The Grief Journey is a Grace Journey

In the midst of grief, grace is paramount. 

Whether you’re walking through grief or walking alongside the grieved, grace is a gift that offers space for vulnerability and healing. Grace is a gift that makes room for the pain to push its way through and out, over and over. Grace is a gift that says, “you are loved in your darkest hour. You are cared for even when the tears won’t stop. You are accepted and valued while you’re blinded by pain and tears. You matter, even at your messiest.” Grace is a beacon of light that shines on the long path of loss traveled by the grieved.

It has been less than 3 months since my mom unexpectedly passed away, and I am reminded daily how much grace is required to live through deep, heavy, aching loss. I’m reminded moment by moment that I rely heavily on heavenly grace as I put one foot in front of the other. I’m reminded that when grace slips through my fractured heart, I’m blessed to be surrounded by people who tenderly love me back to a place of hope and restoration, love and favor. I’m learning daily lessons about the surprising movements of grief and grace, and some of these lessons have been hard to tread through.

Just hours after my mom’s memorial service, I lost sight of grace, and made a decision I regret. I allowed hurt and disappointment to get the best of my weary heart. I was confused and afflicted by the lack of outreach I had received from 2 women in my life, and I could’ve let it go. I should’ve let it go. My mom would’ve let it go, and she would’ve counseled me to do the same. I could’ve chalked it up to immaturity, trauma, ignorance, or universal brokenness. I could’ve let it roll off my back, but that’s not what I chose. I chose to engage my hurt until it boiled over hissing for release. I chose to take a route that would bear no good fruit. The very same day I stood up in front of hundreds of people honoring my mom and her beautiful spirit, and claiming that I wanted to be more like her, I still chose to send a message to these women, sharing my hurt and disappointment. It wasn’t an angry message, but it was a message that carried a dose of shame, and it was not a message of grace.

It took less than one day for me to regret my decision. I quickly came to realize that I had allowed my deep hurt, my heavy grief, my exposed and raw emotions to be expressed as anger towards them, and I was heartsick by my choice. I felt guilt and shame for lashing out and I felt a dark sadness that my mom was disappointed in me. In an effort to repair the graceless mistake I had made, I sent the following message:

“I have not acted out of grace or love, and my mom was the perfect representation of both of those things. I want to be more like my mom. I’m ashamed that I’ve allowed my broken heart and hurt to turn into hurting you. I was hurt, but did not need to share it with you…Love should always lead and we love you…Grief at this magnitude wears on the nerves and can cause emotions and behavior that are outside of the norm. That’s where I’m at right now…outside of the norm. I am broken. Please forgive me.” 

Neither woman responded and I was undone. I could not stop the self-talk that said I deserved to be ignored, that my mistakes make me unlovable, that if I mattered I would be forgiven, that the only way I can be accepted is to get “it” right all the time. The shame swimming in my head was keeping me up at night, and I could not stop ruminating. Shame is toxic, and in the midst of grief it can be almost too much to bear. I had inadvertently compounded my grief by adding emotional pain that didn’t belong…pain that had nothing to do with losing my mom…pain that actually blocked my ability to get back to processing my grief. Here I was focusing on the hurt caused by my expectations rather than putting my energy into grief work and healing. Suddenly, I found myself sitting in shame…hating myself for allowing my wounds to wound others. What had started as disappointment in someone else was now a great disappointment in myself. 

Thankfully, I have friends and family who stepped in to remind me that I’m worthy of forgiveness and grace, just as much as the 2 women I had clearly hurt. A dear friend held me tightly and said, “you are allowed to make mistakes and you are forgiven.” She acknowledged that grief turns our world upside down and that we must be kind to ourselves during these times. She encouraged me to forgive myself so that I could refocus on my walk with grief. This is when I realized that the grief journey is also a grace journey, and without grace we may find ourselves experiencing additional pain and loss. The mistakes I’ve made on this path have taught me that in order for healing to move unhindered, there are 3 directions grace must flow in times of grief:

  1. Giving grace to others while we grieve

Many people haven’t suffered significant and/or traumatic loss, and if they have, then their trauma may not allow for the kind of support we need. It is important that while we are grieving we make a decision to forgive others for their lack of understanding, their perceived insensitivity, and even their bizarre or misguided comments. Death is uncomfortable. It cannot be fixed. There are no words. It reminds us of our mortality and the fleeting nature of life on earth. To show up for someone who has just experienced a terrible loss takes courage and vulnerability. Try not to hold on too tightly to expectations of what people should do and/or say or how often. Expectations often lead to disappointment, hurt, and anger in a time we’re most in need of love, peace, and healing. Everyone is doing their best and as Toni Morrison said, “if they knew better they would do better.” Decide not to take disappointments personally. It is important to recognize that those who are showing up, are absolutely doing their best, and even those who don’t show up are living within their own emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual capacity…we are all doing the best we can.  

  1. Giving grace to ourselves while we grieve

In the pursuit of healing, we must offer ourselves daily and generous doses of forgiveness for our mistakes. When our hearts are torn open, we are much more susceptible to overwhelm and uncharacteristic behavior. Sleep is diminished, anxiety is at the forefront, we can barely see straight let alone think straight. We are exhausted and worn out. Grief takes an emotional, mental and physical toll and we must be patient with our hearts, our minds, our bodies. The ability to focus on anything other than the pain can be impossible at times, and our minds struggle to keep up with even the most mundane activities, so please be gentle. Two hours of work may feel like 12 and two minutes of patience with our children may feel like a lifetime. As we walk through this fog, we can expect to stumble. We will make mistakes, we will say things we wish we could take back, we will hurt other’s feelings, and yet we must continue to give ourselves grace. We are allowed to be messy AND loved! We are allowed to say, “ I’m sorry. I just can’t do this. I need help.”   

  1. Giving grace to those who are grieving

There is no telling how grief will impact a person or how a person will cope, but you can expect the bereaved to be forever changed. Please understand that the grief-stricken cannot see the world the way we saw it one moment before. Everything has changed…our reality has changed. We are heavy and pushing through something dark and deep…we often feel lost and disjointed. We will not be ourselves, so please offer abundant forgiveness and understanding. We are facing a long road of healing from an amputation. We must learn how to see and do things differently, think differently, live differently. Every moment carries a pulsating ache. We need love, acceptance, space to scream and pound and weep. We need space for our enormous feelings, but not distance. We need close, strong, loving arms, and undeserved forgiveness as we stumble through the haze of sorrow that surrounds us. We need tenderness even while our rough edges rub everyone the wrong way. We need to be reminded over and over that mistakes do not make us unlovable. We need forgiveness as we will do and say things that are out of character and likely uncalled for. Our world has shifted. Everything about the past, the present, and the future is now different, and we need hope to step forward. As we break before you, and disappoint you, and maybe even anger you, please forgive us. I’m begging for myself. I’m begging for others. 

As I walk the path of grief I clearly see the beauty grace has to offer. Unmerited favor and love create the conditions necessary for the grieved to move towards hope and healing. Unmerited favor and love give the grieved a chance to live with their head and heart above water, while they learn how to live without their loved one. Unmerited love and favor carry the grieved through the heaviest and darkest of days.

I have made mistake after mistake since my mom passed, and I am so grateful for those who continue to hold me close. I am so grateful for those who remind me to be tender with myself. I am so grateful for those who help me lean into grace for myself and grace for others.

I pray that you will join me in the practice of giving grace to those who may disappoint, and that includes ourselves. This journey is not meant to be walked alone, so let us surround ourselves with friends and family who allow unconditional love and favor to flow freely in ALL directions. Let us journey through grief and grace together.

Grief Keeps Giving. Grace Keeps Saving.

Burt, it’s April and I miss you.

I love celebrating your life but I hate that I have to.

It’s hard to describe the shadows that creep in late at night, while I lay awake unguarded. The harrowing memories that plague my tired mind. It starts before I even consciously realize that we’ve slipped into April. It’s as if everything shifts. The air is thicker, the mood cloudier, the dreams lonelier, the heart heavier, the words insufficient. Like clockwork the grief creeps forward, relentlessly gaining intensity with each passing second. It’s difficult to explain the trembling in my voice that appears this time of year. I may have told a thousand stories that included your name, but in April I can’t even silently think of you without tears welling up in my worn out eyes. It’s as if the valiant effort my mind put forth all year to shrink that permanent hole in my life was all in vain…completely upended as the hole burrows deeper and wider overnight. I am flooded with the realness, the pain, the emptiness that comes with no longer having you here. It’s as if I’m flung back to that day 5 years ago and I have suddenly forgotten how to cope…forgotten the miles I’ve traveled in healing…forgotten how to live with the sorrow that visits always uninvited.

There are no words to adequately describe the aching I feel in my spirit to see you again…hear your laugh, hug your neck, listen to your stories, tell you mine, introduce you to your darling niece and nephews. There’s no stopping the flow of tears as I imagine how much you would love these precious little ones that have been born since you departed, and how much they would love you back. Just last night I read The Book With No Pictures to Isaac, the nephew you kissed on the knee as you passed in the stars. I couldn’t help but imagine the hilarious voices you would’ve invented while reading this book and how much he would’ve relished in your time together. I try to do it justice, to make you proud, to give Isaac a glimpse of the joy and silliness you brought into our lives. I give it my all even while fighting back the quiver in my voice.

I love that your legacy lives on in your family and friends, but I hate that you left a legacy so soon.

Your birthday is in April.

The last time I saw your smiling face and heard your voice was in April, on Easter Sunday, when we announced that I was pregnant.The last letter you wrote me arrived in April. It was red ink, with capital letters, in your beautiful architectural hand writing, clearly expressing your excitement that your baby sister was going to be a mom. You passionately described the unconditional love that comes with parenthood. This letter…the last letter you wrote to me still explodes with adoration for your beautiful girls.

Then there is May.

You left us in May. The last text message you sent the family was on May 11th, the same day you died. While we were celebrating dad’s 70th birthday, you were being greeted by Jesus. The call I will never forget came the morning of May 12th. It was Mother’s Day…it was a day of mere survival because the unthinkable had happened…you had not survived. We delivered your eulogy on the 21st day of May.

I hate these anniversaries.

Every year, for 2 months I feel myself receding into the shadows where words are meager and bitterness clings to the tip of my tongue. I’m tempted to numb the vivid memories of this trauma with hollow distractions and senseless behaviors. For 2 months a year I spend sleepless nights soaking my pillow with tears of regret, anxiety, anger, fear, heartbreak. For 2 months a year I can no longer fight off the visuals of your death, your viewing, your casket being lowered into the ground, your daughters faces as I drove them to the cemetery. For 2 months a year I’m reminded of the agony I felt completing menial daily tasks after you passed. I’m reminded of the first time I showered after your death and how I despised myself for any sense of relief I felt as the warm water poured over me. I couldn’t shake the guilt that came with knowing that you lost your life in a bitter cold river and now I was allowing this same hijacker of life…this water…rain over me as a source of comfort, washing away my tears. For 2 months a year I think back to that time I couldn’t bare to use punctuation because it felt too final. As if the energy it took to end a sentence was more than I could muster. For 2 months a year the dam breaks wide open and I can’t fight back the sobs or run from the gripping sadness.

Then, the strangest and most unexpected gift is given. Somewhere in the middle of those 2 months I find solace because you ALWAYS show up. You show up in a dream that someone shares with me. You show up in a Bob Marley song that’s playing in a random boutique I step foot in for the first time. You show up in a memory I had forgotten about. You show up in a picture I’ve never seen. You show up in a story I’ve never heard. You show up in a beautiful building that I instantly imagine you creating. You show up in a whisper reminding me that I must not take a moment for granted. I feel you standing beside me. You dare me to self-reflect on my attitude, my complaints, my propensity to take the blessings around me for granted. I picture your smiling face and imagine all I would give to prevent you from taking that hike by yourself…I imagine how many more breaths you could’ve had…should’ve had…and I’m convinced once again that I must use my time and the gift of life wisely and in honor of you. You show up during those 2 months to confirm once again that God’s grace is sufficient for me and His power is made perfect in my weakness.

It is during these wearisome months that it becomes crystal clear how God uses each heart wrenching moment to remind me of the preciousness of life. Every year, by His grace, I experience supernatural strength and peace to push through the months of tears and the nights laying awake thinking of you and what I would sacrifice to have you with us again. He comforts me in my most vulnerable time of need and assures me that one day we will meet again and it will be a reunion more beautiful than I could ever imagine. He joins me in my grief and assures me that my grief is not without hope. This year He gave me a song on Easter Sunday and it consumed my soul as I sang from the depths of my mourning heart, “death where is your sting?!” As I sang, with my arms reached high I imagined you with open arms ready to embrace me when it’s my time to journey home. He draws me into Him and I feel close to you again.

Burt, it’s April and I feel you near.

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Burton James Little

“And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” – 1 Pete 5:10