“I can’t imagine.”
It’s a phrase Sheryl Sandberg heard often after her husband, Dave Goldberg, unexpectedly died at age 48 in 2015. In her recent book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, cowritten with psychology professor Adam Grant, Sandberg paints a brutally honest picture of what grief looks like. “I can’t imagine, either,” she’d often reply. “But I have no choice.”
Sandberg’s words reminded me of one of my own brushes with grief. “I Can Only Imagine” by MercyMe was one of the songs performed at the funeral of a friend, Gabe, who died the day before my twentieth birthday. When “I Can Only Imagine” started to play in the church on the day of his funeral, I watched as some of his close friends walked out. “Gabe would have hated this song,” some scoffed under their breath. Somehow suggesting in soft-rock hues that our friend was in a better place failed to soothe. Some of us were still stuck in the gorge.
I may not have experienced something as earth-shattering as losing an immediate family member, but my experience losing a dear friend made me relate to how Sandberg described receiving platitudes in the face of grief. In Option B, Sandberg explains how phrases such as “You’ll get through this” and “It will get better” were meaningless to her during the period of acute grief. Similarly, it’s common for religious people to admit that phrases such as “He or she is in a better place” bring little comfort in the depths of loss.
Rather than paint over these darker feelings of grief, Sandberg and Grant say the healthiest way to process grief is by “leaning into the suck,” as Sandberg’s rabbi put it. “Expect it to be awful,” and honor your feelings as they come. Being patient with themselves and exercising self-compassion, Grant instructed Sandberg, is how some people not only endure hard experiences but grow stronger in spite of them. It’s this outlook that paves the way for something called post-traumatic growth.
When we don’t honor our feelings—by shutting them off or trying to rush them along—we can create bigger problems for ourselves. As Prince Harry shared last month in an interview with the Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon for her podcast, “I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12 and, therefore, shutting down all of my emotions for the last twenty years has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well. . . . My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum because why would that help? [I thought] it’s only going to make you sad; it’s not going to bring her back.”
But after what Harry described as two years of total chaos, he started to talk to a therapist. “All of a sudden, all of this grief that I have never processed started to come to the forefront, and I was like, there is actually a lot of stuff here that I need to deal with,” he said.
“Like others who experience crucibles, Prince Harry tried to avoid thinking about his loss, but his active mind kept bringing it back all the time,” Bill George, senior fellow at Harvard Business School and author of Discover Your True North wrote for Fortune this month. “His story reminds us all to cope with our crucibles, fully process grief to make sense of it before turning it into personal growth and flourishing.”
With people as noteworthy as Sheryl Sandberg and Prince Harry speaking out about grief, it would seem that, much like burnout has been getting worldwide attention the past couple years, grief is having a moment. And we’re all going to be better for it.
"Leaning into the suck" doesn’t mean shutting out all the good. In fact, Sandberg and Grant wrote, the darkness will pass, but we have to “help it along.” For the grieving person, that involves acknowledging the positive things in their lives.
Sandberg kept a journal and began jotting down things she was grateful for that day, or accomplishments she’d made that day (such as paying attention through most of a meeting—yes, an accomplishment for a person in the midst of acute grief). Sophie Caldecott, a friend and colleague at Verily, mentioned a similar thing in an Instagram post recently. After losing her father three years ago, she wrote, “I was out of my mind with grief” to the point where she couldn’t handle a gratitude journal. “I couldn’t tell myself to feel anything at that time, let alone gratitude,” she wrote. But she started keeping a "beauty journal, which was just a notebook where I wrote down at least one thing a day that struck me. A flock of seagulls flying overhead in the morning light, mist on the river as I walked home in the evening, the refreshing crisp taste of olives and a glass of cold white wine, a freckle on my daughter’s knee.” Ultimately, Sophie found that “beauty takes you out of yourself, and then before you realize what has happened, you are feeling all sorts of emotions again; you’re looking outward and connecting with the world; you’re starting to heal.”
Sandberg and Grant distilled these components of healing into digestible chapters of the book. People who avoid the three dangerous Ps are on the surest road of recovery. These people work hard not to personalize the tragedy (i.e., blame themselves or think it’s all about them); they curb temptations to view the tragedy as pervasive (that it will affect every part of their lives); and they strive to remind themselves that the pain is not permanent. These things don’t come naturally for many people. But they make all the difference.
Similarly, those recovering from the loss of a loved one need to talk about their grief—Sandberg’s constant "elephant in the room." I, too, remember that when my friend died, my biggest fear, aside from him being completely gone, was that I’d forget him. I sought out mutual friends to reminisce with and met his mom out for lunch. It made all the difference.
As someone once told me, “Life is fair. Sooner or later, it breaks everyone’s heart." Option B was written on this premise. Everyone is living some kind of option B at some point, after option A spectacularly falls apart. It’s up to us to prepare for it—there is, in fact, such a thing as “pre-traumatic growth,” the book informs—or to step up to the challenge when it rears its ugly face. For those who seek post-traumatic growth, Sandberg and Grant write, “In the wake of the most crushing blows, people can find greater strength and deeper meaning.”
Famed Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” I can look back and undoubtedly see how my friend Gabe’s life affected mine for the better. I am thankful for having shared time with him while he was here. Just thinking of the road trip he and a friend of mine took together days before his death gives me peace. I have not forgotten. And I take these memories, gratitude, and appreciation for the fragility of life as I live forward.
Photo Credit: The Kitcheners