;
Prigerson et al., 2009).
Interventions available to providers to target grief include pharmacotherapy,
counseling, peer-support groups, and psychotherapy interventions. There is a
growing interest in the development of new intervention models for PGD that
show potential as eﬀective interventions to ameliorate the prolonged grief
response (Peri, Hasson-Ohayon, Garber, Tuval-Mashiach, & Boelen, 2016;
Wenn, O’Connor, Breen, Kane, & Ress, 2015). These cases represent the
extreme end of a continuum of bereavement responses that aﬀects 9.8% of
the population (Lundorﬀ, Holmgren, Zachariae, Farver-Vestergaard,
O’Connor, 2017). However, qualitative (Jordan & Neimeyer, 2003; Schut &
Stroebe, 2005; Schut, Stroebe, Van den Bout, & Terheggen, 2001) and quanti-
tative reviews (Currier, Neimeyer, & Berman, 2008; Murphy, Lipp, & Powles,
2012; Waller et al., 2015) have found that little empirical support exists for the
eﬀectiveness of universal interventions employed with the majority of people
who suﬀer from uncomplicated grief.
Peters, Cunningham, Murphy, and Jackson (2016) have reviewed harmful
and beneﬁcial interventions reported by family members aﬀected by the suicide
of a loved one. Peer-support groups were among the higher rated interventions
because they allow sharing memories of their loved ones with others, and par-
ticipants can reconstruct meaningful relationships with their inner and social
worlds. Walter (1999) claims that the purpose of grief is to enable bereaved
individuals to construct a durable autobiography, so they can integrate the
memories of the deceased into their continuing lives. The beneﬁts of peer-sup-
port groups have been reﬂected in other studies, which claim that peer-support
groups allow people to express their feelings without judgment, feel less lonely
and isolated (Aho A
˚stedt-Kurki & Kaunonen, 2013–2014; Murphy, 2000;
Stevenson et al., 2016), maintain attachment to the deceased (McCreight,
2004), and deal with spiritual issues (Geron, Ginzburg, & Solomon, 2003;
Reilly-Smorawski, Armstrong, & Catlin, 2002). However, those experiencing
grief also indicate that they did not feel ready or emotionally capable of parti-
cipating in a peer-support group because it was emotionally diﬃcult or they
simply did not want to share their experiences or feelings (Stevenson et al.,
2OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 0(0)
These ﬁndings reﬂect how highly personal in nature reactions to loss are and
how each person copes with the loss in qualitatively diﬀerent ways. The intensity
and duration of grief can vary not only in diﬀerent people dealing with osten-
sibly similar losses but also in the same individual over time or after diﬀerent
losses. Multiple factors determine the intensity and duration of the grief, such as
the individual’s genetic makeup and unique vulnerabilities; preexisting person-
ality; attachment style; the nature of the relationship; the number of losses,
support, and resources; and type of loss, age, health, cultural identity, or spir-
ituality (Zisook & Shear, 2009). Given the wide range of ways one may experi-
ence grief, our eﬀorts have focused on the search for potential new tools for
assisting the bereaved in clinical practice.
Ayahuasca as a Therapeutic Tool
The word ‘‘ayahuasca’’ is derived from Quechua language—aya meaning ‘‘dead
person, spirit, soul, or ancestor’’ and huasca meaning ‘‘rope or vine’’ (Metzner,
2005). Ayahuasca is a pan-Amazonian botanical psychoactive concoction, which
traditionally has been used by indigenous and mestizo populations of Amazonian
countries as a herbal medicine for magical–religious and therapeutic purposes
(Schultes & Hofmann, 1992). The concoction is produced by boiling the stems of
the Banisteriopsis caapi liana with the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub (Schultes
&Hofmann,1992).B. caapi is rich in beta-carbolines, which have monoamine
oxidase-inhibiting properties, the main pharmacological mechanism of many anti-
depressants currently used in clinical practice (Meister et al., 2016). P. viridis con-
tains the hallucinogenic tryptamine N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) that acts as
an agonist of 5-HT-2A receptor sites, also associated with antidepressant and
anxiolytic eﬀects (Domı
´et al., 2016). Moreover, the agonist at this
receptor increases glutamatergic transmission that stimulates brain-derived neuro-
trophic factor release, promoting neurogenesis and neural plasticity (Baumeister,
Barnes, Giaroli, & Tracy, 2014). Recent research has also shown the cerebral
neuroplasticity triggered by DMT via activating the sigma-1 receptor (Fontanilla
et al., 2009). However, clinical research about the therapeutic eﬀects of ayahuasca is
still incipient, even if studies regarding its therapeutic potential on emotional symp-
toms are rapidly growing (Oso
´rio et al., 2015; Sanches et al., 2016), as well as on
other types of psychopathological symptomatology (Bouso et al., 2012; Dos
Santos, Landeira-Fernandez, Strassman, Motta, & Cruz, 2007; Halpern,
Sherwood, Passie, Blackwell, & Ruttenber, 2008). Regardless of this scenario,
there is abundant evidentiary literature of ayahuasca’s pharmacological safety in
healthy users (Dos Santos, 2013; Dos Santos et al., 2012; Riba et al., 2003).
The phenomenology of the experience of ayahuasca has been thoroughly
described (Riba et al., 2001, 2003). Forty-ﬁve minutes after taking ayahuasca,
people tend to feel the necessity to close their eyes and experience the onset of
´lez et al. 3
visual imagery, similar to a dream-like state. However, the awareness that the
visions are drug induced is never lost which is why they should not be considered
‘‘hallucinations.’’ In this introspective state, people tend to reﬂect on meaningful
personal themes, interlacing memories, thoughts, and emotions in a spontaneous
way. This type of experience holds great value for people who drink ayahuasca,
as they may be able to unlock emotions as well as have new insights into
personal concerns. It is not uncommon that ayahuasca-induced experience is
characterized as analogous to a psychotherapeutic intervention. After this initial
onset, the overall intensity then gradually decreases, returning to baseline at
between 4 and 6 hr after intake. However, one clinical trial in patients with
depression found that the antidepressant eﬀects of ayahuasca are maintained
up to 3 weeks after intake of a single dose, especially with regard to symptoms
referring to a depressed mood, feelings of guilt, suicidal ideation, and diﬃculties
at work (Sanches et al., 2016).
Given the growing interest in alternative medicines and therapeutic practices,
ayahuasca use has expanded across the world (Labate & Feeney, 2012).
Ayahuasca is used by Western and Amazonian people as a medicine, a sacra-
ment and a ‘‘teacher plant’’ (Tupper, 2008). This means that ayahuasca use has
been exported to the West while maintaining a ceremonial and ritual context
based on indigenous or religious traditions. These traditions often get inter-
twined with Western cultural elements related to therapeutic or personal
growth purposes (Sa
´nchez & Bouso, 2015).
The principal objective of this study was to explore the eﬀects of ayahuasca
on grief and to compare its potential therapeutic beneﬁts with peer-support
groups in a sample of grieving people.
Material and Method
This study was a mixed method, cross-sectional study, using an online survey
method. To develop it, we used the platform operated by Limesurvey (https://
www.limesurvey.org), which allowed the collection and preservation of the data
on a secure server that is accessible only to the researchers via a password.
Participants interested in participating could follow a link to enter the research
page, which included an introduction of the study and participants’ rights and
obligations. Participants then provided consent by clicking on corresponding
buttons on the page and then began completing the online questionnaire.
Participants who were taking ayahuasca during their grief process were recruited
via ICEERS’ blog (http://news.iceers.org/). The survey was created in Spanish
4OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 0(0)
(40%) and in English (60%) because this nonproﬁt organization has access to a
large international community who speak these two languages. Participants who
attended peer-support groups were recruited through the social media
(Facebook) pages of several organizations that deal with the theme of grief,
such as ‘‘Duelo compartido’’ (shared grief), ‘‘Grupos de ayuda mutua en
duelo’’ (grief support groups), ‘‘Creciendo a trave
´s del duelo’’ (growing through
´a: muerte, duelo y aceptacio
´n’’ (thanatology: death, grief, and
acceptance; 100% Spanish). Finally, the Foundation Hospital Sant Jaume i
Santa Magdalena (Spain) also facilitated the collection of a pencil and paper
version of the interview protocol from participants of their peer-support groups.
The inclusion criteria included having been confronted with the loss of a ﬁrst-
degree relative (spouse, parent, child, or sibling) within the last 5 years (60
months). In order to increase group homogeneity participants who rated very
low on the Past Feelings Scale were excluded, using a cut oﬀ of Texas Revised
Inventory of Grief (TRIG) Past Feelings Scale 13, which was the minimum
obtained in the ayahuasca group. We excluded 32 participants (14 from the
ayahuasca group and 18 from the peer-support group) who did not ﬁll the
criteria or presented over 25% incomplete answers. We identiﬁed n¼60 parti-
cipants (n¼30 ayahuasca group; n¼30 peer-support group) who met the
required inclusion criteria.
General Characteristics Bereavement Questionnaire. We designed a questionnaire for
online completion, drawing on topics that emerged from grief literature
(Prigerson et al., 2009; Zisook & Shear, 2009). We sent this questionnaire to a
preliminary group of 10 people to facilitate revisions. The ﬁnal questionnaire
contained 30 closed-ended questions and one open-ended question. Closed-
ended questions covered respondents’ sociodemographics, bereavement
characteristics in subset of grievers, early treatments, and psychological and inter-
personal dimensions inﬂuenced by the treatment (ayahuasca or peer-support
groups). The last variable was dichotomous (yes/no items).
At the end of the questionnaire, participants in the ayahuasca group were
asked one open-ended question—‘‘Finally, we would appreciate it if you
described in your own words your personal experience of how ayahuasca inﬂu-
enced your grieving process’’—a method has been used by other researchers
(Davis, Nolen-Hoeksema, & Larson 1998; Uren & Wastell, 2002). The purpose
of this question was to collect data about the most signiﬁcant components of the
ayahuasca experience related by the grievers. Participants could elect to not
answer this question and still be included in the study.
Texas Revised Inventory of Grief. The TRIG was designed by Faschingbauer (1981)
to evaluate the level of grief in bereavement from the loss of a loved one.
´lez et al. 5
This questionnaire includes two scales: Past Feelings Scale, which uses 8 items to
measure the initial grief response following the death of a loved one, and Present
Feelings Scale, which uses 13 items to measure the current emotional state at the
time of completion of the questionnaire. Participants indicate their response to
each question using a 5-point scale (1 ¼completely false;5¼completely true).
The TRIG was scored by calculating the average scores in each subscale corre-
sponding to a higher level of grief in bereavement. The validation of the instru-
ment in Spanish was done by Garcı
´a, Petralanda, Manzano, and Inda (2005). It
showed a high internal consistency of both scales. In the present study, the
English and the Spanish versions of the questionnaire were used.
Acceptance and Action Questionnaire (AAQ-II). The AAQ-II was developed by Bond
et al. (2011) to measure experiential avoidance. The AAQ-II contains seven
items that assess only one scale called experiential avoidance. Participants indi-
cate their response to each question using a 7-point scale (1 ¼never true;
7¼always true). The AAQ-II was scored by adding all the items, with higher
scores corresponding to greater experiential avoidance. The validation of the
instrument in Spanish was done by Ruiz, Luciano, Cangas, and Beltra
In the present study, the English and the Spanish versions of the questionnaire
The protocol was approved by a local research Ethics Committee (CEIC-Parc de
Salut Mar, Barcelona, Spain), and the study was conducted in accordance with
the Declaration of Helsinki. Participants signed an informed consent and were
not ﬁnancially compensated for their participation.
Quantitative data analysis. The data were analyzed using the SPSS 15.0 statistics
package. Results are presented as means and percentages. Diﬀerences between
groups were analyzed using a ttest in the case of continuous variables (or
Mann–Whitney U test) and using a
test for categorical variables (in some
cases Fisher’s test). A value of p<.05 was considered statistically signiﬁcant.
Qualitative data analysis. Qualitative data from the only open-ended question gen-
erated a rich amount of data. These data were analyzed with qualitative content
analysis (Graneheim & Lundman, 2004). We used directed content analysis—the
deductive use of existing theory or prior research to better understand a pre-
viously explored phenomenon and establish key concepts or variables as initial
coding categories (Potter & Levine-Donnerstein, 1999)—to validate or concep-
tually extend a theoretical framework (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). The ﬁrst and
6OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 0(0)
second authors analyzed the qualitative data from the questionnaires indepen-
dently. The analysis was performed in several steps. First, the text was read
several times, and text relevant to the research was marked. Meaning units
were then identiﬁed, condensed, and grouped together into subthemes and
themes through an inductive and deductive approach (Graneheim &
Lundman, 2004; Patton, 2002). Thus, units were counted at the level of the
respondent, so that participants who provided longer written narratives were
not given more weight in the analyses. Throughout the analysis, themes and
subthemes were discussed between the authors to ensure the results were inter-
preted as objectively as possible. Any diﬀerences were discussed until a consen-
sus was reached. This method leads to a deeper understanding of the results by
allowing us to identify the most relevant aspects of the ayahuasca experience. It
is important to note that eight participants mentioned aspects from more than
one experience with ayahuasca that related to their grief process. Finally, we
identiﬁed n¼180 independent meaning units across participants’ responses.
Sixty participants were included in the ﬁnal analysis (n¼30 ayahuasca group;
n¼30 peer-support group). Demographic characteristics were similar between
groups (Table 1). We noted no signiﬁcant diﬀerences in age, sex, university
degree, and religion.
No diﬀerences were found in death-related variables, such as time since death
(ayahuasca group: 33.17 months (SD 18.64; 6–60 months); peer-support group:
28.10 months (SD 20.87; 4–60 months; p¼.224), and number of losses of sig-
niﬁcant people (ayahuasca group: 2.93; SD 2.203 (1–7); peer-support group:
3.00; (SD 1.82; 1–8; p¼.887). Bereavement characteristics in subset of grievers
are displayed in Table 2.
For the ayahuasca group, the average number of ayahuasca sessions whose
content had direct repercussions on their process of grief was 6.07 (SD 7.64;
[range: 1–30]). Of the 30 participants, 18 (60%) took ayahuasca with the inten-
tion of addressing the issue of grief, six people (20%) were not sure about their
intentionality and for six participants (20%) the content related to grief arose
spontaneously. Twenty-ﬁve participants (83.3%) believed their ayahuasca-drink-
ing experience had a very positive inﬂuence on their grieving process and ﬁve
(16.7%) felt it had a positive inﬂuence. Of the seven participants who attended
psychotherapy, four did it before taking ayahuasca, two participants were parti-
cipating in both psychotherapy and ayahuasca sessions during the same period of
time, and just one attended psychotherapy after doing ayahuasca.
With the peer-support group, participants attended a peer-support group
during a mean of 12.18 months (SD 9.5 [range 1–36]). Seventeen participants
´lez et al. 7
(56.7%) believed it had a very positive inﬂuence on their grieving process and 13
(43.3%) a positive inﬂuence.
Psychological and interpersonal dimensions inﬂuenced by ayahuasca or by
the peer-support group for grief are shown in Table 3.
Diﬀerences were found regarding preoccupations with thoughts and mem-
ories (p.01), ability to forgive oneself and others (p.05), self-conception
(p.01), recoding life history (p.01), the ability to give sense to their life
(p.01), and the integration of transcendental dimension of life and death
(p.01). In these items, the ayahuasca group obtained higher beneﬁts compared
with the peer-support group.
Outcomes in TRIG show diﬀerences in the current emotional Present
Feelings Scale (p.001). AAQ-II shows no diﬀerences in experiential avoidance
between groups (p>.05) (Table 4).
We identiﬁed two diﬀerent themes in the narratives that emerged from the open-
ended question asked to the ayahuasca group, regarding:
1. The content of the experience, and
2. The beneﬁts of the ayahuasca experience related to the grief process.
Table 1. Demographic Data of the Study Sample.
Variable Ayahuasca group Peer-support group
Age (year; mean [SD]; range) 42.33 (8.79); (25–62) 46.43 (11.196); (26–70)
Gender (female) (%) 66.7 76.7
University degree (%) 70 60
Marital status (Column %)
Single 46.7 3.3
Married 43.3 60
Separated 10 10
Widowed 0 26.7
Number of children (mean; [SD]; (range) 0.73 (0.907); (0–2) 1.53 (1.14); (0–4)
Number of cohabiting people 1.33 (1.32); (0–5) 1.80 (1.5); (0–7)
Religion (Column %)
Atheist 90 83.3
Catholic 0 16.7
Santo Daimes 6.7 0
Sikhs 3.3 0
Note. Patients who had taken ayahuasca (n¼30) or attended a peer-support group (n¼30).
8OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 0(0)
Content of the experience. Three subthemes were identiﬁed within the narratives of
the ayahuasca experience: emotional release, biographical memories, and contact
with the deceased. Another subtheme emerged to agglomerate other themes that
did not ﬁt any of the major themes: others.
Table 2. Loss-Related Characteristics of Grievers Who Had Taken Ayahuasca (n¼30) or
Attended a Peer-Support Group (n¼30).
Variable Ayahuasca group (%) Peer-support group (%)
Relationship to respondents
Father 40 6.7
Mother 23.3 10
Sibling 16.7 6.7
Child 10 50
Partner 10 26.6
Quality of the relationship
Positive 76.7 89.7
Ambiguous 23.3 10.3
Cause of death
Suicide 6.7 3.3
Miscarriage 10 26.7
Accident 13.3 16.7
Illness 70 43.3
Homicide 0 6.7
Medical negligence 0 3.3
None at all 18.5 3.6
A little 48.2 39.2
Quite a bit 25.9 28.6
A lot 7.4 28.6
Attended psychotherapy 24.1 63
Impact of the psychotherapy
Scarcely 28.6 0
Positively 71.4 95.8
Negatively 0 4.2
Medication 6.9 85.7
Impact of the medication
Scarcely 100 28.6
Positively 0 71.4
´lez et al. 9
Emotional release. Almost to all participants (22/23) referred to an emotional
dimension of the ayahuasca experience. The tonality of those emotional dimen-
sions varies being in some cases a positive emotion such as extremely happy or
amazing joy and in other cases a more negative emotion such as confusion or
fear. About a third of the participants (8/23) refer to experiences of confronta-
tion with grief, sadness and suﬀering, expressing themselves in terms of grief,
struggle, pain or sorrow. Further, some participants recognized they had been
Table 3. Percentages of Participants Who Responded Affirmatively to the Items Included
in the Survey.
During the grieving process ...
(ayahuasca or peer-support group)
had a direct beneficial impact on ...
group (%) pValue
...accepting the loss 80 65.5 .211
...my emotional state 83.3 85.7 >.999z
...my preoccupation with thoughts and memories 93.1 62.1 .005
...my ability to appreciate human relationships 72.4 55.2 .172
...my ability to forgive myself and others 66.7 34.5 .013
...the conception I had of myself or of the roles I had
...adopted in my life
93.1 63.0 .006
...the way I perceived my past or my life history 71.4 35.7 .007
...my attitude and my outlook on the future 92.6 75.0 .143z
...my ability to make sense of my life and life itself 86.2 53.6 .007
...my ability to integrate a transcendental dimension
...of life and death
76.7 42.9 .009
zFisher’s exact test.
Table 4. Outcomes in the Survey Response.
Measures group group pValue
TRIG Past Feelings Scale (SD) 22.68 (7.7) 19.7 (5.5) .082
TRIG Present Feelings Scale (SD) 43.51 (9.1) 34.3 (11.0) .001***
AAQ-II (SD) 2.52 (1.03) 2.77 (1.39) .433
Note. AAQ ¼Acceptance and Action Questionnaire.
10 OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 0(0)
avoiding their feelings (3/23) and were confronted with their emotions during the
I was partying to forget until I drank ayahuasca, [...] confronting me with my grief
and loss. It was comforting and felt good to let the emotions ﬂow, letting go of
As exempliﬁed in this excerpt, the references to the positive impact emerging
from emotional release are frequent. A woman who lost her mother expressed
herself more abstractly and metaphorically:
In this process, I cried a lot out of love and in every cry I placed my mom in my
heart and soul, and all that good will be passed on generation to generation. (6)
Some ﬁndings refer to experiencing deep emotional empathy regarding the life
circumstances and the emotions experienced by the deceased (3/24). In these
experiences, the intensity of the emotional component promotes closeness and
understanding toward the loved one. A woman had lost her brother who had
bipolar and substance abuse disorder explains:
I could feel the pain he experienced when he was alive. It was the worst kind of
psychological, emotional and physical pain imaginable. (9)
Two participants describe unique experiences. Under the eﬀects of ayahuasca,
they experienced archetypal visions and the emotional burden the griever carried
seemed to be transferred to the archetype. In one of these cases, we identiﬁed a
single example of psychosomatic healing described. This category was not antici-
pated in the analysis since there are no references to this kind of experience in the
theoretical framework of conventional psychotherapy. Therefore, this category
emerged inductively from the data. Both participants were women:
I had one ceremony when a wolf came to me and somehow I turned into this wolf
and the anger I was feeling was given a container in this animal spirit. It’s hard to
explain but it helped enormously. (4)
I had a vision of a giant black Buddha/ Hindu-like God reach down and suck the
pain from my heart. I had been experiencing physical tenderness and pain in my
chest area for over two years (yes, my broken heart). After this ceremony, it was
completely gone. (10)
Biographical memories. Some participants (6/23) refer to having reexperienced
biographical memories. Some of them refer to reexperiencing death-related
´lez et al. 11
events. However, others refer to reexperiencing long-forgotten events involving
the deceased or reviewing their personal history to arrive at new meanings for
their own life history. This process seems to promote the understanding of
meaningful life events from a diﬀerent point of view, regarding the deceased
as well as oneself. A young man who had struggled during childhood with the
feelings of being neglected by his family because of his father’s marriage to
another woman decided to take ayahuasca following his father’s traumatic
death, with the intention of ﬁnding answers for his painful process:
Aya [ayahuasca] took me back to my childhood and showed me memories of times
with my parents and other family members, a time when I was loved and accepted.
They were good memories and reminded me I had a good foundation to go back to.
It helped me see that subsequent events (losing my mom at age 10 and sick sister)
aﬀected my father and how he coped and found new love and how that is what
he needed. He did not love me less, he just needed a woman more. Hard lesson, but
aya transmitted this to me in a gentle way. (11)
Experiences of contact with the deceased. Surprisingly, over half of the parti-
cipants (15/23) shared having experienced direct contact with the presence, essence,
soul or energy of the deceased, having been able to establish some form of com-
munication with them. In some cases, this communication allowed for the resolu-
tion of issues that had remained unresolved, in a way that was seen as potentially
aﬀecting the future: ‘‘He [the deceased] told me some profound things that could
occur in the future for our family.’’ In other cases, the encounter allowed a fare-
well that wasn’t possible in real life. The following participant describes:
’I had the feeling of losing consciousness, but I did not lose it. [...] A force drew
from my chest a heart-wrenching cry when I felt that caress on my ﬁst, which made
me let go of the shawl I was holding. There was a breath of life and of death, that
led me to a perfect connection of my being with that of my father. And, like the
ﬂight of a hummingbird, it left with the soft perfume of pipe tobacco (my father
smoked it). I had the real sensation that my father had come to say goodbye to me
physically on earth with that last caress. (17)
Others. Other types of experiences were found in the data. An experience
occurred with purging and no visions and two experiences were focused on love.
Benefits from the ayahuasca experience related to grief. All participants indicated
perceived beneﬁts related to the loss that had resulted from the ayahuasca
experience. In fact, eight participants mentioned that the experience was an
opportunity,agreat help, or a blessing that marked their lives very signiﬁcantly,
as if it were possible to deﬁne a before and after in life, oﬀered by ayahuasca.
12 OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 0(0)
Six subthemes emerged from the ayahuasca experience: positive feelings, forgive-
ness and family healing, reorganizing identity and sense of self, changes in the
internal representation of the deceased and maintenance of connection, and
changes in global beliefs and personal growth
Positive feelings. Over half of the participants (7/23) expressed that ayahuasca
had helped them accept the loss of their loved one as part of a process, as
something natural or as part of the cycle of life. The use of expressions to describe
their emotional states was also common (16/23), such as celestial peace, love,
tranquility, understanding, enlightenment, quietness, thankfulness and happiness.
In the words of a woman who had lost her mother:
We had a diﬃcult relationship but by the end I had dropped into a very simple,
profound love for her and I am profoundly grateful to ayahuasca for that. (4)
Forgiveness and family healing. Several participants (6/23) expressed having
been able to forgive the deceased, themselves or their family members
through the ayahuasca experience: ‘‘I found true forgiveness for my brother
for his suicide. I also found true forgiveness for myself for not being able to
stop him.’’ In some cases, forgiveness seems to emerge following the resolu-
tion of past issues during the experiences of contact with the deceased and,
in other cases, it seems to emerge after having empathized with the life
circumstances or the feelings the deceased expressed during his or her
Family healing is also a recurring theme (5/23), which is sometimes expressed
as a long process, which originates in the ayahuasca sessions, through a deepened
understanding of the signiﬁcant aspects of family relationships and, other times,
as a result of experiencing ‘‘insights.’’ The following participant expresses it in
In all these sessions, I healed a lot of the relationship with my whole family espe-
cially regarding the relationship with my parents and things from the past and
Reorganizing identity and sense of self. More than a third of participants (8/
23) refer to a personal change in self-concept through the experience with
ayahuasca that manifests in diﬀerent facets. Some people refer to seeing
themselves through others’ eyes, having discovered unknown parts of them-
selves. Another way in which the change is expressed is becoming aware of
the roles that they had adopted in the past and embarking on a new way of
relating to others. Other people express that ayahuasca has ‘‘shown them who
´lez et al. 13
they really are’’. One of the participants explained her experience in the
I have died and been resurrected, all of my traumas wiped clean and I was given a
chance to start again [. . .]. I am ﬁnally back to my essence and there is no way that
is good enough to express my deep gratitude. (5)
Changes in the internal representation of the deceased and maintenance of
connection. Experiences of contact with the deceased often foster a change in
the internal representation of the loved one (10/23), shifting from being dead to
being a spiritual guide or a teacher. In cases in which the death occurred due to
miscarriage, these experiences allow the conception of an external representation
of the baby, as this woman explains:
I met my baby who died (he was stillborn) so I had never seen him animated and
experiencing this vision was very healing for me. (23)
Depending on the beliefs of the participant, these experiences allow one to have
the certainty that the person is ok after leaving their body, that he or she is happy
or resting in peace. For those who comprehend the experience with the deceased
as a subjective reality, this type of experience also has a therapeutic impact. The
following participant had the experience of his deceased father stroking him with
his hand trying to heal his endless grief and explains the experience in the
Of course, it was me that was stroking my head, but I understood that my father
was in me, in the form of my blood, my cells, as irreversible as death itself, as
transcendent as the very essence of life. [...] I understood that my father would
never be here again but that he once was, and that I was an unquestionable part of
his presence. [...] I now know that I will never be with my parents again but that, at
the same time, they will never stop being with me. (18)
All the experiences of contact with the deceased allowed the ﬁnal development of
positive internal representation and the maintenance of a connection.
I feel like his help is always accessible now and I also know he has important work
where he is to continue with. Things are easier. (8)
Changes in global beliefs. Several participants (7/23) report how the experience
with ayahuasca caused a change in their beliefs and the way in which they had
perceived the world, primarily referring to spiritual matters. Some refer to being
14 OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 0(0)
able to see that there are diﬀerent levels of existence, that there is life after death,
that bonds are eternal, or feeling that they belong to something greater than
oneself. Others refer to more existential matters such as the fact that a singular
meaning does not exist, rather a consciousness that asks and responds, or that one
chooses one’s own life.
Personal growth. Finally, there are frequent (7/23) allusions to personal
growth, describing the positive ways in which their lives have changed as a
result of their ayahuasca experiences related to grief. People refer to being
more positive, being more centered, aware,moreconnected, highly creative,
more assertive, to having confronted their fears, of having reached new spaces
of comprehension and understanding.
They also refer to an increased appreciation of personal relationships and of
having learned to relate with others in a new way. One father who had lost his
daughter explains his experience with ayahuasca:
I cried from the grief, the loss, the shock, the sadness, the emptiness, but I also cried
in gratitude for having been able to have my wife by my side during the entire
process, appreciation for that wondrous ‘‘other side’’ that this painful experience
resulted in, since it made us grow as individuals and as a couple. (21)
Finally, reference is also made to an enrichment of life that happens through
changes in the manner of relating to the earth or plants, by appreciating the
beauty of life and perceiving its mystery.
It [ayahuasca] has given me an expanded view of my existence in this world.
My whole life is richer because of what I have experienced in ceremony,
even my sadness is a richer emotion than the debilitating grief I had been experien-
This is the ﬁrst study to explore the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca in griev-
ing processes. The ﬁndings from this study indicate that people who used aya-
huasca reported lower level of grief than people who attended a peer-support
group. This result stems from the fact that although both groups were compar-
able in the level of grief at the moment of death, the level of grief presented in the
Present Feelings scale (TRIG) was lower in the ayahuasca group. Also, a sig-
niﬁcantly greater proportion of ayahuasca participants reported direct beneﬁts
on some of the psychological and interpersonal dimensions that are central to
grief processes. In this discussion, we elaborate on these ﬁndings in terms of the
relevant theories, empirical research in the ﬁeld, and protocols for manuals of
´lez et al. 15
treatment, while highlighting the clinical implications of the qualitative results
and the theoretical models to which they relate.
The scores concerning the Past Feelings scale from the Revised Inventory of
Grief are within the range of scores obtained by other studies (Grabowski &
Frantz, 1993). Nevertheless, when we compare our results obtained from the
Present Feelings scale with those originally obtained by Faschingbauer (1981),
the peer-support group scored within normal range, while the ayahuasca group
scored above this range. Therefore, we questioned how the griever can best get
out of this state, as the adaptive model of grief suggests. The adaptive model of
grief is focused on identifying key personal growth aspects despite complications
(Gamino, Sewell, & Easterling, 2000). Variables such as positive changes in self-
perception, closer family and interpersonal relationships, ability to make sense
of the world or a richer existential and spiritual life have been identiﬁed as
important domains of posttraumatic growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Our
study found diﬀerences regarding the impact of both resources (ayahuasca and
peer-support group) on self-conception, ability to forgive others, ability to make
sense of life, as well as to integrate a transcendent dimension. It is possible that
the diﬀerences found in these variables might have impacted the scores obtained
from the questionnaire. The fact that the peer-support group presented a higher
percentage of loss of children, and a higher presence of deaths by homicide,
traumatic death and younger age of the deceased did not inﬂuence the ability for
personal growth (Gamino et al., 2000).
The qualitative analysis of the experiences with ayahuasca reveals that emo-
tional confrontation with the reality of loss is a common experience in the
bereaved, including in those who avoided connecting with their feelings.
However, despite the pain and sadness that can be felt under the acute eﬀects
of ayahuasca, this type of experience often leads to feelings of peace and accep-
tance of the death. Emotional confrontation is at the heart of the majority of the
contrasted models in grief intervention, utilizing techniques such as imaginal
revisiting (Shear, 2010), exposure (Boelen, de Keijser, van den Hout, & van
den Bout, 2007; Rosner, Pfoh, & Kotouc
´, 2011), retelling the narrative of
the death (Neimeyer, 2012), or written disclosure (Lichtenthal & Cruess, 2010a;
Wagner, Knaevelsrud, & Maercker, 2006). Through these techniques, patients
are exposed to the most diﬃcult internal pictures, or cognitions, surrounding the
death of their loved ones (Rosner et al., 2011). These techniques are used in
order to process the loss at an emotional and cognitive level, promoting mastery
of diﬃcult material (Wetherell, 2012). Consequently, it increases recognition of
the reality of the loss and reduced intrusive memories (Boelen, Van Den Hout, &
Van Den Bout, 2006). Nevertheless, in our accounts, we also ﬁnd the description
of experiences in which the emotional burden of the loss is transferred to an
archetype, or is purged, partly relieving this grief. These types of experiences
provide a psychosomatic therapeutic value that has not been described by any
therapeutic models to date.
16 OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 0(0)
However, beyond reliving the traumatic experience of the moment of death,
several participants mentioned recalling memories they had forgotten or experi-
encing autobiographical reviews that allowed them to understand speciﬁc epi-
sodes from another point of view. This type of experience could facilitate the
redeﬁnition of their relationship with the deceased and of their own life history.
Constructivist grief therapy seeks this same result using biographical techniques,
such as narrative writing (Neimeyer & Sands, 2011). Through these techniques,
‘‘signiﬁcant life chapters’’ are captured, where one can trace strands of consistency
between the life of the patient and the deceased, in order to reaﬃrm secure attach-
ment (Neimeyer, 2006, 2004; Neimeyer & Sands, 2011). Furthermore, according
to autobiographical memory theorists, the way we compose our life stories is
closely related to the way we understand ourselves (Fitzgerald, 1988). Thus, the
reconstruction of one’s life history can prevent the consolidation of internal,
stable and global attributions, in which the trauma will be related to stable char-
acteristics of the self that pertain across situations (Gillies & Neimeyer, 2006). Our
results reﬂect this type of process, since most people who recount experiences of
biographical memories also allude to experiencing a change in their own identity.
As we have seen, under the eﬀects of ayahuasca, people can feel confronted
with their emotions and reorganize their identity recalling their biographical
memories, not being exclusive categories within the same experience. In either
case, these experiences lead to the revitalization of an adaptive regulatory pro-
cess for the mourner, just as the dual process model predicts (Stroebe & Schut,
1999). Although this model introduces a dichotomous concept such as that of
oscillation, it takes into account the natural ﬂuctuation that occurs in the griev-
ing process between loss-oriented coping (such as crying about the deceased or
yearning for the person) and restoration-oriented coping (such as developing
new identities). With the aim of accompanying this process, modules for narra-
tive reconstruction have recently begun to be included in the cognitive beha-
vioral therapy protocols (Peri et al., 2016). Thus, in addition to the emotional
confrontation that exposure to the traumatic memory involves, the experience
facilitates its integration into the individual’s life history, including psychody-
namic references to the subjective personal meaning of the event for the patient,
associated with their past experiences.
However, it is possible that the greatest therapeutic impact of ayahuasca
comes from the experiences of contact with the deceased, as they promotes a
new representation of the loved one and facilitate maintenance of the bond
through the establishment of a new relationship. This type of experience has
also been described in a case of grief resolved spontaneously under an altered
state of consciousness induced with ketamine (Gowda et al., 2016). Attachment
theory (Bowlby, 1977) and the construct of continuing bonds (Field, 2006;
Russac, Steighner, & Canto, 2002) are an underlying component of bereave-
ment and an important element of coping with the grief (Barrera et al., 2009;
Darbyshire et al., 2013; Klass, 2006; Neimeyer, 2006). Furthermore, these
´lez et al. 17
experiences permit the resolution of outstanding issues, such as saying goodbye
to the loved one or communicating matters that were left unsaid. Unﬁnished
business is thought to be one possible manifestation of diﬃculties in the con-
tinuing bond, being one prominent risk factor for developing PGD and lowered
meaning made of the loss (Klingspon, Holland, Neimeyer, & Lichtenthal, 2015).
For this reason, various forms of imaginal psychotherapeutic dialogues with the
deceased have been incorporated into the cognitive behavioral therapy protocols
(Shear, 2010), in the constructivist model, through the writing of letters to the
deceased (Neimeyer, 2016) or in integrative cognitive behavioral therapy,
through the empty chair technique (Rosner et al., 2011). Rosner (2015) has
identiﬁed including confronting painful aspects and allowing reconciliation
and integration of the new and changed relationship to the bereaved among
the ‘‘ingredients’’ of successful intervention of grief therapy.
The beneﬁts obtained through the experiences of grief with ayahuasca are
similar to those described in cases of posttraumatic growth (Calhoun, Tedeschi,
Cann, & Hanks 2010) or stress-related growth (Park, Cohen, & Murch, 1996).
These terms refer to positive psychological change that goes beyond adaptation,
and it is an experience of improvement that for some people is deeply profound
(Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). For this reason, based on the model of growth in the
context of grief (Calhoun et al., 2010) and in the theory of shattered assumptions
(Janoﬀ-Bulman’s, 2010), constructivist therapy has developed a meaning-
oriented approach to grief therapy to reaﬃrm or reconstruct a world of meaning
that has been challenged by loss (Neimeyer, 2016, 2001; Neimeyer & Sands, 2011).
The beneﬁts discovered in our reports, such as acceptance, changes in identity,
changes in global beliefs, personal growth, changes in family bonds, valuing
relationships and spirituality, are ways of bringing meaning to stressful life experi-
ences (Bogensperger & Lueger-Schuster, 2014; Gillies, Neimeyer, & Milman,
2014; Lichtenthal, Currier, Neimeyer, & Keesee, 2010b; Park, 2010). However,
as far as our knowledge reaches, other beneﬁts such as forgiveness of oneself, or of
others, as well as the change in the internal representation of the deceased, have
been scarcely described in the literature as such. Several studies of Western people
who have used ayahuasca show that these types of beneﬁts are common after
experiences with ayahuasca, especially those related to changes in the way one
relates to oneself or promoting ‘‘self-acceptance,’’ feeling more loving and com-
passionate in their relationships, gaining a new perspective on life and spiritual
development (Harris & Gurel, 2012; Kavenska
´, 2015; Prayag, Mura,
Hall, & Fontaine, 2015; Trichter, Klimo, & Krippner, 2009).
Furthermore, we cannot ignore that ayahuasca is a natural compound that
has antidepressant and anxiolytic eﬀects mediated by the agonist action of DMT
on 5-HT 1A/2A/2C receptors (Dos Santos et al., 2007; Sanches et al., 2016). In
addition, the intake of ayahuasca is usually carried out as part of a ritual or
ceremony where the use of music and singing is common. Performing a ritual
that symbolizes the passage from one phase to another, as well as the use of
18 OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 0(0)
music therapy, is also beginning to be incorporated into more current treatment
protocols (Neimeyer, 2016; O’Callaghan, McDermott, Hudson, & Zalcberg,
2013; Smid et al., 2015).
However, despite these beneﬁts, there are risks to be considered when plan-
ning a therapeutic model for grief with ayahuasca. First, several cases have been
described of crises caused by the lack of a theoretical model or worldview that
supports the integration of these experiences (Lewis, 2008). Additionally, the
active component of ayahuasca, DMT, is capable of inducing aversive psycho-
logical reactions that resolve spontaneously in a few hours (Gable, 2007). Such
experiences can be traumatic if not properly understood and integrated.
Secondly, there is a lack of knowledge about clinical diagnoses with which
ayahuasca could be contraindicated (Szmulewicz, Valerio, & Smith, 2015).
Thirdly, ayahuasca increases diastolic blood pressure (Riba et al., 2003), so
extreme caution should be taken in those suﬀering from cardiovascular pro-
blems or diseases that may aﬀect the heart. Finally, potential adverse health
eﬀects can be derived from the use of ayahuasca in combination with other
serotonergic substances (Boyer & Shannon, 2005). Nevertheless, we believe
that if the risks mentioned above are considered, new treatment protocols for
grief where ayahuasca is integrated as a therapeutic tool could be successful.
There are several limitations that should be addressed. Firstly, this study is a
cross-sectional retrospective design, so it does not allow us to draw conclusions
about causality. Future studies with longitudinal designs are needed to conﬁrm
current ﬁndings. Second, our analyses relied on a small sample size, some self-
selected and heterogeneous samples, where the groups diﬀer in terms of relation-
ship to respondent, in that there were more children in the peer-support group.
This group is also aﬀected by unnatural death causes such as homicide, whereas
the ayahuasca group presents a higher percentage of death following a disease.
The fact that the peer-support group has suﬀered with more unnatural deaths
might have a direct inﬂuence in the presence of traumatic grief in this
group.Future studies are needed to examine the generalizability of the present
ﬁndings to more homogenous and larger samples. A third limitation is that the
participants belong to diﬀerent samples. This could cause the samples to not be
comparable. A fourth limitation is the lack of an assessment of Complicated
Grief, or PGD, having used self-report measures rather than clinical interview.
It would be relevant for future studies to examine the eﬀectiveness of ayahuasca
on people with these diagnoses. Regarding the qualitative analysis, several of the
reports are limited, and since the sample is self-selected, it is likely that the only
people to have responded are motivated to do so because their experience has been
positive. To reach generalizable conclusions randomized, placebo-controlled
trials should be conducted that would include a wider sample of participants.
´lez et al. 19
These preliminary ﬁndings show the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca in the
grieving process. We obtained similar scores following the death of a love one in
the TRIG in both groups but a reduction in the level of grief at Present Feelings
scale in people who used ayahuasca. Also, ayahuasca intake during a grieving
process can evoke experiences whose contents could facilitate the intrinsic nat-
ural regulation of the grieving process, promoting posttraumatic growth. These
preliminary ﬁndings can inform future research to develop reﬁned intervention
protocols that can be put into clinical practice.
The authors wish to thank Sara Wilkins for translating the article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/or publica-
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´lez is a clinical psychologist with a PhD in Pharmacology. Her
Masters research and PhD studies received a pre-doctoral fellowship granted by
the Ministry of Health for a 36-months project at the Department of Human
Pharmacology and Clinical Neurosciences and Drug Addiction Unit
(IMIM—Hospital del Mar Medical Research Institute). She is coauthor of sev-
eral scientific papers and book chapters about ayahuasca, 2C-B, Salvia divi-
norum, and research chemicals. Actually, she is leading a longitudinal
research project conducted with Beckley Foundation at the Temple of the
Way of Light on the long term effects of ayahuasca on well-being and psycho-
pathological symptoms of Western users.
´lez et al. 25
´a Carvalho is a clinical psychologist and a doctor and MSc in Psychology.
She is a lecturer at the Faculty of Education and Psychology—Catholic
University of Porto and a researcher at the Centre for Studies in Human
Development at the same University. She has been vice-president of the
International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research and Service since
2008 and Kosmicare project manager (Crisis Intervention in Situations Related
to Psychoactive Substance Use in Recreational Environments) since 2010. She
has been lecturing and researching in the field of Qualitative Research and
Nvivo Software for qualitative data analysis since 2006. She is an author of a
number of publications about psychoactive substance uses especially among.
Jordi Cantillo graduaded with a degree in Statistics at the Polytechnic University
of Catalonia. He currently works at the IMIM—Institut Hospital del Mar
`diques as Data Manager in the projects PANPAIN
(Efficacy of Pregabaline in the treatment of pain of pancreas cancer),
TKAPAIN (Painful knee protesis: relacionship between endogenous analgesia
and persisting post-operation pain), and for a project on the safety of the
analgesic epidural. He also collaborates in the project GENDOLCAT (cronifi-
cation of pain after the inguinal heniorraphy, histerectomy, and cardiotoracy:
Analysis of the predictive factors and association with genetic polymorphisms).
He has written various medical publications and scientific communications.
´is a telecommunication engineer and psychologist with post degree
studies in Integrative Psychotherapy and Strategic Therapy, and is trained in the
therapeutic use of Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness, and in MDMA
assisted-psychotherapy for PTSD. He works as a psychotherapist in
Barcelona, is a Holotropic Breathwork facilitator, and a member of the staff
for Grof Transpersonal Training.
´is medical doctor and specialist in Clinical Pharmacology. Actually,
he is the head of the Clinical Pharmacology Unit at Hospital Universitari
Germans Trias I Pujol in Badalona and professor of Pharmacology at the
School of Medicine of the Universitat AutŒnoma de Barcelona. During the
last 20 years has worked in the human pharmacology of different substances
including MDMA, GHB, flunitrazepam, tramadol, cannabis, and alcohol and
its interactions. In recent years, he has collaborated in some European projects
about Novel/New Psychoactive Substances. His recent investigations include the
acute pharmacological effects of 2C-B and mephedrone in humans. In addition,
he has been interested in the pharmacological treatment of addictions (mainly
cocaine) and the therapeutic use of cannabis and hallucinogen drugs.
26 OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 0(0)