How to Survive the Loss of a Love

Hannah du Plessis art
We all have both a need to be ourselves, and a need to belong.

When confronted with the loss of a friend, a family member, a dear one, our reactions differ. Our experience is thus both personal and universal — there is nothing that is more permanent than this kind of loss. It's an overwhelming feeling, likely compounded when it happens to someone in the public eye, or with a public he/she serves.

Personal stories can be very powerful. I was quite moved recently when I read Sheryl Sandberg's heartfelt note about her late husband David Goldberg. She says:

I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.

In the post, Sandberg has the presence to thank supporters and share what she has learned:

And this is why I am writing: to mark the end of sheloshim and to give back some of what others have given to me. While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through. Some who opened their hearts were my closest friends. Others were total strangers who have shared wisdom and advice publicly. So I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else. In the hope that there can be some meaning from this tragedy.

Her point about learning what it feels like to receive comfort from people, especially in the form of reassurance, is a valuable lesson for us to learn. Because we do not know how to help, or how to talk about it. At work, for example, she says:

Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why—they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say? I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in.

Tribes and communities used to teach us those things, they are a very important aspect of culture. There are many more lessons in the note:

  • practical things do matter
  • life is precious and temporary
  • support networks and communities matter a great deal
  • asking for help is a necessary part of being human (this hits close to home, I have a hard time asking — I also am the oldest in my family, always in front, strong, etc.)
  • resilience can be learned –

Adam M. Grant taught me that three things are critical to resilience and that I can work on all three. Personalization—realizing it is not my fault. He told me to ban the word “sorry.” To tell myself over and over, This is not my fault. Permanence—remembering that I won’t feel like this forever. This will get better. Pervasiveness—this does not have to affect every area of my life; the ability to compartmentalize is healthy. Adversity has a way to teach us many lessons. And sometimes we are lucky as our loss is not as final as confronting a death.


We can all benefit from a more open and honest mode of communication with each other, of knowing that it's okay to ask and to speak openly about what we feel — that, too is the product of culture. We do have the tools to become better communicators and this in turn will enrich our lives and transform our workplace.

Hannah du Plessis taught us the value of learning about nonviolent communication at Dare Conference. Her premise:

Much of what passes for communication at work doesn’t connect us with our colleagues. When we diagnose, judge, or assert our status, we block empathy. Real communication isn’t a quest for control: it helps people to connect, learn from each other, and discover new possibilities.

Hannah was raised to keep conversations peaceful and pleasant:

If I thought my opinion might cause conflict, I’d keep it to myself. This didn’t serve me. When I was on the verge of losing my business, I realized the consequences of giving up my voice. During this crisis I learned about nonviolent communication (NVC), a way of speaking honestly without attacking others.

Watch the full talk below.

Hannah du Plessis: Use nonviolent communication to connect with colleagues from Together London on Vimeo.

Learning to choose the appropriate word helps us change how we connect with others. As Hannah says in her talk, we can learn to express our feelings, and our needs.


What do empathy and emotion look like as seen through the eyes of children?

Pixar's latest release, Inside Out is a lighthearted and entertaining take on the interplay between emotions and memories, and they role in how we behave in our relationships. The Guardian labeled it a remarkably intelligent treatment of one of the most complicated and confusing issues in philosophy: the self — that kids will get first:

Most critics have focused on how this neat device teaches difficult lessons in emotional maturity, most notably how you can’t be happy all the time and that sadness has its role to play. That’s true. But, albeit in schematic and simplified form, the film also reflects some of the most important truths about what it means to be an individual person.

The first of these is that there isn’t actually a single, unified you at all. Your brain is not a little world full of anthropomorphic creatures, of course. But it is made up of various different, often competing impulses. You are simply how it all comes together, the sum of your psychic parts.

This, however, is just the first crack at the myth of the enduring, unified self. What the film also shows is that each of these parts is impermanent. Riley’s personality is represented by a series of islands that reflect what matters most to her: friendship, honesty, family, goofiness and hockey. But as life becomes difficult, each of these in turns threatens to crumble. And that is how it is in the real world: as we grow and change and life takes it toll, some of the things that matter most to us will endure, others will fall away and new ones will come in their place.


“We deal with many types of loss in our lives, with varying degrees of consequence. When an emotional injury takes place, the body begins a process as natural as healing a physical wound,” say Harold Bloomfield, Melba Colgrove, and Peter McWilliams in How to Survive the Loss of a Love.

The book is very simple. It's formatted to have straightforward prose on the left side, and (with a few exceptions) short, original poems on the right side. It provides support and comfort through brevity — covering such topics like mechanics of the healing process, reminders to be kind to ourselves, to seek help and guidance, and so one — and empathy, through the brief poems.

The book's emotional first aid on page 20 says:

One: You will survive

  • you will get better
  • no doubt about it
  • the healing process has a beginning, a middle, and an end
  • keep in mind, at the beginning, that there is an end. It's not that far off. You will heal
  • nature is on your side, and nature is a powerful ally
  • tell yourself, often, “I am alive. I will survive.”
  • you are alive
  • you will survive

 Two: If you need it, get help at once

It takes courage to speak up, it takes courage to ask for help. We connect in so many ways — emotions are one of the most powerful. They bind us to our self, and to each other.

Our experiences are richer because of our feelings.

Rising Strong Trailer from Brené Brown on Vimeo.


[art by Hannah du Plessis]

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