The idea for Finding Refuge came to Michelle Cassandra Johnson from her ancestors. Her mission—“create a space for people to come together and grieve.”
Michelle Cassandra Johnson is a licensed clinical social worker, social justice warrior, author, dismantling racism trainer, empath, yoga teacher and practitioner, and an intuitive healer. She is the author of Skill in Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World and Finding Refuge: Heart Work for Healing Collective Grief—which was reviewed in the July/August 2021 issue of Spirituality & Health. She also hosts the podcast, Finding Refuge.
S&H: Can you speak to the various forces that inspired you to write this particular book at this particular time?
Michelle Cassandra Johnson: The idea for Finding Refuge came from my ancestors. They dropped a seed in my soul and spirit over two and a half years ago. The message they sent me via the seed was to create a space for people to come together and grieve. I wasn’t sure why we would need this, and I know better than to not listen to my ancestors. The seed grew into an offering intended to be an in-person gathering to explore the relationship between grief and liberation. COVID-19 came along and shifted everything for everyone, and we moved the in-person gathering online and held it in June 2020.
As the gathering took place, I was caring for my ailing mother, who was battling an inept healthcare system, infection at the base of her spine, and spinal stenosis in her cervical spine. I was in my own space of grieving as I thought my mother was making her transition from this realm to another. My ancestors must have known I would need to turn towards my grief due to my mother’s illness and that we as a collective would need a space to grieve in response to a global pandemic, political unrest, and an unfathomable amount of uncertainty.
As I was planning and preparing for Healing in Community, I began writing about my experience with my mother and knew my next book project would focus on collective grief. The book was in the works sometime before I actually began to write it, given my ancestors had already planted a seed that would grow and flourish into a deep exploration of grief, individual and collective.
What else inspired me to write Finding Refuge is witnessing people turn away from their grief. We aren’t encouraged to make space for what our hearts are feeling, and I wanted to provide a resource that would support the collective in moving through grief to become more liberated and free.
What are your thoughts on the global grief we’re experiencing as a species in the wake of COVID-19? What might our collective healing process look like?
Right now, many things are opening up, and people are feeling the pull to “go back to normal.” I feel a deep degree of dissonance about this because things weren’t normal prior to COVID-19 changing our lives forever. They will not go back to what they were before, because psychologically, physically, mentally, and emotionally, we will never be the same. What is happening in response to COVID-19 and the urge to deny we all just went through something horrific as the Delta variant is ravaging other countries mirrors the cycle of denial many of us are asked to participate in when we experience a loss that shakes the collective’s core.
Collective healing has to begin with honoring where we’ve been, what we have experienced, and building our capacity to be with what is truly happening in our world. We cannot bypass the impact of COVID-19, and if we try to, we will suffer more in the future. Collective healing looks like us anchoring into spiritual practice as we navigate the tumultuous waters of grief.
You write about how our culture doesn’t make space for those who are grieving. What are some examples of other cultures that do make a space for it?
I know my ancestors, who are from West Africa, Ireland, and Asia, had rituals, practices, and ceremonies to honor their grief. I believe this is true for many people. Part of what has happened is that dominant culture has stripped us away from our lineages, ancestors, rituals, and practices, and some of us are in the process of remembering where we are from. This includes searching for practices originating from our roots rather than appropriating and consuming practices that aren’t our own. We’ve sterilized our relationship with grief such that we want it to be clean, short, and not too emotional.
Part of what has happened is that dominant culture has stripped us away from our lineages, ancestors, rituals, and practices, and some of us are in the process of remembering where we are from.
I have witnessed rituals around mourning, and intense expressions of grief in other countries—wailing, sobbing, carrying the body of someone in the street on the way to the cemetery or burial, and more. I think we’ve simply lost connection to grieving rituals, and this makes us contain our grief instead of expressing it. In addition, dominant culture expects us to move through grief and loss within a short period of time and get on with life. Many of us have short bereavement periods at work, and we can only take leave for a loss of a loved one, not the loss we are all experiencing on a collective scale. Not grieving keeps us enmeshed with the patterns and systems that cause grief for us.
As you point out in the book, the dominant culture, which is centered around productivity and commerce, places little to no value on that which is not able to be commodified. Given that this is the case, what are some ways, or mindsets, those who are grieving can cultivate in order to create the space and time required to process?
I believe we need to broaden our understanding of loss. We are losing things each minute of each day. We are losing time and life. We are dying. We are losing and changing the planet. We are losing each other. We are losing on a collective level and not making time or space to process this reality. I think we need to slow down.
We are losing time and life. We are dying. We are losing and changing the planet. We are losing each other.
We need to be present to what it means to be alive at this time—a time when there is much to celebrate and so much to honor and grieve. We can engage in a mindfulness practice of pranayama to come back to the heart and body to check in and see what is present at any given moment.
We cannot rush our way through the very natural cycle of life, death, and grief. We cannot bypass it. We must move through it, and slowing down will help us to be with our true experience. We’ve bypassed enough, and look where that has landed us. We must lean in. We are all grieving. This is what slowing down might allow us to see. We are in connection through our brokenheartedness. What might it be like to acknowledge this truth and to respond with care for the collective heart?
In your multidisciplinary work, what has inspired you the most?
The way my work has evolved. I am a deeply intuitive person and have learned to hone the skill of being led by Spirit and my ancestors and to be guided to the next iteration of my work. Dominant culture wants me to fit into one box, and I have many talents and interests that have led me to do very different types of work, but all focused on our collective healing. Working with people to raise consciousness, heal, move through ritual, spiritual practices, and the practice of collective care is deeply inspiring. Working with people who want to shift the tide and desire us to come back into our holiness and wholeness inspires me and gives me hope.
What is the most annoying or troublesome interview question that you routinely get asked?
I am not sure. Nothing comes to mind. I would imagine I would feel irritable if someone commended me on how strong I am and how much I’ve endured or how I’ve turned some traumatic events in my life into something positive. These feel like projections especially from folks who don’t know me but really, I’m open. I will let you know in the moment if you’ve asked a question I don’t like or want to answer but it’s likely I will answer the question.
Are you seeing any shifts in the dominant culture that give you hope?
Yes, without hope, I wouldn’t do the work I do in the world. I wouldn’t be able to keep going. Hope is connected to faith, and faith is what makes the impossible possible. The awakening people have experienced gives me hope, and I wonder what will allow us to stay awake and engage in creating conditions for everyone to thrive. More people being called into political action and activism gives me hope, and I wonder how much we have to lose before we take a risk for our collective good.
A generation that is learning how to work and be across lines of difference with more ease than any other generation amid more political and cultural division than we’ve experienced in quite a while gives me hope. The cultural shift around language gives me hope. More people are calling systems like white supremacy what they are, instead of using code words like diversity. People are using the right words to describe what they are experiencing. People being called in instead of canceled gives me hope that we understand oppressive tactics will not lead us to liberation, but new practices will. There are many shifts happening, and I am so grateful to be part of them.
Read our review of Finding Refuge in the July/August 2021 issue.