Making the Best of Option B: Lessons from Sheryl Sandberg

By: Sasha Roxanna As many of you may have seen on Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In recently wrote a wonderfully eloquent piece about grief, after the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, a month ago. It was not death by suicide, but reading her essay, I found myself nodding along, eyes teary. So many of her thoughts about the grieving process really resonated with me that I thought we could all benefit from her words.

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. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.

My sister died three weeks before I turned 25. I spent most of the next six months (or more) in the void. Days passed and I couldn't tell you if it rained or if the sun shone, what I ate or what I wore. I stopped speaking to anyone outside of my immediate family. I went to work and came home. I cried in stairwells. I was so consumed and overwhelmed by the pain, the guilt, the heartache; I felt like I was drowning in it and I had no idea how to breathe, to find footing, to find the shore. It took a long time for me to find joy in a beautiful day, to find my sense of humor, to begin to enjoy the little things. It has taken me longer still to choose life and find meaning - to find a reason to keep going. Where ever you find joy, where ever you find meaning, grab it. Use it as a lifesaver. Get to shore.

I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.

People are going to say really meaningless things to you. Some will say things that are hurtful. Some of the really meaningless things will be incredibly hurtful. There are people that I will never speak to again because of the things that they said to me. But I understand now, that the vast majority of people really do have the best intentions. They want to be helpful. They mean well. Forgive them for not knowing the right thing to say. If they are there, if they want to be there, forgive them for not knowing what to say.

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.

You will find a new normal. It won't be as good. She said it. We know it. Nothing will ever give me my sister's voice, her laughter, her words. Nothing can fill the void of her absence. It's like having a phantom limb - I keep searching but it's not there. My life has irrevocably changed, but it can still be pretty great sometimes. I miss her most when things are going well because she's not here to share in the joy. But I recognize that my life can still be better than good, even if it will never be as good.

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.

It is okay to ask for help. You can't do everything by yourself and trying to do so is detrimental to your health, your well being, your family and your friends. This is another thing that I have difficulty with - but I am getting better. Go to a support group. See a therapist. Ask someone else to make dinner or do the laundry or pick up the kids from school. Your mind, body and heart need to process this. It's important to acknowledge that you won't be able to do everything you did before - to be who you were as if nothing happened. And that is okay.

I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. 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. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” 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.

This is another hard one. Once, my sister moved out of the house and went to live with an Uncle. She didn't come home for Christmas and she didn't come for our other sister's December birthday. But she came for my birthday. When she died, I spent some time in denial. I waited and she didn't come home for our sister's birthday. She didn't come back for Christmas. When the clock struck midnight on my birthday, I looked at the door, hoping she'd walk in and all of this had been a lie, a bad dream... She didn't show up. And that's when I knew this was really happening. I've never been able to get even a little bit excited about my birthday since. But I am learning to be grateful - that I have both my parents, my other two sisters, my friends, my family, my work, my pets. I am in good health. I have a good job. I have a roof over my head and I know where my next meal is coming from. There are so many with so much less. Sometimes, this makes me even sadder - perspective can be difficult - but it's important to feel the grace around you - to acknowledge it, in spite of this loss. This loss is not one we chose. It's one that chooses us. But we can choose to embrace Sheryl's lessons, or to re-learn them, even though it is not the answer we want. It is only the answer that gets us to tomorrow. You can read Sheryl's full essay here:

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