The thought of describing one’s journey of grief as “grace” seems unsettling, if not impossible. Grace, after all, is typically defined as elegance or beauty of form, manner, motion or action – or in many religious traditions as mercy, clemency or pardon. How in the world can either of these definitions apply when we feel as though we are in a deep, dark hole whether our grief is new or we’re experiencing a “grief burst” at a later place in our journey? And if our grief was caused by another person, are we really expected to offer them mercy or forgiveness?
There are those who would say yes to those traditional definitions of grace, but in my experience they are typically persons who have not faced grief that tears their world apart. Most importantly, they haven’t lived through your grief. Everyone’s experience of grief is individual, unique, and deserves to be honored and respected.
Grief asks so much of us; it changes our world from the way we once knew it, and it changes us from the person we were “before.” We have to learn a new way of living in the world, choosing how we are going to take those first and then continuing steps that will last for the rest of our lives. We also need to reimagine our relationship with the person we loved who has died. The relationship doesn’t end; it changes. We no longer see and hold that person in our lives, but we always hold him or her in our hearts, our memories, and our spirits.
I can say this from experience, as our beautiful daughter was killed by an adult speeding red light runner in December 2003 during her senior year in high school. Our lives were shattered, and our beliefs about the world and the Divine were tested beyond words. But whether we are religious, spiritual, have existential beliefs, or no formal belief system at all, the challenges are the same because we are all connected wherever and however we search to find meaning. How do we make sense of our grief? How do we move through it? Will we ever find happiness, purpose and joy again? Can we regain our balance?
As we know, grief is not a quick process: it can be one step forward and then a slide, not just a couple of steps, backwards. We can find joy in a moment, and in the next feel the overwhelming sadness knowing that we can’t share that joy with the person who we long to have beside us. Yet one thing I have learned in the years since our daughter’s death is that the journey does become softer. The painful moments – the grief bursts – still come, but they are clothed in loving remembrance and, yes, even grace.
You see, there is another meaning for grace – one that can become not just a lifeline for us when we are grieving but a tool for hope and healing in our journey. Grace also means to favor or to honor. What better thing for us to do than to carve out space in our grief to honor the person we loved?
I long for our daughter every day. I wonder what she would be like; she was planning to be a teacher of developmentally delayed preschoolers and looked forward to being a mother someday. She loved life and was one of the kindest people I’ve ever known in how she cared for the people, animals and world around her.
I’ve chosen to include grace in my grief journey, which admittedly wasn’t easy at first. I honor the lessons my daughter taught me from the time she was born (yes, even during those difficult adolescent years). Memories and shared experiences come back to me, and there is laughter amidst the tears. Random acts of kindness I do for others in her honor bring moments of joy. I am grateful that I was her mother; that she was, continues as, and will always be a part of our family. Most of all, I am grateful for her love and the grace she has encouraged me to embrace.
In your grief, as you redefine yourself and your world, invite your sadness to lead you forward one moment, one minute, one step at a time. And along the way, invite and practice grace as a way to honor and continue your relationship with the one you hold and love in your heart.
By Rev. Sue Wintz, Director, Professional & Community Education
Healthcare Chaplaincy Network