Collective Grief: A Contemplative Pathway to Healing and Social Justice – Introducing a New Editorial Research Project

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We are holding grief in our bodies and bones, often in isolation. And yet, our grief isn’t isolated. It is pervasive. 

-michelle cassandra johnson

The world has experienced trauma after trauma. An onslaught of large-scale events such as natural disasters, terrorists’ attacks, police violence, mass shootings, pandemics, and wars have caused insurmountable loss to individuals and communities in every corner of the globe. 

Daily, the earth is revealing the devastation of the capitalist extraction of its resources, the extinction of its animals as well as the destruction of ecosystems that are necessary to support life on the planet. To live on earth means to live in a state of hypervigilance. To be alive right now means to live in an era of calamity. With each calamitous event comes more loss, heartbreak, and grief. Yet, it feels as though each loss, each experience of heartbreak, and the reality of shared grief tends to go on unattended and in isolation- both ancestrally and presently. Collectively we are and have been aggrieved. Without processing this grief and taking strides to heal from it collectively, we risk the continuation of isolation and disconnection brought on by ideologies associated with capitalism and individualism. Under these drivers, it is easy to further harm ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and our entire planet. 

We are at a juncture where we must take serious action and answer questions about how to name the ways in which we harm and have been harmed; how to fully grieve our losses; and how to heal and repair together. Concepts based in individualistic and supremacist thinking and being have borne fruits of  generational suffering for the vast majority of our world. Each day, together, whether we want to admit it or not, we are feeling more of the poison in our roots. If it is indeed up to all of us to remove this poison, then perhaps starting with our shared grief can be the portal to a more honest way of honoring our ancestries, our lived experiences, and transmuting our pain into commitment to a more loving and generative future.

Michelle Cassandra Johnson defines the term collective grief as “grief felt by the collective in response to a loss that affects us all, such as war, pandemic, oppressive policies, historical trauma, and systemic oppression.”[1] To transform and heal from our collective heartbreak, we must slow down. We must slow down even though our attention spans are short and our tolerance to feel for and do something about the pain and suffering of others appears to be even shorter. Even though no one escapes the experience of loss and grief, there still seems to be a desire to treat these experiences, especially in places around the globe that are overrun or influenced by European colonization and imperialism (also known as westernized ideologies) as personal and isolated when they are in most cases universal and connected. Without recognizing collective grief, collective care, collective healing, as well as social justice as deeply interwoven concepts, we avoid the very places we need to go mentally, spiritually, socially, and politically to improve and preserve our physical and natural world.

Even more detrimental to the spirit, progress, and health of our national and global citizenry, colonized ideas about the grief process treat grief as temporal in both its public and private expressions. In the words of HuffPost contributor Michelle Steinke-Baumgard, “Western culture asks us to suppress our pain, stuff our emotions and restrain our cries.”[2] Not only does a Western understanding of grief ask us to “stuff” and “restrain” our collective pain and sorrow, but it can also dictate what kinds of traumatic events are seen as worthy of being considered collective at all. In privileging the experiences and expressions of grief of the wealthy and the powerful over communities of people who have been pushed to the margins, we can begin to understand the course of generational despair and the advancement of inequities. 

For example, protests aimed at dismantling injustice are rarely if ever referred to in the mainstream as expressions of devastating loss and pain. Instead, they are often treated as criminal in their intentions. Furthermore, people already experiencing intense pain and grief are subjected to punishment instead of compassion, empathy, and meaningful effective changes. 

When we equitably name and experience the collective grief that arises from shared experiences of loss, trauma, and injustice, we can be motivated to move together toward social change and liberation. Moving grief into the public sphere and out of temporal personal isolation, can be the catalyst to recognize the need for systemic change, promote collective healing and mobilization, and prevent future collective harm. For the sake of transformation, it is necessary to sit with tragedy and loss as more than just sound bites and headlines affecting others.

Is it possible that the commonality of shared pain and grief can be seen as a gateway to connection? Can it help us name and strengthen our values? Is collective grief work imperative for any movement towards eradicating injustice and restoring shared humanity? Author of America’s Racial Karma, Dr. Larry Ward, believes so. He says, “We become whole again by embracing our grief.”[3] In his book, Ward also quotes psychotherapist, Francis Weller who said, “There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive.”[4] If the desire is to be more fully alive and to be liberated from past horrors is possible, then perhaps it would behoove us to honor the blood in the soil and the breath lost to the ocean so we can move forward with a greater reverence for all of life itself. 

Collective grief work is embodied social justice work. Becoming embodied in our actions toward social justice and liberation is not just about working towards a fair and equitable society, where every individual has equal access to opportunities, resources, and protections. It is also about becoming more human. It is about allowing and feeling into our bodies that the experiences of heartbreak and grief are present to mature us. Grief need not be isolating. Psychotherapist Linda Graham is quoted from her book, Bouncing Back, as saying, “The process of being seen, understood, and accepted by an attuned, empathic other engenders a sense of genuine self-acceptance, a feeling that we are profoundly okay.”[5] Therefore, witnessing and being witnessed in our grief can yield greater compassion, connection, and validation of pain and suffering. Practices to enable the expression of such grief must be rooted in communal and ritualistic ways that go beyond individualism.  

The year-long Embodied Philosophy campaign: Holding Collective Grief: An Embodied Pathway to Healing and Social Justice predicates itself on the desire to: 1) contribute to the conversation about the necessity to name and acknowledge collective loss and heartbreak; 2) learn and educate about contemplative and somatic pathways and practices through collective grief; and 3) provide resources for our community with the tools necessary to respect, embrace, participate in, and encourage the process of grief as both private and collective. It is the highest hope that this campaign demonstrates the necessity of healing through collective grief as paramount to any political movement toward justice and liberation, we hope you will join us on this path. 

[1] Michelle C. Johnson. Finding Refuge: Heart Work for Healing Collective Grief. Boulder, Colorado: Shambala Publications, Inc. (2021: 10).

[2] Huffington Post quote

[3] Larry Ward, PhD. America’s Racial Karma. Berkley, CA: Parallax Press (2020: 70)

[4] Francis Weller. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books (2015).

[5] Humble, Tess. “Climate Justice, Community Grief, and Power Building.” Bella Caledonia. (March 9, 2023),