By Sue Markovitch: The night my dad died, my thirteen year old self huddled under the covers in the dark wondering what just happened. Mom was already sick. What were the four of us going to do? No one was there to ask, and a thought appeared that said, “You’re on your own. You don’t matter.” I shoved the thought down and pretended to sleep.

Mom battled for ten more years of life. After she died, I was revisited by thoughts of being on my own and abandoned. My unhealed wounds were met by fresh new ones that cried out in pain. “You are worthless.” I shoved those thoughts down and pretended to create a life of my own.

Years went by and I did create a life, but I was not free. Something was always there underneath the mask and behind the walls, leaking out in the form of addictions, compulsive eating, sadness and anger. I tried to perform my way out, to be good enough to overcome it. I tried everything I could on my own. Self help, workshops, books and therapies, marriage, a degree, even a picket fence.

I didn’t realize how far down in the pit I had gotten until I looked up. Everything I’d put in place fell apart, and I was giving up. Not knowing where else to turn, I walked through the doors of the biggest church in town one Sunday morning. I was hoping to be invisible so I slid up to the balcony and sat as the people around me stood. I had no idea why the music was making me cry uncontrollably. Or why I kept picturing my parents.

A torrent of judgment came from the back of my mind. “Aren’t you over this yet? Are you really still crying over them?” I was. I felt ashamed. It was a battle to sit though the service. Something in me wanted to run out the door. I didn’t know how to sit with what was being loosed.

A post in the bulletin caught my eye: a support group called Grief Share for people who had recently lost a loved one. My doubts swirled but I folded up the bulletin and took it with me when I left the church that day. As I walked to my car I felt the warmth of the sun for the first time after a very long winter.

A week later, I walked into a small room containing about fifteen chairs set up in a circle. People were sitting every other chair, heads down. I found a seat and closed my eyes. I could barely stand the pounding of my heart against the inside of my chest. I was terrified and wanted to leave but something said to stay. As others introduced themselves and shared their recent loss, I started to feel ridiculous. A widow talked about losing her husband of thirty-eight years. Then a young couple told of the loss of their child. I didn’t belong here.

Then it was to me. I couldn’t contain my sobs as the words came up from deep in my heart. “My dad died twenty seven years ago. My mom died seventeen years ago. I’m so sorry. I know I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be over it by now. But I’m not. I don’t know where else to go.”

My head was down. I didn’t want to see the judgment and the rejection. I was sure the leader of the support group would tap me gently on the hand and say, “You really need to try counseling.” I had already done that. I was sure the lovely widow would say, “Have some respect, I JUST lost my husband.” And I was sure the young couple would say, “How dare you even be here.”

When I opened my eyes, however, I was met with faces of compassion and acceptance. The leader said, “You are exactly where you are supposed to be.” They weren’t looking at me like I thought they would. It had been a lie. I’m not alone and I actually do matter.

Since my first experience with grace that day, I have come to share my story of healing with anyone who needs encouragement. I was radically healed by opening my heart to people who loved me. It turns out grief was something I had to work my way through, not shove down. It turns out that my life was never damaged beyond repair; I just believed it to be. I am whole and free to live a life filled with purpose and joy. That day was eight years ago and I have never been happier.

I learned that although we all have a story to tell, we are not our story. We are not our secrets. We all get a second chance. We are beautiful and free. And we are each worth more than we could ever imagine.