When I picked up Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B, I am not sure I understood exactly what I was in for. Written with the assistance of Adam Grant, a psychologist and professor at Wharton, I knew the book was about her life after the unexpected death of her husband. What I didn’t know was that it was essentially a deep dive into how she went about the early stages of processing grief in the year that followed.
As someone who has had her fair share of opportunities to process grief, reading about someone else’s journey wasn’t top of my list of things I wanted to do. My past experiences also make me a little jaded.
Being a little more than 5 years out from my brother’s suicide, 18 years out from my mother’s death from an auto immune disease, and 29 years out from my father’s death from an aortic aneurysm, I feel like I’m currently living Option D or F at the very least. Option B? Call me after the next two or three traumatic deaths in your life, Sheryl.
So Very Sincere
I do recognize that level of cynicism isn’t helpful or a true reflection of who I am, however.
While pretty much everyone I know who has suffered a tragic loss (including me) would envy the familial, social, and economic supports Sheryl had after her husband died—for example, Elon Musk invited her children to the launch of his rocket to distract them—there is no doubt she was sincerely devastated. Or that this book was a sincere attempt to help others. In fact, if I had to sum up this book in one word, that’s the word I would pick: sincere.
If you sense criticism in that statement, it’s because I do have some problems with the book. But first, what I liked.
The Three Ps
She starts with referencing research that shows certain ways of thinking can prevent us from working through our grief, calling these the “three Ps”.
The first “P” is personalizing the tragedy by believing we were responsible for it. I knew this was common after loss of a loved one to suicide as I experienced it and witnessed others who had also lost loved ones to suicide experience it (I refer to these thoughts as the “should haves, could haves, would haves”). That it also affected someone whose husband died of a heart arrhythmia surprised me.
When my dad died, I hated that he was gone but I don’t recall spending much time focused on how I could have prevented a weakening in the wall of his aorta, certainly not to the extent I focused on what I could have done to prevent my brother’s suicide. But if Sheryl says this was an issue for her, I believe her. I didn’t even grieve each of my family members the same, so would never want to imply there is a right or wrong way to grieve.
The second and third “Ps” are pervasiveness and permanence, or feeling that nothing in your life will every again be joyful. No arguments from me on these. Grief seems to dull every aspect of your life. And, not only is it hard to imagine the pain receding, there is a part of your worried that if it does it will mean you stopped caring.
So how do we get to a point where we can overcome the “Three Ps”? She offers a couple of suggestions including:
- Remind yourself what you are grateful for, what you do well;
- Ask for—and accept—help;
- Be open about your grief and how it is affecting you.
One strategy she spends most of one chapter on is self-compassion. From personal experience, I can’t agree more that being loving toward yourself is extremely critical.
As noted above, after my brother’s death, I met a lot of other people who had lost loved ones to suicide. I would listen to their stories with my heart full of compassion for their struggle, and then go home and beat myself up for not having prevented my own brother’s death.
When I finally realized that I was no less deserving of my compassion was when I started to heal. I was not a perfect sister but neither was I the cause of my brother’s death.
Later in the book she discusses what she refers to as “post traumatic growth.” Examples include finding new meaning in life (and the life of your loved one) as well as a deeper understanding of what matters most. She mentions here the new communities we become a part of as a result of our loss (she became a widow, I became a survivor of suicide). These aren’t clubs we sought to join, but once a member, we allow those who joined before to provide comfort and guidance, and pass on this gift to those who come behind us.
She also talks about how people often feel anxiety after someone close to them dies and the steps we can take to manage fear. As someone who had an especially difficult time with anxiety after my brother’s suicide, I was very glad she discussed this aspect of grief. I jotted down notes throughout the book but a passage that stayed with me was a quote from C.S. Lewis: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. –C.S. Lewis
I haven’t conquered irrational fear completely but I am much more aware of it. This awareness lets me evaluate its source and to take steps to limit its affect on my life (consciously controlling my breathing helps tremendously, for example).
I am not unaware my criticisms may be me projecting my emotional baggage onto Sheryl. That doesn’t mean they are aren’t valid.
When Others Aren’t Helpful
She spends a lot of time focused on how there were people in her life that turned away from her when her husband died, noting:
“[P]utting distance between themselves and emotional pain feels like self-preservation… [T]hey feel like there’s nothing they can say or do to make things better, so they choose to say and do nothing.”
I felt her comments assumed everyone wanted to help but only some were evolved enough to be able to do so. There is a third category, and it includes people like me who recognize that they only have so much to give and whatever you are going through doesn’t make the cut.
Do I wish you harm? Of course not. But I know my emotional strength reservoir has been low for several years now so if you aren’t family, chances are I won’t be able to give you as much as you feel I should be able to give. And I am not going to apologize for that.
Who You Work For Matters
Throughout the book, she puts Facebook on a pedestal including a long discussion of how they do “after actions” when a project doesn’t go as planned. That the company supports bereavement leave and flexible work schedules to accommodate the bad things life throws at you is noteworthy.
But since she brought it up, I have a serious problem with what I think has been an inadequate response by Facebook to manipulation of the platform leading up to the 2016 election. Everything may be fabulous on the inside, but from my viewpoint, Facebook has a lot of room for improvement.
What Did You Think?
Have you read Option B? What did you think about it? Let me know in the comment section below.