Option A isn’t available. You can’t have what you want. Whether you want a loved one back or you want something in your life that can no longer happen, you’ll have to do something different. Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy is what you do when you can’t have what you want.
The backstory for the book is that Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, David Goldberg, died. She had to learn to deal with it. Sheryl is (and was) the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and David was the CEO of Survey Monkey. David had hired Adam Grant for a talk at Survey Monkey, and the couple had formed a friendship with Adam. (For more of Adam Grant’s work, please see Originals, Give and Take, and Think Again.)
Though they’re listed as co-authors and despite the co-writing, the perspective is intentionally Sheryl’s. This was done to create a consistency of story and to improve the flow of the book. It must have been successful, because the book is a great path through the grieving of Sheryl and the children that she and David shared.
Five minutes into a meeting, you look up from your thoughts and wonder what everyone is talking about and, more importantly, “Why does it matter?” Losing a loved one can have the effect of radically restructuring your perception of life and, as a consequence, what is important. We all live by a set of expectations about how the future will be. Couples expect to grow old together to watch their children’s children. We don’t necessarily have a picture of the car we’ll drive or even the house we’ll live in. We do, however, expect life to follow a somewhat orderly, forward progression. If you lose a spouse or other loved one unexpectedly, the result is that your predictions of the future are invalidated in a moment – and that is disruptive.
Simple problems that needed no thought before consume you, because without the anchors you relied on, you feel compelled to consider every possibility and to look for ways that your perspectives may be wrong. We’re suddenly launched into a world of doubt unlike any that you might have experienced before.
With our perceptions torn down and every decision requiring more thought, it’s no wonder that we’ll reprioritize things that previously would have fallen into the background. Looking in, people are sometimes confused by the seemingly radical readjustment of priorities and meaning in someone’s life after a loss – but in the context of having to evaluate the guilt you have about the loss, it can make sense.
It’s hard to sidestep the “what if” game. What if I had come home earlier, in enough time to help them? What if I hadn’t told the girls I’d go to the movies with them? What if the gun was locked up? These games are instinctive after a loss. Could I have visited more frequently? Did I call them enough? Did I tell them I loved them enough?
The problem is that there is no “enough.” At the extreme, you could tell the other person you love them to the point where they couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Certainly, that would be “enough” – or would it? What if they didn’t hear it? Wouldn’t they get annoyed that they couldn’t get a word in? So how much telling them would be “enough?” There is, of course, no answer to this question.
Guilt is practically unavoidable, and at the same time, it’s rarely deserved.
Waves of Sadness
The Grief Recovery Handbook is a good book on addressing our grief. Though it – inappropriately – criticizes Kubler-Ross’ work On Death and Dying, it effectively makes the point that the emotions we feel after a loss aren’t linear, distinct, or prescribed. We each experience grief in our own way. However, what it doesn’t cover are the “deadly sneaker waves” of sadness. In Iceland, there’s a magical beach where visitors turn their back on the ocean to their own peril. What they call deadly sneaker waves wash onto the beach and pull people down and into the water. Sadness can feel like this.
It comes seemingly out of nowhere, and it can knock us off our feet and tumble us in the surf. We believe ourselves to be rational creatures in charge of our emotions. We believe that we carefully regulate what we feel, and we’re rudely awakened when sadness washes over us.
Fortress of Solitude
Sometimes, the waves of sadness lead us to a fortress of solitude. We push or block others out so that we don’t have to burden them with our sorrow. Instead of allowing those around us to support us, we make a point to not be anywhere that they’ll be. We create (or try to create) our fortress of solitude before we realize that we’re creating our own prison.
It might surprise you to know that many people will choose to self-administer a shock rather than to sit in solitude – for 15 minutes. Being alone with one’s own thoughts is so painful that we’ll take a physical pain to distract us. So, as we seek to be alone, we are inflicting pain upon ourselves. Good friends will gently but firmly push us to continue to engage. They won’t let us be alone. Sheryl relates a small way that two of her friends went to a game for her son – after she said she didn’t need them to come.
One of the chief issues with losing someone is that you recognize that whatever sense of control you had was just an illusion. The belief that the world was orderly and safe came crashing in – and there was nothing you could do about it. One of the ways that we cope with the slings and arrows of everyday life is our perception that we could – if we chose – change some of them. We could deflect them or return fire in a way that would prevent them from happening in the future. However, the death of someone close reminds us that nothing can be done.
Imagine, for a moment, there’s an annoying noise. In one condition, there’s nothing you can do. In the other you can press a button to make it stop – but it comes at a cost, one that you’re not willing to pay. Which condition is more tragic? The answer is the first. The belief that we can stop something is more important than actually stopping it.
One of the odd things that happens when someone loses another is that their friends can end up distancing themselves. As I explained in What If I Say the Wrong Thing?, there is no wrong thing to say – except nothing. Sheryl explains that she considered carrying a stuffed elephant with her but decided against it, because she suspected that others wouldn’t get the hint. There’s an elephant in the room when you’re not comfortable talking about it. The truth is that some friends will move into the loss and hold you up when you can’t stand. Others will step back and believe that they have no way of helping. They don’t realize that often it’s their presence that is the help that those who are grieving crave.
The unfortunate reality is that people who lose someone close to them often simultaneously lose closeness with people with whom they had relationships but who couldn’t bring themselves to step into the space enough to be uncomfortable with the other person. The best friends you’ll find can’t imagine being anyplace else except by a friend’s side who is hurting.
Principle of Non-Abandonment
Whether it makes sense or not to the outside world, one of the feelings that those closest to the loss will feel is that the person who has died has abandoned them. It’s natural to feel a loneliness that they caused, and therefore they have, in some sense, abandoned you. Parents whose spouse has died wonder how their spouse could have abandoned them to raise the kids. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. That wasn’t the deal. The deal was together – but now the deal has been broken.
As friends and family move in and stay even in the midst of uncontrollable emotions, it helps to recognize that not everyone will abandon us. The people who stay prove that abandonment by everyone isn’t inevitable – it’s not even possible. The whole process of feeling abandoned doesn’t happen at an intellectual level. It’s a sense of comfort to know that, even though you may be walking without your partner, you still won’t be completely walking alone.
Sheryl relates an approach from Susan Silk where you draw circles of proximity to the person who has died. The closest people surrounded by the next closest and so on. The key is that you offer comfort to the inner circles, and you seek comfort from those in the outer circles. It’s a simple model for ensuring that the people who are closest receive the most support and receive it from the people who are close enough to be relevant.
It recognizes Megan Devine’s observation that some things can’t be fixed. They can only be carried. No one can fix the problem undo what has been done. All we can do is carry the burden – ourselves – and as much of the burden as possible for those who were closer to the person who is gone.
Gratitude and Contributions
Even though some people find gratitude journaling helpful, not everyone does. (For instance, I don’t.) However, recognizing our power to help others is almost always helpful. Twelve-step programs are big on service and helping others – encouraging everyone to get people to sponsor rather quickly. They do this in part because there’s a straight line between self-esteem or self-image and the work that you do to support others. Where gratitude is passive – and happens to you – contributions are active and are how you respond to the world.
Contributions don’t have to be large per se. Small contributions are still contributions, and recognizing that anything that you can do to help others as you’re struggling can be amazing. It’s when your capacity is least that the value of those contributions is greatest.
After an event of such proportions, you’ve entered a new world. You’ve walked through a one-way portal. The question isn’t whether you’ll change or not. The question is how you’ll change and what you’ll change to. You can choose to change in a way that shrinks your life, becomes trapped in victimhood, or you can choose to build your resilience, capacity, and contribution to others.
There’s no shame in whatever decision you might make. Some battle with survivor guilt more than others – that is, the feeling that they should have died rather than the person who did and that somehow the world would be better off. Guilt (believing that you did something wrong) and shame (believing that you are bad) inhibit recovery, and sometimes it takes a while to work through them. (See I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on shame and guilt.)
Take It Back
Since our tragedy, Terri and I have met many others who have lost their child or children. Some of them have chosen the path of shrinking their lives. They’ve decided that since Christmas can’t be with their loved one, they just won’t have it any longer. Whatever the special occasions are, they hide from them as if not celebrating them prevents them from happening without their loved ones.
For us, we have chosen the path that Sheryl describes as “we take it back” – their way of embracing those moments rather than hiding from them. For us, we bought a new Christmas tree and new lights. It was one of those things that we’d been talking about for years, but it was never important enough. However, there was significance. We could acknowledge and honor our memories of Christmas’ past and recognize that we’d be doing things a bit differently from here on out.
Our decisions didn’t stop there, but it’s the one that best represents the attitude. We still struggle with our feelings as the waves of sadness crash over us, but at the same time, we can remember the good memories and recognize that different can still be good – well, at least okay.
Brene Brown calls it “gold-plating grit” in Rising Strong. It’s the tendency to minimize the struggle aspects of life. Sheryl and Adam recognize the need to normalize the struggle. Kids of all ages need to understand that life is struggle. Buddha taught all of us that. However, struggle isn’t bad. Struggle is necessary for growth. (See The Psychology of Recognizing and Rewarding Children for more.)
What we need to recognize is that it’s not that we won’t have struggles but rather the results of the struggle will be worth it. We can accept that we struggle if we know there’s a reason for it and the reason is a better life. Sure, we wanted whatever Option A meant – that our loved one was still with us. However, in the end, we may find that there’s a lot of good to be had in Option B.