Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and her late husband Dave Goldberg in 2014. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
“I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.”
On Wednesday, Sheryl Sandberg shared a post on her Facebook page on what she has learned and realized while grieving the death of her late husband, Dave Goldberg.
She shares that Dave’s death has taught her the true meaning of being a mother — through being there for her own children in their grief, and in seeing how her mother has supported her in her own grief. She also talks about the importance of supporting others when they are feeling at their lowest — how people who lose a loved one often feel like they have the rug pulled out from under them, and then experience that feeling over and over again. She explains that she sensed fear and uncertainty among her coworkers when she returned to work — people not knowing what to do or say around her — and that the best way to conquer that was to let those people in and allow them to see her at her most vulnerable.
Sandberg’s post marks the end of the Jewish period of shloshim, the 30 days of mourning following the death of a spouse, and contains lessons helpful to us all when we encounter loss in our own lives. Below, six especially notable ones:
Lesson No. 1: Choose to find meaning in your life.
A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: ‘Let me not die while I am still alive.’ I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do. 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….I want to choose life and meaning.
In an article on working through the stages of grief, psychologist William Doverspike, PhD, quotes the writing of Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who said, “Suffering ceases to be suffering in some way in the moment that it finds a meaning.” Doverspike makes the added connection that finding meaning in the life of a lost one is yet another way to both mourn and heal.
Lesson No. 2: It’s not going to be OK — and that, in itself, is OK.
Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth.
The Mayo Clinic’s Edward Creagan, MD, an oncologist, concurs, noting that while time helps, it doesn’t cure. Part of the mourning process is learning to accept this new normal, the way that life continues even in the face of pain.
Lesson No. 3: Ask for help.
I have learned to ask for help — and I have learned how much help I need. Until now, I have been the older sister, the COO, the doer and the planner. I did not plan this, and when it happened, I was not capable of doing much of anything. Those closest to me took over. They planned. They arranged. They told me where to sit and reminded me to eat. They are still doing so much to support me and my children.
Creagan takes this one step further, reminding those coping with grief that a form of help is first helping yourself: Sleeping, eating, and exercising are all especially critical while coping with loss.
Lesson No. 4: You can become more resilient.
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.
Virginia Woolf famously wrote: “A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.” Resilience is nothing if not a form of growth and change. Her words beautifully echo Sandberg’s conviction to remember the agency she does hold over her own life, and the ways she can utilize that agency for self-improvement and healing.
Lesson No. 5: Don’t take anything for granted. Practice gratitude.
As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted…. My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.
Writing on Maria Shriver’s “Igniting Architects of Change” site, Kelly Buckley, who lost her son when he was only 23 years old, discusses a pact she made with her surviving son to find one thing to be grateful for each day. The two mutually acknowledged that only in practicing gratitude would they be able to survive their loss. She wrote: “[F]resh strawberries, naps…birds, chats with my son or a moment of normalcy with my husband. I started to see that all these one little things were actually the big things that really gave meaning to my life.”
Lesson No. 6: “Kick the shit out of option B.”
I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave. I want option A.” He put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”
It is a powerful statement: A traumatic loss eliminates, always, the existence of option A. But in finding meaning, practicing gratitude, asking for help, and learning resilience, one can find a way to not simply to continue on, but to truly move forward. Option B may never be the wanted option, but you can still make a life of meaning by recognizing your loss and giving your new normal your all.
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