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.

The Perils of People Pleasing

I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life trying to dispel the people pleasing bug that thrives inside me. I’ve done affirmations in the mirror, prayer, meditation, self-help books, empowering quotes on the fridge, and….well, you get the picture. Friends and family have gently encouraged me to remember that my value does not come from what others think of me, and I agree. My brain agrees that my worth is not determined by others, but my heart tells a different story. I’ve been thinking a lot about how this propensity for validation drives my behavior and I’ve been talking about it in therapy…praying and willing and trying to shift this perspective. I’ve explored the history behind this behavior, the advantages I’ve experienced that have kept me glued to this path. It’s obvious to me that I continue to walk this road of seeking affirmation because there is a benefit, an incentive, a pay-off. I wouldn’t plunge into people pleasing year after year if I wasn’t getting something out of it, either consciously or subconsciously. With this reflection I’ve realized that before I can change, I first must understand and believe how this way of living has ramifications that outweigh the rewards. I’ve been asking myself, “are there negative consequences to this lifestyle that outweigh the benefits?” As I’ve been seeking to understand the pitfalls of this driving desire, I’ve noticed just how ridiculously hazardous it gets for me.

Jerry Seinfeld said that most people’s #1 fear is public speaking, with the fear of dying being #2. That means that if given the choice, most people would choose death over having to give the eulogy. This is how I feel about letting others down. Letting others down = #1 fear. Death = #2 fear.

I choose pain and possible death over upsetting someone else…you think I’m kidding!!

I’ve had reflexology that was so intense I was bruised the next day, but said nothing during the treatment because I didn’t want to hurt the massage therapist’s feelings. I once laid on a massage table that was too short for me (because I am the biggest lady in the room), and rather than speak up about how uncomfortable I was, I just let my legs dangle off the end until they fell asleep. My feet were soooooo relaxed by the end of that memorable spa experience, that I couldn’t walk out of the room due to my numb stubs.

I take dangerous left turns to please others…for the love of God! I am so concerned that the people waiting behind me may become annoyed, that I find myself bolting into traffic. I fly out into the middle lane saying a little prayer that my sacrifice will be worth it, and that all the strangers will be pleased with the choice I’ve made. I can’t bare the thought of someone being irritated by my driving decisions or making someone wait to the point of impatience, so I opt to risk life and limb instead. “What if they think I should’ve gone already and they honk at me!?!?” Oh, the horror!

My sister-in-law recently shared something she read that said, an alarming percentage of those who are choking leave the room full of people and end up in a place alone where they die. I had to admit that I could imagine myself adding to this statistic. I wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s meal or good conversation, and I wouldn’t want to make a scene. I can picture myself making a swift exit to avoid being a burden even when the 2 choices on the table are regain breath and life or die from asphyxiation.

I am a chronic apologizer

A few weeks ago, I was pulling out of a parking lot and checked to make sure there wasn’t someone behind me before I stopped to enter an address into my phone. In my peripheral vision I saw a car turn into the parking lot and at the same time I heard a honking. My immediate thought was, “Oh no! what did I do wrong? Who do I owe an apology to?” For a split second I considered gunning it in case I was in the way and inconveniencing someone. I was tentative to look to my left just knowing that I had made a mistake and I was about to meet someone I had angered. Low and behold it was a friend, excitedly waving hello and wanting to know how I was and what I was doing there. As I drove away I couldn’t help but reflect on the knee-jerk reaction my brain has without any information…the voice on repeat that says, “you’re making a mistake,” “you’re upsetting someone,” “you’re wrong.”

It’s a joke in my circle of family and friends that they will inevitably receive an apology text from me after every gathering. As we give our goodbye hugs at the end of a party I often hear, “I don’t want any apology texts tonight or tomorrow Renee’,” and sometimes I will joke and proclaim a blanket “I’m sorry” at the beginning of an evening as to cover my bases upfront. It really has become comical and I can laugh at myself and the ridiculousness of it all, however deep down it’s that same voice that says, “you’re making a mistake,” “you’re upsetting someone,” “you’re wrong,” with an additional “and they’re not going to love you/accept you/be friends with you any longer.” The scariest words I believe are, “If you mess up, they will leave you.”

As I’ve reflected on these moderately embarrassing revelations I’ve come to realize just how unhealthy my desire for approval really is. Putting others happiness and comfortability over my own safety seems a bit (just a tad) unbalanced. I give my extreme examples to make the point that regardless of the “positive” things we’ve come to believe result from people pleasing (i.e. approval, worth, friendship, affirmation, etc.), none of that is worth our spiritual, emotional, and/or physical health.

As I continue to reflect on the results of my people pleasing habits I’m sure this list will grow longer, but as of today, these are the consequences that stand out to me.

7 Consequences of People Pleasing:

  1. Making decisions driven by fear of what others will think will either hold us back from our purpose or thrust us into something we were never made for. When I’m frozen with fear or jumpy with anxiety I must slow down, dig deep, pray for God’s guidance, and take a moment to check in with my heart. I must ask myself who I want to be regardless of the pressure to please.
  2. Joy does not come from other’s approval. Joy comes from leaning into who God designed us to be. Joy comes from tuning into our North star and knowing deep in our soul that we were created worthy, valuable, and beautiful.  When we are seeking approval from others we’ve lost sight of who God says we are.
  3. When we bend to fit other’s visions we lose sight of who we are, and this makes for unhealthy relationships, not just with them, but with ourselves. We cannot be in true authentic relationship if we’re not showing up as our true authentic selves.
  4. The expectations we think others have of us are often expectations we’ve created for ourselves. We may attribute the pressures we feel to someone on the outside, when in actuality the pressure is building from the inside based on our false assumptions of what others are thinking.
  5. Self-criticism and chronic apologizing is a flag that there’s something deeper going on. As I’ve engaged in therapy I’ve met a little girl, a teenage girl, and a young woman living within me, who all believe there was something wrong with them…that if they weren’t perfect, then there would be heartbreak. These parts of us need our empathy, our comfort, our encouragement that they are safe and loved and enough.
  6. It’s exhausting to constantly be on alert for what everyone else thinks. It takes an incredible amount of energy to try and please everyone because it’s IMPOSSIBLE. A mentor once shared a quote with me that says, “the only sure way to fail is to try to please everyone.” Living for others is a prison of constant disappointment as every person is unique in their needs, wants, and desires, and those needs, wants, and desires can change like the wind.
  7. People pleasing steals our health (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually). The weight of wanting to be liked has me driving like Thelma and Louise, enduring torture at the spa, conjuring up reasons my friends and family must be mad at me, and possibly a future death by choking. Even without dramatic stories like these, trying to please others is a stressor that gnaws at our well-being, and keeps us from fulfilling our potential and being true to who we are.

If your examples of people pleasing are not as extreme as mine then congratulations, as you are a safer driver, and probably walk away from massage with feeling in your legs and glowing/unblemished skin. However, if this desire ever rises up in you (at any level), then I want to encourage you to consider the pressure it creates in your life and how the unfavorable consequences outweigh the gains. I want to assure you that you matter. I want to embolden you to consider who you are in God’s eyes. I want to incite you to believe that your joyful, fulfilling, soulful purpose is within you and your beautiful heart….not out there in the world’s opinion of you. I pray we can continue to move towards who we are meant to be and let the rest fall away.