Karen V. Johnson, LIVING GRIEVING: Using Energy Medicine to Alchemize Grief and Loss

Karen V. Johnson, LIVING GRIEVING: Using Energy Medicine to Alchemize Grief and Loss

Zibby is joined by shamanic energy teacher (and former Federal Judge, U.S. Army officer, and Fulbright Scholar) Karen V. Johnson to discuss her fascinating new book Living Grieving: Using Energy Medicine to Alchemize Grief and Loss. Karen shares the heartbreaking story of her 27-year-old son Ben’s death, and describes the unique way she grieved the loss–by leaving her job (a lifetime appointment!) and embarking on a journey to learn from spiritual leaders in all corners of the world. She also reveals that she is trained as a medium, and talks about communicating with her son, helping others heal, and dealing with the skeptics who think she’s crazy!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Karen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Karen V. Johnson: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

Zibby: Karen, you wrote so beautifully. It’s such a gut punch as a reader to read what happened with your son Ben and his overdose and finding out about it when you were in Seoul. Your story, oh, my gosh. Yet you’ve turned it into a gift for everybody else to help them get through whatever grief they have to get through. Tell me a little bit about what happened, how you decided to write this book, and all the modalities you want to introduce the rest of us to.

Karen: Gosh, I think I was pretty much unconscious going along living my life. I knew that my son was struggling, but so many young men are, and young women. He wasn’t an addict, but he went to a party and got drunk. They decided they were going to try heroin. They gave him too much. He was a big guy, 6’8″.

Zibby: 6’8″, wow.

Karen: 275 pounds. They gave him a lot. He died almost instantly. He and I were really super close. I had decided — I was going on vacation. When I got to vacation, we’re going to sit down and have this talk. He was super smart but didn’t want to go to college and wanted to have his own business and so many things. I decided we needed to talk because he seemed like he was struggling. I get this call in South Korea. I don’t usually pick up calls I don’t know. I had been feeling terrible all afternoon. I called right back. The person that picked up was a detective. He said, “Are you Karen Johnson? Are you Ben’s mother?” I’m like, “Yes. What’s happened? Is he okay?” He said, “Where are you?” I said, “I’m in South Korea. What’s going on?” He said, “I’m sorry to tell you, but he’s deceased. He died.” I’m like, “From what?” “A heroin overdose.” My whole world fell apart. It took me about twenty-four hours to get back to the US. I got the call at night in Korea, which is daytime there. I couldn’t get a flight out until the next morning. On the phone all night with family and friends. It was just — I don’t even know how to express it — life-ending, life-changing. I went to the airport the next morning to get on a flight and was sitting waiting. He shows up in front of me, just like his big self, smiling, happy. Then he fades away. I had no context for this. I wasn’t a spiritual person whatsoever. I called my ex-husband and said, “You got to go to the ME. I think he’s alive. I think he’s trying to get out. He came to me. I think he’s alive.” He called the ME. The ME looked and said, “I’m sorry, but he’s gone. He’s not alive.”

Sometimes death is a doorway. Death was a doorway for me into a spiritual life and actually finding out that there is more on the other side. We don’t just die. We don’t just disappear. They’re there. They’re right there on the other side. That started the beginning of me becoming clairaudient and clairsentient and beginning to see deceased people on the other side and, of course, my son Ben, who, one on one, stayed with me for a really long time because I was in a really bad place. I think a lot of parents can really relate to this. If you’ve lost a child, you know how it is. If you are watching your child go through addiction or illnesses, it’s like a little death every day. Here we are trying to figure out, what do we do with our grief? How do we deal with this? I did the unexpected. Grieving people are sort of like divorced people. We don’t deal well with them in our society. We sort of want to avoid it. We know that there are life-changing events in society. We know marriage and parenthood. We celebrate it. It’s wonderful. Death is also life-changing. It has a lot of energy that we can tap into, but we don’t want to talk about that. We want to stay away. They tell people, it’s time to move on. It’s time to get over it. I don’t know whose time this is. For me, that timeframe didn’t work. I did the unexpected and unimaginable. I sold all my household goods and my car. I ended up traveling the world for two and a half years talking to spiritual leaders all over about grief and death and dying. What are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to go on?

I thought, I’ll just write a travel blog. I’m meeting with shamans in Africa and Sufi masters in India and all over. It ended up to be so much more. Along the way, I found a shamanic practice with the Four Winds and Alberto Villoldo. It was a beautiful spiritual practice. The blog turned into a book. The book has sixteen practices in it to help people to come from this stuck place of grieving so intensely to becoming lighter and then eventually creating a new life out of the ashes of the old one that honors our loved one. We always want to be honoring our loved one. Everybody is stuck somewhere differently. Sometimes it’s in judgement. One of the practices is nonjudgement. Ram Das so beautifully has this saying that I love. You go out into the woods. You look at trees. They’re all different. One is twisted this way. One’s that way. One’s high. One’s low. One’s green. One’s not. We don’t judge them. When it comes to ourselves and to other people, our judging mind comes in. This practice is a way to look at, who are you judging? Who’s judging you? How might we do that? you might say. We want to get out of our everyday mind, fighting, fear, everything that’s in the everyday reptilian brain. We want to move up to our neocortex. This is the place of ceremony. What I want people to do is sit in ceremony quietly with a candle, anything else that means quiet and serenity, maybe sage or however you want to do it. Have a piece of paper or a little notebook and pen and paper, a little pie pan to hold your candle. We’re going to release our prayers and release our judgement, release our suffering into the flame and let it go to God, the universe, whatever your religious aspect is. We’re going to do this in a ceremonial way where it can move like a wind blowing feathers in the breeze as opposed to trying to drag along at the physical level.

There’s lots of books that talk about the things you need to do. You need to go out on a date. You need to go to a movie. You need to do this. This is how you do it. That’s all in this physical realm. It’s very hard. So many people tell me, I’m not ready. I can’t. I understand that. I couldn’t either. My book is sort of a precursor to that. Let’s find out where we’re stuck first. Let’s release and release and release all the things we’re holding, stories, even. I should’ve done this. I should’ve done that. How many people say, I should’ve made them go to the doctor? I shouldn’t have gone to Korea. We get all of this in our heads. When we write it down on paper with the intention of releasing it, letting spirit have that and opening our hearts to new ways of seeing things, we can find that release. We can move on. Not that pain is ever going to go away. I always tell people I don’t have that magic wand. I wish I did. I could tap you on the head, and it wouldn’t be painful anymore. Pain is the price of love. The pain stays with us, but the ruminating and the fear and the anxiety and the judgement, we can release. What we’re left is just missing them instead of beating ourselves up.

Zibby: Wow. The fact that you have provided this path through what seems like an impossible journey to get through is so amazing. Can you tell me a little more about the spiritual, how you’ve made sense of connecting with the other side, essentially, and how we all can do that? I think anyone who has lost someone suddenly realizes that there is more. They see signs. They believe when they thought they would never believe. Once a piece of your heart has been carved out of you and gone elsewhere, people quickly say, oh, wait, maybe there is. Maybe I feel it now. Can you give more specifics, even, of how you view that and how you understand now, Ben’s appearance to you back then?

Karen: People always ask this and say, I wish I were like you. I wish I could see my loved one and talk to them and speak with them. What I like to say is, it’s a process. We all have been raised with this concept that, only the facts. Our left brain keeps us safe. Whatever we can see, sense, hear, touch — don’t rely on your intuition because that will just lead you astray. Just go with your brain. It’s that process of opening up and saying, maybe there is more. I always call it that frankly freaky discussion. People like us, the ones who are survivors, know that we can sense, feel our loved ones around us. What do we make of that? Sometimes we don’t even want to tell our friends and relatives because they’re going to say, she’s gone over the edge. There’s no win in grieving too. If you don’t grieve long enough by somebody’s standards, they’ll say, it didn’t seem to affect her much. If you grieve too much, then it’s that DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. You need medication. We’re kind of in between a rock and a hard place. What I like to tell people is, tune into yourself. There’s no time. We can’t tell people how long it is that they’re going to grieve or how they’re going to grieve. The only person that knows this is us. If you know that you’re on a journey, then you can say, okay, I’m on a journey. I’m on my own journey. Part of this journey is going to be opening up to the other side, to not seeing death as this completely horrifying, terrifying experience, but part of life and a transition from one state of being to the other.

As we allow ourselves to relax a little bit, we begin to sense more, see more. Somebody said to me once, I know that my loved one’s around when the windchime chimes and there’s no wind. It’s those little, subtle things. You may not hear their voice or see them physically, but just maybe a touch on your cheek or a windchime going or a butterfly or something that they loved. Something with their name on pops up. We begin to look for synchronicities and open up to that. Then we can get in touch with them much easier. As we do that, as we begin to heal ourselves, we let go of their kite strings a little bit. We don’t want to keep them stuck from all the beautiful things they do on the other side. Ben tells me all the time, “This is not eternal slumber over here, Mom. I am really busy. I’m working with ascended masters. I’m going here. I’m going there. I’m doing this and that.” We want to heal ourselves and become unstuck from our grief so that they too can go a little higher, so they can do more of what’s possible to do on the other side.

Zibby: Wait, let’s go back to the reports from Ben here. What can we expect on the other side? What’s he doing? Do they have days? Are their days filled with — what do you know that the rest of us don’t know? I want to know this.

Karen: Ben came to me and stayed with me for a really long time. In the beginning, he found friends, some other younger people that crossed over. He seemed to have friends that he would travel with. They had a good time zooming all over the earth and visiting wherever they wanted to visit. Sometimes I went on vacation to Costa Rica. I was ziplining. I wasn’t going to zipline. All of a sudden, I had this thought. I just really have to do this. I knew that Ben was with me. All of a sudden, I’m upside down and doing these tricks. I’m like, Ben, please. I’m sixty-five. Don’t kill me here. In the beginning, it was that excitement of, oh, my god, I’m so free. I’m free of this body. I’m free of this. I can go anywhere and do anything. Then later, it seemed to be that it was in pods of learning with ascended masters. One time — as always, it’s death day and birthdays that are really hard for people. It was a death day. I said, this is so sad, Ben. I really need you. Come visit me. He shows up.

He says, “Mom, quit ringing my doorbell. You know I’m fine. I’m in the Jesus pod.” We weren’t particularly religious. “He’s not like anything in the Bible. I’m in this pod. We’re learning. Don’t ring my doorbell. You’re fine.” He actually said, “You’re kind of being a bummer about this, this whole sadness thing where you’re going over the top when you know very well that I’m perfectly fine and happy.” That was another instruction to me that maybe we are looking at this in the wrong way. Maybe we’re kind of being a bummer. We’ve been so socialized and conditioned to seeing death as sad and morbid. Holidays, it’s all sad and morbid. First thing you know, nobody wants to talk about it. I don’t know want to talk. You don’t want. What if we’re seeing it wrong? What if it could be a celebration? What if it could be, bring them into the party, instead of this over-the-top sadness and despair and hopelessness? Lots of good information from Ben as I think sometimes only a twenty-seven-year-old guy can tell his mom. “Mom, you need to knock it off. Quit ringing my doorbell.” I think maybe we need to hear that.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. You wrote about Ben’s struggles on earth before he passed away and how he kind of never felt at peace with his body. His spine required surgery, his feet. He may actually have had this other diagnosis that you found out after he passed away. He never felt like he fit in. Do you feel like the peace you feel at his passing is related to him feeling like he has found a spot for himself or now he doesn’t have to deal with his body? Is there anything related to that? Maybe I’m just being crazy.

Karen: I think that’s exactly right. I think anybody who has physical issues — a friend of mine has a son that was in so much pain, and pain all his life, that he actually committed suicide, but on the other side, free and happy. Sometimes the physical body, the emotional body, all the things that are happening, and fitting into society — young people are trying to understand this world that’s gone so crazy environmentally and in every which way. They’re free of this. If I could say about Ben, he’s so much happier than when he was on earth. He just never fit. I tried to send him to camp. He wanted to stay home. He’s like, “Mom, no.” I said, “You’ve got to go to school. You’ve got to succeed. You’ve got all these things you’ve got to do.” He said, “I’m not going to be here that long, Mom.” This is when he was eight or nine. I’d say, “No, don’t be silly. Of course, you are. You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do that.” I think he always knew something I didn’t know, that he came into this lifetime to cure this karmic situation and to learn and grow and to leave and maybe help me to become a spiritual person, maybe open the doorway for me and for my daughter and our family and all those that I can touch with this book, that I can help become unstuck. They too can change their perception and find their lives again, these lives that are so precious. One thing that death teaches us is how precious life is, and so to get back in touch with life in a way that honors them and frees them, too, to go about what they’re doing on the other side.

Zibby: Do people ever tell you that you’re nuts, that they totally don’t believe you? What is up with this woman? All of that. There are skeptics out there.

Karen: Oh, for sure. All the time. I left a very left-brain world. I was a federal administrative law judge and lawyer for many years. Suddenly, I find this shaman’s path. My son passes. I go off around the world. Yeah, people thought I was totally crazy. In fact, people went to my daughter, some friends of mine, and said, “You know, your mother’s grieving. She’s not in her right mind. She’s going to really regret this.” I had a lifetime appointment. My daughter said, “I think my mother should shake her rattle and release her inner butterfly.” It’s so beautiful. She’s an engineer, very left brain. I’m not sure where that came from, but totally supportive of me and this journey. Lots of people think I’m crazy. It’s the funniest thing that people that thought that I was craziest come to me secretly and say, can you do a session for me? Can you look at this? Can you see? Even my daughter will come. I lost my wedding ring. Can you look for that? Sometimes I can find things. Sometimes even those people that are the most critical are the ones that’ll come in the back way. They might not want anybody to know that they’ve come to see me or see a shaman. Lots of times, shamans are kind of the last resort. When the doctors don’t work and the psychologists don’t work and the psychiatrists don’t work, what’s left? Then people will turn to a spiritual person.

Zibby: What is the technical definition or the technical difference between a shaman and a medium?

Karen: I do a lot of mediumship too. I’m trained as a medium. Mediums deal with getting messages from the other side. That’s sort of their exclusive bailiwick, finding out where the person is or where they went or what they want or answering a question. Shamans do a lot of other things. We work in the luminous energy field. You kind of know that you have it, but you don’t think about it. You notice it’s gone when you see someone who’s passed. They don’t have that spark of life. They don’t have that energy, the electrons, neutrons, everything that’s firing and wiring together. That’s where shamans work. We look for imprints. We help heal the past, old stories, repeating patterns that are keeping us stuck. We look for dark entities or energies that might have invaded us. We pick up all kinds of things when we go to bars or we go to restaurants. There are little things that we pick up. Shamans can get rid of those, remove those heavy energies. As we go through life and are wounded and things happen to us, we lose our soul parts. The parts that we lose are the healed parts that couldn’t take the trauma and go, in the Indian mythology, to live in the underworld and are kept safe there until we’re ready to call them back. Bringing those soul parts back and allowing someone to feel whole again is so important, and helping people to die. I do a lot of helping with people to transition and also helping with survivors. I really focused a lot on survivors in my book. I deal a lot with suicides because a lot of people have been given this false impression that if you commit suicide you’re going to hell, and that there’s actually a hell. I’ve never found hell anywhere, but spirits can get stuck in fear and don’t want to go to the light, don’t want to cross over. This is a place where Ben and I can help. Ben will say, “Hey, come on. I’ll show you the way.” I can open up the portal and help them to go. I know it sounds a little freaky, but it’s my world now.

Zibby: If I want a session or something, you just book sessions with you? You do all of that?

Karen: I can do that, yeah. Karenjohnson.net is my website. People can go there and sign up for a session with me. I have some free things coming up in November and December, a prayer ceremony for anybody who’s lost someone. We celebrate the layers of their lives. It’s non-suffering. How can we not suffer? How can we release our suffering? There’s some free things coming up in November and December. I have a five-week class starting in January. We’ll go through my book. It’s based on the medicine wheel and sixteen practices. A medicine wheel has four directions. Each week, we’re going to go through four practices and a direction. At the end, people can get to that place of rebirth, creating a new life out of the ashes of the old one.

Zibby: I might have to book a session.

Karen: Sounds fantastic.

Zibby: I know. I’m excited. Do you know Laura Lynne Johnson, who writes about signs? She’s an author.

Karen: I don’t know that one. I’ll have to look her up.

Zibby: She’s amazing. She came on my podcast. She sees signs everywhere and is a medium and all of that. When she was on the podcast, I was like, “If anyone comes in, just let me know, to our little podcast.” She was like, “Actually, your grandmother very rudely has sort of barged her way in. She’s been pestering me all day.” I was like, “That does sound like my grandmother.” She told me she had come on a certain day because that day had significance. I said, “No, it really doesn’t.” It wasn’t until later that day that I realized that my mother had dropped off my grandmother’s ashes that morning to my house. Isn’t that crazy? I believe in all of it. Then I have people on my podcast, too, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, the scientist, who says there was nothing there before, there is nothing there after. What do you think of that?

Karen: I think that he needs to learn a little more about quantum physics or focus a little more. There’s that energy field, that consciousness, that collective that’s there and has always been there and always will be there for us to tap into. Whether you want to call it soul or you want to call it God or you want to just call it this collective consciousness, quantum physics is supporting what shamans and other energy healers knew all along, but they didn’t know what to call it. I think that maybe that’s old science. New science is supporting other ways of looking at things, including existence.

Zibby: For people who are missing their loved ones today, what do you say to them?

Karen: Know that they’re there. Know that they already know that you love them. You don’t need to suffer anymore. You don’t need to hold on to prove to them, anything, or anybody anything. Your healing will allow them to go and be free and do what they need to do on the other side. Sometimes if you can’t heal for yourself, heal for your loved ones. Don’t we always do that as moms? can’t do for ourselves we’ll do for our kids. This is one more opportunity to do for your kid.

Zibby: Karen, thank you for sharing your experience with grief, with how to navigate through it and learn more about it than we never thought possible and sharing Ben’s story with the rest of us. I know you have found all the good and have made this whole life for yourself, but I am sorry for you and him that he’s not here. Maybe that’s the way it was supposed to be. I feel like you’ve made so much peace with this that I hate to even say I’m sorry when this might be the way it was supposed to go. Thank you for sharing the whole experience and dedicating your life to helping so many other people.

Karen: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Take care. Thank you so much. I’m going to schedule a session. Buh-bye.

Karen V. Johnson, LIVING GRIEVING: Using Energy Medicine to Alchemize Grief and Loss

LIVING GRIEVING: Using Energy Medicine to Alchemize Grief and Loss by Karen V. Johnson

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