How to Deal with Grief

One of the basic teachings of Buddhism is impermanence, which means nothing lasts forever, and that includes life. We know this, and yet we are constantly surprised when we lose someone we love. One minute they are here; the next they are gone. And the place in our lives where they used to be, becomes a gaping hole.

As we get older, we find ourselves losing loved ones—spouses, friends, family members—more and more often. These losses are always hard, but the hardest seem to be the loss of friends, as our social circles and support systems shrink.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “Everyone reacts differently to death and employs personal coping mechanisms for grief … It may take months or a year to come to terms with a loss. There is no ‘normal’ time period for someone to grieve.”

The first time I lost a friend I was only forty, and she was thirty-five. She died in a small-plane crash, and I was immobilized with grief. I had no guidance for how to deal with my loss, so I floundered for some time. Then I came across a book—I don’t remember how—that guided me through the grief process. It wasn’t the first time a book had found me just when I needed it and changed my life in some way.

This book was How to Survive the Loss of a Love by Harold H. Bloomfield, M.D., Melba Colgrove, PhD, and Peter McWilliams. It was first published in 1976 and immediately sold two million copies. I read it over and over and bought it for every person I knew who was experiencing the loss of a loved one. It has since been updated to include more current information on the subject, as well as the authors’ personal experiences and reflections.

The book walks us through the kinds of losses we rarely think about but cause us to grieve nonetheless: obvious losses, not-so-obvious losses, limbo losses, and losses related to age (which I need to read again). One of the authors is a doctor, one is a psychologist, and one is a poet. Peter McWilliams nails every emotion with precisely the right words. It is his poetry that has stayed with me all these years. I would love to share all of it with you, but copyright laws forbid it. So, here is just a small part of one poem about the healing process.

“the sun will rise
in a few minutes.

“it’s been doing it
for as long as I
can remember.

“maybe I should
pin my hopes
on important,

“but often
like that”

I also remember clearly the stages of grief, which overlap and don’t always occur in order. But one way or another, they do occur. Understanding these stages helped me see that what I was experiencing was normal and that I would get through it. According to the authors, they are:

  1. shock/denial/numbness
  2. fear/anger/depression
  3. understanding/acceptance/moving on

If you have lost someone and are struggling with how to cope with your loss, don’t make this a do-it-yourself project. It’s too big to handle on your own. Reach out for support in whatever form speaks to you. There is so much more to How to Survive the Loss of a Love, and of course, this is not the only book or source of help to guide you through the grieving process. Besides books, there is also a vast array of Internet of resources, hotlines with emergency phone numbers, and therapists who specialize in grief counseling. Reach out and ask for help.