Book Review: “A Buddhist Grief Observed” by Guy Newland

A long term Buddhist practitioner examines his grief in the wake of his beloved partner's death

A Buddhist Grief Observed book cover

In the tradition of “A Grief Observed,” C.S. Lewis’s famous reflections on grief and loss in the wake of his wife’s death in 1960, Buddhist practitioner Guy Newland delves into an exhaustive examination of his own experience of bereavement after his partner passed away from cancer in his book “A Buddhist Grief Observed.” A devout Christian, C.S. Lewis examined his grief through the lens of his religion. Guy Newland, on the other hand, unpacks his grief in the context of the Buddhist spiritual tradition, questioning if and how his long-term commitment to Buddhism prepared him for this crushing loss, and if it can help him cope.

Guy Newland is a scholar, professor of religion and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University. His book has the scope and theoretical depth of a scholarly work on the subject of grief. Yet it retains the emotional immediacy of deeply personal self-reflection. It’s a real feat in that sense. “A Buddhist Grief Observed” sews together a comprehensive knowledge of Buddhist doctrine and the work of influential Buddhist teachers with a confessional quality that will resonate with anyone who’s experienced a major loss. His writing is both thoughtful and raw. There’s humor there, and there’s helpful advice about how to stay mindful in the throes of emotional trauma and how to turn to others for help.

Newland is also very honest about which elements of Buddhist philosophy and practice did not serve him as he was grappling with his grief, which revealed a level of honesty that earned him my trust. He urges us to be gentle with ourselves and to honor the memory of those who have died by treating ourselves kindly as we move through our grief. He reminds us that “shock and pain are not a personal failure. It is cruel to judge ourselves so harshly; it is unhelpful to blame ourselves for being human.”

Guy Newland in his study


But “A Buddhist Grief Observed” is more than just a personal reflection on grief and loss. Newland offers helpful advice as well. He encourages his readers to ask for help from their fellow “mortally wounded” individuals. (And “Everyone is mortally wounded,” he says.) He also includes a section in the book called “How To Help,” in which he offers advice for responding to others’ grief. Often, well meaning family and friends find themselves at a loss for how to behave or what to say to a grieving person. So he offers us some very skillful advice for those who want to show up but might not know how. His writing is absolutely beautiful in its elegant simplicity, and I found myself tearing up throughout.

“To be human is to set sail for the next shipwreck,” Newland says. Then he reminds us that we have both the navigation tools and a “mortally wounded” crew to lean on the next time we encounter stormy seas.

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