Inevitably, difficult change and loss become realities for each of us, and too often, profound grief is only steps behind. Finding Grace uses the author's personal experience as well as authentic stories of grieving parents to maintain the assertion that grace is every bit as close as grief, living fully available in every human heart during troublesome times. The soulful calls of grace, when answered through such avenues as traditional faith, spiritual mysteries, supportive community, mindful reflection and acceptance, and loving rituals serve to carve new pathways beyond life mired in a grief-filled reality. The nineteen stories and eight essays presented in Finding Grace: journeys of grief, courage and healing follow those who are moving forward, charting their own next steps toward grace.
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the call of Grace
the call of Grace" I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung."
Grace calls out to our hearts when grief's dark power threatens; and when we let it, its whispers of promised mercy and peace breathe hope into our despair. It challenges us to muster the courage to open our hearts even more widely, to make a trusting move from no to yes, even when the doubt and indecision of maybes won't easily stand aside. I reread what I've just drafted and know it is a central core of this book meant to highlight the intricate interconnections between grief and Grace. But locked and blocked, I sit yet again, staring at the screen, chin in hand. The same place I've been for weeks ... more like months, if truth be told. The maybe place holds me hostage – maybe readers won't want to hear any of my story; maybe I shouldn't write about how grief almost ended me; maybe having the author also be a bereaved mother is too ... self-absorbed, too personal; maybe what I've been sensing really isn't Matt leading me forward. Maybe I haven't actually been called to write this book after all.
I've begged the Grace muse to whisper just the right words to a mind thirsty for the courage to hear and believe her own voice. And for weeks, a variety of words and ideas appeared and played on pages, only to be discarded as too thin, too vague, just not good enough. I've lost my voice. Nothing I've written gives this idea – Grace calling us beyond grief – the clarity and comfort it deserves. I'm frozen in place, struck dumb by my inability to describe what I thought I'm meant to do.
I cover my eyes with cupped hands, shutting out the screen for a few blessed moments and lean back. Another break, my well-used delaying tactic, shakes me out of my chair and pushes me down to the kitchen. Reaching for the refrigerator door my eyes fix on the magnetized saying that I always keep there as a reminder. I take in the familiar words with a big breath, stand quietly, relax my shoulders into a more normal position and utter a quiet word of thanks. The irony of walking past these words for weeks and only now really seeing them again is not lost on me; it slaps me awake. I've just gotten a call from Grace in the form of a refrigerator magnet: "Be Truthful, Gentle, And Fearless." Gandhi's words spill over to remind me what I've neglected: to detach from my analyzing, worried ego and the need to control this outcome; to accept this task and trust my inner heart's voice; to fearlessly, gently, speak the truth I've come to understand.
Questions still pepper my new resolve, but I trust they will encounter their answers when the time is right. Maybe that's what this project is all about – trusting that the dynamic, healing energy of Grace moments are just steps ahead. I start back up to my office, with fresh perspective and new hope, to begin again.
"You experience grief when you experience any change in your relationship to the world. ..."
Sameet Kumar: Grieving Mindfully
Before Grace can take center stage, her antithesis, grief, needs to be acknowledged. These each emanate from love – the love of ourselves, of others, and of the world we've come to understand and accept as ours; and, they both are able to hold dynamic space within the human heart. One is triggered by an unacceptable loss of something deeply loved and the other by the desire to re-establish healing spaces for love to flourish.
Grief answers to different names, many of which refer to where we express love – our hearts: we suffer through heavy hearts, heartache, heartbreak and broken heartedness. Though most often understood as bereavement, grief is not limited to loss through death. It can come alive in us through a move, a job change or loss, a divorce, life-altering illness, aging, care-giving, death of a pet, an unanticipated end to a beloved life ... and the list goes on. Despite grief being a conceptual presence rather than a material entity, we identify and feel grief as sensations, impressions and actions – a pounding hammer to our damaged, vulnerable nail. It is the powerful reaction to the loss of what we've grown to love and believe belongs in our life. Anything that separates us from such a love has the power to elicit grief. According to Kumar (Grieving Mindfully), grief happens to us systemically – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and interpersonally. He calls it a "black hole" with the power to plant the seeds of misery that, if we aren't careful, we might easily find ourselves sowing for the rest of our lives.
Most of what we understand about the grief of unwelcome change and accompanying loss comes from those belief systems, cultural traditions and family rituals and messages we've taken to heart. Here's how I once understood grief events: 1) unexpected and unpleasant change easily leads us to experience the loss of something critically important, something we believe is precious; 2) loss is bad because it messes with the intricate and intimate balance we have with our own reality; 3) losing what we love is so painful we are thrown into grieving; and 4) grief leaves us mired in hopelessness and heartbreak because that's what it always does. Generally, by this last statement I had stopped intellectualizing grief and had begun to emotionally move into the miserable cycle I most wanted to avoid.
Just for the next few moments, free yourself to open into another series of ideas that I discovered after my own son's death was actually more accurate: 1) change and loss are an acknowledged part of the natural flow of all life; 2) unexpected change and accompanying loss are inescapable; 3) our relationships and the objects of our love will inevitably evolve and/or disappear over time leaving us to face grief within our lifetime; and 4) how we decide to intentionally process the irrevocable losses we encounter has the power to create the lifestyle we lead during grief and beyond. Living powerlessly within inevitable grief is not a done deal, a hand dealt to us without our permission. We have choices, optional hands to fan out and study.
I finally spread out my own optional hand when all else was dark. The cards of my life journey lay there, bathed in a light I'd not noticed before – one that helped me more clearly see my present, sense a future, and then tentatively set in motion the charting of another path. This pathway's various tracks and channels all were lit with a common message: Let go! You don't have to dwell indefinitely in suffering. I followed the pathway as it continued: When the hottest fires of grief begin to abate, courageously and tenderly rouse yourself to notice the changes in your spirit, your body, and your heart. For within those spaces come deeper breaths, calmer thoughts and kinder memories. When I sensed my own softening, a slight shift of my heart, opening to more than despair, I began to pay attention.
During these moments Grace is as close as grief. It calls in this gentler time, asking us to accept what is, to be present in the Now of life, and to remain patient, allowing grief to simply exist within us. Without our resistance to its presence, grief will begin to move through and beyond, leaving room for the Grace whispers of our hearts. Surrendering to a Grace call takes strength. But once done, we can gradually notice the power, the trust and hope essential for us to participate in our own evolution – moving beyond dark into light, beyond pain into peace, beyond resistance into surrender.
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious."
Grace, like grief, is as vast, complex and individually intricate as the human experience. It is a tender word, not in a frail or breakable way, but in an intimately benevolent way. Grace is rife with meaning, a conceptual presence defined through synonyms, metaphors and personal examples. It's an abstraction, an idea that comes alive within the swirl of individual philosophies, varied worship styles and personal experiences. An extrasensory component, more mystical than material, Grace is felt and described through our senses and impressions in subtle and finely tuned ways, often beyond our conscious thought. Grace, once accepted, becomes an interacting character in our lives ... another living, available presence. At its essence, Grace is love – pure and accessible.
Depending on who's doing the explaining, Grace is credited with increasing energy, nurturing creativity, transforming emotions, relaxing mind and body, pouring out forgiveness, and providing hope and courage to any and all who are open to its blessings. It's considered synonymous with spiritual mercy, loving compassion, healing transformation, and God's unearned, unconditional salvation. Metaphorically, it's representative of a life jacket, a gift from the soul, a savior and guide, balance within disorder, a blessed pathway out of pain, ... the light at the end of the tunnel.
The powerful possibilities of Grace are obscured when we relegate it to just another vocabulary word. We can only make use of its gifts by understanding it is more than any one word. It appears most alive in extraordinary, often complicated experiences beyond the tangible. Catching a Grace moment requires awareness, the willingness to awaken to a personal truth – either something important is wrong and needs our attention, or we have been surprised awake by the clarity and beauty of a blessing that surrounds us. When we can intentionally admit we need to pay attention, flashes of Grace events come alive in and through us. A weight lifting from our mind and heart, an unexpected assurance that all will be well regardless of the clamor around us, experiencing relief or gratitude, smiling for no particular reason other than it just feels good, handling the pesky and tough details of life's daily reality more gently and hopefully – these are the stuff of Grace moving through our individual lives, whether or not we've learned to call it by name.
The power of Grace is most easily visible and magnified within community – those loving exchanges and essential connections and interactions among humankind. It is at work in the ready smiles of willing strangers who help one another; in the quiet, nonjudgmental listening of a friend; in the hope of a picket line and positive outcomes of a nonviolent demonstration; in heartfelt tears born of forgiveness; in apologies and thankfulness given without expectation; in authentically lived humility; in the selfless work of volunteering; in a joyful return or an unselfish departure; and in the tender intimacy of giving your fearless, difficult truth to another. We may not always know what to call them, but we know these moments when we see and feel them; they are loving, sacred experiences.
"When you fully accept you don't know, you give up struggling to find answers ... and that is when a greater intelligence can operate through you."
Eckhart Tolle: Stillness Speaks
It's taken years of tamping my own ego down, but I've finally come to understand Grace whispers as uniquely personal, intimate, soul-driven experiences. They are held within that spiritually-intelligent part of us originally sparked by the divine. When it senses we are open to our own needs, Grace wells up from our souls to enter our heart spaces and begin its whispering. I think of it moving throughout my heart, seeking out those places that long for it most and eventually coming to rest close to the darkness that is grief. I first became aware of it many years ago as a distraught teen; Grace flowed into a shadowed place in my heart and, unwittingly, I benefitted from its call. Even though I didn't understand then what had happened, how I let go to surrender shame into acceptance, I gratefully welcomed the gift. And then, clueless teenager that I was, I simply moved on to let life happen as it would. Throughout its ordinary and commonplace events, I rarely thought about that earlier transformational experience. Instead, I maintained a lifestyle balance by using my usual prescription: letting the ebb and flow of physical, emotional, human and cultural realities direct my thinking and interacting.
I welcomed the familiar, those most comfortable, practiced options to guide my decisions, and believed all things would unfold as they must. As a young adult I prepared myself to handle all that came my way – education, love, marriage, profession, children, change, losses, joys, happiness, pain – by using those ways I had accepted as true to absorb the inevitable weight of disappointment, sadness, anxiety, and even depression. Overall, I was an independent, a stoic, who learned to judiciously circle around all I experienced in order to enjoy, deny, ignore or rail against their impact on me. I was an ice skater skimming the surface, watching for expected pits in the ice and skirting them when I could, stumbling along when I couldn't.
Then, in middle age, unexpected and heartbreaking reality slammed me to the ice and I realized that I didn't have the skills to pick myself up and navigate to stable ground. My son, Matthew, died and a few years later, his step-father left our marriage. The precarious balance I had learned to appreciate, evaporated. Everything I believed true – the love, safety and trust of it all – wasn't. Adrift in unfamiliar, risky territory, I lost my way. I closed into myself tightly, resisting with all my might the miserable reality of my life. I had run out of options for my next moves. If I was to stay upright, something had to change.
I had to accept that the lifestyle I had loved would never return to me; my life would never be the same again. Out of viable alternatives, I stopped begging for the assurances of comfortable answers and surrendered to the unknown.
"Help is inherent in the call, and we either seek it and have a hand in the proceedings, or ... are pushed from behind by the soul's tough love."
Gregg Levoy: Callings
Ah, "the soul's tough love" – an intriguing and daunting idea to consider. I vision my soul doing some heaving lifting, pushing me to be accountable for and present in my own life. I'm pretty sure our soul's Grace knows when to step up and when to step back. When loss triggers grief in us it feels impossible to listen to anything beyond the sound of our own hearts breaking. And Grace stands by, waiting for us to notice there's more to hear. Grief professionals make distinctions between different levels of grief, naming them acute and subtle. Acute grief, often early in the process, is characterized by periods of intense and all-consuming distress. Subtle grief, available as time progresses, gives the bereaved some times of relative calm, the in-between moments when sorrow abates to the point we can think about something alive and vital, still present in our lives. Hearing a call for renewal from within is muted during despairing, acute periods of grieving. But Grace is patient. When the time is right and we're again present to our life, it will surface, calling to us and offering just the right questions to challenge and gentle us back to the living.
Calls will come. When that happens we have choices: we can be too mired in distress to hear a call; we can be awake to a call and purposely accept, neglect or deny it; we can be confused by a call, shake our head, but continue to listen; we can be closed to a call, hoping the push from deep inside somehow fades away. The whole idea of hearing, let alone answering a call is tricky in a world where, for many, noise is a welcome distraction.
Still, calls will come and with them also come questions, doubt and cynicism. We're listening for a voice out of ... where? What's supposed to happen? Am I going to hear an actual, divine voice and magically know what to do? Am I supposed to sense something? Do I see or hear someone call in a dream? Can I open a book and find perfectly appropriate passages that will jump off the page at me? Will random song lyrics deliver the menu to forgiving myself? If I tune into a religious service or to some self-help speaker could I get the recipe for lessening my suffering? Will a friend's words over coffee give me a spiritual direction? Really ... a little help here.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Finding Grace"
Copyright © 2018 Jane Nicolet.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface and Introduction, 1,
Essay 1: the call of Grace, 5,
Essay 2: amazing Grace, 23,
Essay 3: finding Grace in the mystery, 37,
Essay 4: Grace in the Now: time, transition and transformation, 51,
Essay 5: standing by: becoming Grace in stillness, 67,
Essay 6: recognizing Grace in community, 79,
Essay 7: finding Grace through ritual and legacy, 95,
Essay 8: beyond grief: moving through the paradox, 109,
Addendum: Parents tell their Stories, 123-340,
Reading Group Discussion Ideas, 345,