Chapter 39: Dealing with loss

For most of my life, I’d never had anyone close to me die — not a parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandparent, good friend. Then in 2009, my grandfather died. Joe Murphy wasn’t just my grandpa … he was my hero, and he was one of the biggest reasons I became a writer. I named my publishing company that published this book, Pipe Dreams Publishing, after his column that ran in the Guam newspaper for four decades.

This was a man who had been a major part of my existence for all my life, someone I loved dearly, and suddenly he was gone.

It was a shock to me, this loss, so great I couldn’t hold it in my head, nor wrap my heart around it. I sat dazed as I watched my mom and her siblings sobbing with grief and wished I could take this pain from them and carry it away.

I didn’t know how to grieve, having never done it, and so instead I did what I do best: I found gratitude that I ever had this man in my life, that he shaped me in so many ways. I’m not saying this is how everyone should deal with profound loss, but that’s what I found comfort in at the time.

Perhaps the most difficult life change to deal with is when we lose a loved one. How can the Zen Habits Method help?

I’m not going to promise that the method will heal all wounds and take away anyone’s grief. We’re human, and we grieve when we lose someone we love, and that’s OK. There is nothing wrong with grieving at all, and in fact I think it’s necessary for the living.

The problem comes when we don’t know how to move on from the grief and don’t know how to cope. I’d like to talk about how to cope.

How to cope

First, let yourself grieve. Don’t block it out, don’t think that you shouldn’t. Just accept your grief as a part of your experience. This grief, too, is impermanent, and will pass like everything else, but it’s here for now. See it as a stormy cloud over you, but accept the showers of pain that wash over your upturned face.

Next, turn mindfully toward your grief. See the Mind Movie that you hold — that this person should be alive, a part of your life, not dead, and that you should be your old Self, the person who still had a father or mother or whomever it is you’ve lost. Perhaps almost as painful of the loss of your loved one is the loss of your old Self. This old Self has died and can’t be recovered. See the ideal you have that this Self should still be alive (but isn’t).

The suffering comes from wanting the Mind Movie to be true, even though it can’t possibly be true. You wish things were different from how they really are, and you can’t make your wish come true.

So see if you can hold less tightly to this ideal and turn to the reality in front of you. Your life is still pretty great, if you notice and appreciate everything about the current moment and find gratitude for what you have.

See if you can embrace the impermanence of life: yes, you’ve lost someone great, but the fleetingness of your time with anyone makes that time more valuable, something to be cherished, more sweet because of its evanescence. This ever-changing nature allows for reinvention, which means you can decide who the new you will be, what your new life will be. Because reinvention is possible — actually a fact of life — you were able to be influenced by this loved one while they were with you, as you couldn’t have been if you always stayed the same.

Finally, let this death be a stark reminder of the impermanence of life, and let that reminder spur you to make the most of what you have left of this dewlike life. In this light, if the loved one’s death is a lesson on making the most of life … then wasting life on wishing things were different would be a waste of your loved one’s death.

Again, I don’t pretend that this method will dissolve your grief, but perhaps it will help you to cope.

Other losses

Death of someone you love is just one kind of loss, though it is often the most severe. There are many other kinds of losses, both small and great:

  • Loss of a job.
  • Loss of a home or car.
  • Loss from disaster.
  • Loss of a limb.
  • Loss of your youth.
  • Loss of a romantic relationship (breakup or divorce).
  • Loss of a family (if your parents get divorced).
  • Loss of your health.

We’ll talk more about illness and relationships in the next couple of chapters, but I just wanted to point out that the process of dealing with these losses is the same as coping with the death of a loved one.

Let yourself grieve and accept that grieving process as a part of life, though a temporary condition.

See the ideal, that the thing you lost should still be in your life, that you should be your old Self, and see how your Childish Mind wants that ideal and is causing your suffering because it can’t have the ideal.

Hold less tightly to the ideal and turn to your reality, appreciating everything about it, finding gratitude for what you have. See the opportunity for learning, growth, reinvention, and embrace the impermanent nature of life in all its glory. Reinvent the new you, and let your loss be a reminder to make the most of what life you have left.

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