Sheryl Sandberg is opening up about battling grief in the wake of her husband Dave Goldberg’s 2015 death. In Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, the Facebook COO details the horror of finding her husband’s body in a fitness center while they were on vacation, and how she and her family coped in the aftermath.
In a new interview with USA Today, Sandberg candidly discusses a part of the grieving process that left her feeling alone: No one knew what to say to her. “After Dave died, it wasn’t just the overwhelming grief, which I wrote about; it was this real feeling of isolation,” she says. “I used to drop my kids at school and everyone waves, walking to work, and everyone chit-chats. And there was just a lot of silence. I felt like a big elephant was following me around.”
Sandberg says she “felt like a ghost,” adding that people would look at her and were so afraid to say the wrong thing that they wouldn’t say much at all. “I understood that, because I used to do the same thing,” she says. “I used to think if I brought up something hard, I was reminding the person. You can’t remind me Dave died. I know Dave died.”
Sandberg says that feeling of isolation drove her to write an emotional Facebook post in June 2015 in which she paid tribute to Goldberg and also addressed the fact that there was always an “elephant in the room” after his death.
Sandberg raises an important question: What should you say to someone who has suffered a loss?
Licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago, tells Yahoo Beauty that’s a common challenge. “We all struggle with how deal with loss — it is a painful part of life, and though loss is a reality, most of us don’t know what to say when someone else is grieving,” he says. “We want to make sure that we are thoughtful and kind, and that we don’t say anything that will make the situation worse. Yet often, our delicateness around those who are grieving can make things more uncomfortable.”
Gail Saltz, M.D., a psychiatrist and the author of The Power of Different, tells Yahoo Beauty that it’s human nature to subconsciously want to avoid people who are grieving because we don’t want to imagine the pain the person is feeling. But once you’re aware of that tendency, it’s easier to be around someone who is grieving and offer support.
Licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark tells Yahoo Beauty that it’s a good idea to follow the lead of the person who is grieving (Sandberg mentioned in her Facebook post that at one of her children’s events, she kept her eyes on the ground because she didn’t want to talk, but other times she was willing). “Aim to be supportive and focused on their experience — not yours,” she says. “Ask them how they’re doing and offer to be helpful.”
Tamar Gur, M.D., a women’s health expert and reproductive psychiatrist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Beauty that you can never go wrong by telling someone who is grieving that you’re there for them and they’re not alone. However, she says, avoid saying things like, “I can’t imagine how you feel” and “this is so horrible,” since they’re well aware of those facts. You can also put a hand on their shoulder or arm, but Gur says it’s best not to go for a hug unless they indicate they want one. “Err on the side of space and gentleness,” she says. “Some people are not huggers, and in times of grief, they can feel especially fragile.”
Jed Magen, associate professor and chairman in the Department of Psychiatry at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Beauty it’s also perfectly fine to say you don’t know what to say, but you’re thinking about the person who is grieving. “These are real feelings, and most often individuals who have lost a loved one will want to know that others are thinking about them and thus acknowledging their loss,” he says.
Because grief is not something that happens on one day and goes away the next, Saltz says it’s important to continue to offer support to someone who is grieving. That can be in the form of asking, “How are you doing today?” which acknowledges that the grieving process can be long. Klow agrees. “When people suffer a loss, the outpouring of support is typically there in the first few weeks, yet the grieving process often goes on much, much longer,” he says. “Keeping the other person in mind and checking in on them weeks and months after the loss can be very helpful.”
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