It can feel daunting and even overwhelming to try to find the right thing to say to a friend who is grieving – particularly one suffering the loss of a child, spouse, or parent. Mary Raymond returns to Bacon today to share what she’s learned from the New York Times bestseller Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.
From Mary: Most of us know Sheryl Sandberg from her 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Her book encouraged women to take risks, sit at the table, and embrace leadership opportunities at work. Sandberg started a movement and rose to fame as the newest version of the Silicon Valley unicorn: the woman who had it all.
On May 1, 2015, Sandberg lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, when he died suddenly of a cardiac arrhythmia and head injury while they were on vacation with friends. Lean In introduced readers to Sandberg’s love of data and her unique ability to translate complex research into practical guidance. In Option B she uses those same gifts to shepherd herself and her children out of the grief, loneliness, and despair they experienced after Goldberg’s death.
“Grief,” writes Sandberg, “is a demanding companion. In those early days and weeks and months it was always there, not just below the surface, but on the surface.” Sandberg acknowledges that she had no shortage of support from friends and family. However, she soon learned that not all attempts at support proved helpful. An acquaintance wrote her a letter explaining that she had lost her husband years before and found that time had not lessened her grief. “Try as I might,” the letter read, “I can’t come up with a single thing that I know will help you.” The letter chilled Sandberg and motivated her to call her co-author, Adam Grant, a psychologist and professor at Wharton. Was there really no end to this grief? Were she and her children doomed to soldier stoically through a joyless existence?
Grant helped Sandberg understand that “while grief was unavoidable, there were things I could do to lessen the anguish for myself and my children… While my grief would have to run its course, my beliefs and actions could shape how quickly I moved through the void and where I ended up.” Sandberg longed for Grant to show her a way out of the darkness, and the flashlight he gave her was the belief that “resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity – and we can build it.”
Buoyed by this insight, Sandberg learned that there are three “p’s” that inhibit recovery from setbacks: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. She quickly realized that she had fallen into each trap, starting with personalization. She had blamed herself for Dave’s death, convinced that if she had gotten to him sooner he would not have died. Barring that, she believed she could have noticed the signs of his impending cardiac event, stopping it before it proved fatal.
Pervasiveness convinces the bereaved that the loss will impact every aspect of life, offering no safe haven in which to recover in peace. Sandberg realized that once she was able to stop personalizing her role in her husband’s death, she “started to notice that not everything was terrible. My son and daughter were sleeping through the night, crying less, and playing more.” She returned to work, and though she felt fragile and confused by previously familiar routines, she treasured the moments when she was drawn into a discussion. For brief interludes – sometimes only for a second – she forgot the painful memories of her husband lying lifeless on the floor. This tiptoeing into normalcy chipped away at the pervasiveness of her grief.
The permanence of grief proved hardest for Sandberg to navigate. Though many people assured her that her grief would subside over time, she did not believe them. She projected forward to all the milestones that he would miss, and “the fear of forever without Dave was paralyzing.” Rabbi Nat Ezray counseled Sandberg to expect things to feel awful. On its face this seemed like particularly discouraging advice, but Sandberg realized the wisdom of such thinking when she noticed that she had “stronger second-derivative negative feelings than ever before. I wasn’t just grief-stricken; I was grief-stricken that I was grief-stricken. I wasn’t just anxious; I was meta-anxious.” Expecting to feel grief and anxiety relieved Sandberg of the accompanying judgment of the appropriateness of those feelings and of the pace of her own recovery.
As Sandberg learned which traps to avoid, she recovered her sense of agency. This came as a welcome relief after weeks and months of feeling entirely controlled by her grief. Encouraged by what she saw as her own growing resilience, she could again look outward and recognize that “we all deal with loss: jobs lost, loves lost, lives lost. The question is not whether these things will happen. They will, and we will have to face them. Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us… Sometimes we have less control than we think. Other times we have more.”
Even so, Sandberg pointed out that there are after-effects of going through adversity that compound the sense of grief and loss. For her, one of the worst was the feeling of isolation. While many friends and family members rallied around her, others withdrew. Intellectually, she understood that those who said nothing to her about her loss were likely just trying to avoid causing her more pain. She realized she had done the same thing with suffering friends, initially offering words of encouragement and then never bringing up the painful subject again for fear of saying the wrong thing.
Ever the teacher, Sandberg understood that since everyone will experience adversity, perhaps offering guidance on how to be a supportive friend would be beneficial to the people around her – and help her feel less alone. One month after Goldberg’s death, she shared a post on Facebook which “thanked my family and friends who had helped me through those incomprehensible first weeks. Then I did what proved so difficult to do with friends and colleagues face-to-face: I described how a casual greeting like ‘How are you?’ hurt because it didn’t acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary had happened. I pointed out that if people asked instead ‘How are you today?’ it showed that they were aware that I was struggling to get through each day.”
After the post, Sandberg noticed an immediate change in how friends and colleagues interacted with her. Because she had told them what she needed, they felt more comfortable approaching her – and she felt less alone. Additionally, strangers shared with her their own stories of grief and what her post had meant to them. Believing that sharing her pain had helped others increased her feelings of optimism and resilience.
Before she lost her husband, Sandberg had been a champion of women’s empowerment, so a particularly painful casualty of her grief was her diminished self-confidence. Sandberg learned that “loss of confidence is another symptom of pervasiveness: we are struggling in one area and suddenly we stop believing in our capabilities in other areas… My confidence crumbled overnight.” In those early days back at work she struggled to pay attention in meetings and felt ashamed of her still raw emotions. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg proved particularly comforting during this time. After she bemoaned how she had flailed in a meeting with a client, Zuckerberg calmly dissented and reminded her about two key points she had made which no one else had considered. Sandberg blossomed when someone pointed out her contributions and shrank when someone suggested she do less work “during this difficult time.” While empathy was appreciated, encouragement and inclusion buoyed her confidence.
When she wrote Lean In, Sandberg received criticism from single parents on her advice to find a partner who shared 50/50 in the work of raising children and maintaining a home. After losing her husband she acknowledged, “now I see how insensitive and unhelpful this was to so many single moms who live with 100/0.” Her wealth, status, and liberal bereavement leave gave her the space to heal without the additional burden of financial stress. Sandberg argues that “compassion at work shouldn’t be a luxury; it’s important to develop policies that give people the time off and the support they need.”
Slowly emerging from her grief, Sandberg found her curiosity returning as she examined how adversity can lead to “post-traumatic growth.” Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun studied this concept and noted that while some survivors of trauma continued to struggle with anxiety and depression after the triggering event, others bounced back to their original state of mental health. Interestingly, though, a third group emerged: those who bounced forward after tragedy. Tedeschi and Calhoun learned that this sub-group did not pretend they had not suffered. Rather, they acknowledged the coexistence of their vulnerability and their strength. Sandberg learned that “when we face the slings and arrows of life, we are wounded and the scars stay with us. But we can walk away with greater resolve.” Sandberg profiles survivors of adversity who pointed to their increased perspective and gratitude, deeper interpersonal connections, and greater senses of spirituality and meaning as welcome byproducts of painful experiences.
As Sandberg’s friend Katie Couric pointed out, “we’re all terminal.” We will all experience loss and adversity and watch our loved ones endure the same. The gifts of Option B are Sandberg’s assurance that we can endure pain and still experience joy again and her guidance on how to support our friends during their own dark days.
* * *
* * *
Top image: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_kavram’>kavram / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Image of Sheryl Sandberg: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/10-lessons-learned-sheryl-sandbergs-mantra-lean