Though we are more vulnerable than we think, we are stronger than we even know.
Sheryl Sandberg is well known as COO of Facebook and author of the popular and pivotal “Lean In”.
To me, one of the most poignant messages in Lean In was this: make your partner a real partner. By this Sandberg meant that if women are to lean in at work, they need to be able to lean out at home. If men are to lean in at home, they need to be given permission, and celebrated, for leaning out at work. Equality in the workplace depends on equality in our homes.
Sandberg wrote at length about her life with husband Dave Goldberg, and their equal partnership in marriage and parenthood. So it was with shock and sadness that the world learnt of 47-year-old Goldberg’s sudden passing. On 1 May, 2015, Sandberg and her two children were propelled into unimaginable grief.
30 days later, Sandberg reached out to the public in a Thanksgiving Facebook post. “Let me not die, while I am still alive”, she wrote. This Jewish prayer finally making some sense to her.
Sandberg’s post went on to talk about finding meaning in the tragedy and the lessons she had learnt about grief. She wrote about the magnifying effect of the “three Ps”. Personalisation – thinking a loss is our fault, permanence – thinking the effects will last forever, and pervasiveness – the belief that the loss will impact every part of our lives.
Sandberg ended the post on a solemn but optimistic note. She wrote of her sadness when trying to make arrangements for a “father figure” to attend a father-child event with her son. She cried to a friend, “But I want Dave”. Her friend replied, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.” Sandberg promised to do that.
Like Sandberg’s famous TED talk on women and work led her to write Lean In, the public reaction to the Facebook post on the typically hidden experience of grief led her to write again. Option B, the book, is joint effort between Sandberg and Adam Grant.
Option B reads much like Lean In – personal, approachable and peppered with evidence and anecdotes. But of course, its far more sombre. It’s confronting to read and talk about and to write about here. But I know that loss – job loss, pregnancy loss, the loss of loved ones – is a universal experience and I can’t help but think that if we all had a bit more of a roadmap, and a language, for the experience, we might be able to help ourselves and one another a little more effectively.
Like grief, Option B follows a natural “U” curve of melancholy – starting with the story of Goldberg’s death and the crushing aftermath and moving steadily back to hope.
Sandberg and Grant dedicate a great portion of the book to the return of hope. They discuss “bouncing forward”. That is, the rejection of the idea that one can “bounce back” from a life changing event, when what, or who, was back there is no longer there. Bouncing forward is about finding a new normal, and the possibility of “post traumatic growth”. This all comes to a head in my favourite chapter: “Taking Back Joy”.
Save for the odd Christmas card, I rarely read about or talk about the concept of joy. How it feels and how we find it. We talk a lot about happiness and contentment. But rarely joy. To me, joy is more tangible and visceral than happiness. It’s when you’re inside an emotion, smiling or laughing or thinking intently. Joy can be found in flow – the state of total absorption in a task. For me, that comes from intense conversation, working with my hands, writing or moving fast through nature.
So for Sandberg, the loss of her husband appeared to spell the end of joy. As she wrote in her 30 day post, “I know I will never feel pure joy again”. But, as time went on, Sandberg knew, and those around her knew, that a life without joy is no life at all. Still, it came as a shock when she began to experience fleeting moments of it. One night at a party with close friends, Sandberg found herself dancing with an old, platonic friend to a favourite song. She danced, she sang, and she promptly burst in to tears. She questioned her friend Adam Grant about her “meltdown”. He wasn’t surprised. “Of course this was the first moment you were happy”, he said, “You haven’t been doing anything that brings you joy”.
When facing adversity – hard, stressful, busy times – or worse, grief, we cannot expect to feel joy unless we seize it. Sandberg quotes Annie Dillard when she writes, “How we spend our days, is how we spend our lives.” Rather than waiting until we’re happy to enjoy the small things, we should go and do the small things that make us happy. This is how we take back joy.
Sandberg has such an incredible command of herself, and ability to study her thoughts and actions – firstly on leadership, and now on loss. Sandberg was, and still is, a magnificent leader. The fact that she is willing to lay herself bare in order to teach others about grief just goes to show her immense capacity for humility and generosity of spirit. I cannot wait to read her next book.
Thanks for reading this. It’s a bit tough and sad. May your Option A be always available. And if you know someone who is wrestling with an Option B, may this book help you to help ease their way.
Thought Leader(s): Sheryl Sandberg
Source(s): Sandberg, S (2017) Option B, Random House.