Losing Mom as a Teen

I was only 18 when my mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer. However, in the following two decades, I persistently avoided the profound pain of being a motherless son. Though I maintained a façade of functionality, pouring my energy into my career and globetrotting adventures, my heart limped along, unable to foster any lasting or meaningful relationships.

I had constructed an emotional barricade around myself, but it exacted a heavy toll in the form of escalating anxiety and a relentless yearning for reconciliation. If only my mom and I could have figured out a different way to be in relationship with each other before she became ill and during her brief sickness.

My inability to confront my grief or comfort my soul led to a slew of self-destructive habits, and, in many ways, I could have been a textbook case for Dr. Edwin Shneidman, the renowned UCLA suicidologist who coined the term ‘death hastener.’ And at the risk of bending the rules of self-diagnosis and time travel, I believe I fit the criteria for the newly recognized diagnosis in the DSM, Prolonged Grief Disorder.

Plants as Grief Medicine?

About 15 years ago, following my relocation to the San Francisco Bay Area, a chance presented itself—an opportunity to attend an ayahuasca gathering. Here, participants imbibed a psychedelic tea crafted by Amazonian indigenous healers.

On that transformative night, akin to Ebenezer Scrooge’s encounters in “A Christmas Carol,” I saw glimpses of pivotal moments of discord between my mother and me. Viewing these visions, memories, and images through the lens of profound love and forgiveness for both my mother and myself, tears flowed freely. My body trembled, yet an overwhelming desire to simply watch, witness, and weep prevailed.

I felt cradled in an embrace of acceptance, realizing that we had both done the best we could. I felt a wave of peace envelop my entire being. And I left that overnight ceremony with newfound clarity, as though the cataracts obscuring my heart’s vision disappeared.

New Relationship with Deceased Mother

This essay is not intended to advocate for any particular course of action, but rather to provide an opportunity for me to share a life-altering experience—a journey that saved my life and rekindled a continuing bond with my mother, dormant for over two decades. Since that transformative ayahuasca experience, I’ve dedicated much of my self-healing journey to integrating these insights. I’ve welcomed my mother as one of my ancestral spirit guides, and she has manifested in numerous unexpected yet profoundly helpful ways.

During the pandemic, I had the privilege of hosting a mini-series on Sarah Davis’s podcast, “Breathing Wind.” I named the three episodes “Meaning-making, Medicine and Mortality.” I interviewed individuals who, like me, had lost their parents and found healing and reconciliation through their relationship with plant medicines. Additionally, I received an invitation from Marian University to develop the curriculum for and instruct its inaugural elective, “Psychedelics in Thanatology.”

Though I am far from being a renowned researcher or author, I embraced this rare opportunity to step outside my comfort zone, feeling the support and presence of my mother throughout the semester. Continuing bonds are a fascinating phenomenon, somewhat akin to other altered states of consciousness. Reflecting on this unexpected twist in my hero’s journey, ayahuasca provided me with a unique chance to accept the past and chart a profoundly different future than I could have ever envisaged.

Continuing Bond with Mom Spurs New Study

The Chacruna Institute, a nonprofit organization, envisions a world where plant medicines and psychedelics are comprehended, protected, honored, and integrated into our cultural identity. They recently released a t-shirt which states:  “The future is ancestral.” This theme resonates deeply with me. My continuing bond with my mother has led me back to my roots and spurred my study of Celtic healing practices. I am evolving in my role as a thanatologically inspired plant medicine integration therapist and singing bowl sound healer.

Discovering my Irish heritage, accounting for 60% of my lineage, has illuminated a path for the next chapter of my life. I’m grateful for my origins and extend my gratitude in all directions—bowing to the East for birth, honoring the wisdom from the South where these sacred plants originate, embracing the pain, grief, and acceptance arising from my mother’s death while acknowledging the challenges that lie ahead, and recognizing the wisdom yet to be unearthed from the North.

In the center of this Celtic Wisdom Wheel, I stand with a sense of sovereignty, alongside the guides, teachers, and friends who have supported me thus far.

Sharing Our Stories

As I contemplate the uncharted territory of my life’s journey, I’m reminded that all of our stories are important. Our narratives, marked by transformation and healing, are the threads that weave the tapestry of human connection. Through openness and vulnerability, we pave the way for others to find solace and inspiration in their own experiences.

Thus, I continue forward, my heart brimming with gratitude for the profound gifts of acceptance and reconciliation, both with myself and with my mother, that ayahuasca unveiled. In this pursuit, I extend a compassionate reminder to those who seek healing, understanding, and connection, for in our stories, we find the common thread that binds us all.

Learn more about Ken Breniman, LCSW – Bay Area Therapy and Healing Services

Ken Breniman

I was born in rural Pennsylvania and spent 7 years living in Japan where he was a social justice advocate for the LGBTQ+ community Currently, I am an Oakland, CA-based Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Yoga Therapist with a passion for nudging the Western mental health paradigm in regards to safe, legal and ethical integration of sacred plant medicines or psychedelics. With a thanatological (study of mortality) approach to holding space for others, I hold deep reverence for Spirit while acknowledging each of us must find our own way of making sense of the experience of being human. Combining the essence of Kierkegaard's "Live life forward, understand it backwards" with Ram Dass' "We are all walking each other home" provides a hint at how I am attempting to understand my own being human. I strive to continually hone my skills as a culturally responsive space holder and continue to engage in ongoing learning opportunities around issues of culture, race, equality, equity, and social justice. In working relationally with my clients, I hope to be transparent and authentic in how I show up in my work and wish to keep the channels of communication open as to how social and cultural identities impact the healing process. As part of my evolution in the world of Thanatology, I will be teaching the first course on "Thanatology and Psychedelics" at Marian University beginning in the summer of 2023. I am dedicated to supporting clients during very challenging life situations. By incorporating the ancient healing practices of yoga, and the supportive counseling tools of Western psychology, clients heal, grow and are better able to cope with many of the stressors life can bring. I truly believe we all have innate healing powers and I am here to help others uncover their own amazing potential. The world is more interconnected than ever before, allowing important cultural and scientific dialogues to take place. There are many wonderful opportunities for those of us in the West to experience the life-transforming power of ancient wisdom traditions from around the world, including the practices of yoga and meditation, which are now broadly respected by the scientific and academic communities.

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