LIFE LESSONS

Sheryl Sandberg gave a powerful commencement speech but there’s no way to prepare yourself for heart-wrenching grief

Sheryl Sandberg’s weekend commencement speech was a beautiful and moving testimony about grief and resilience. After the tragic death of her husband Dave, she took to Facebook to reflect on her loss. This weekend, she took to the stage to tell Berkeley’s class of 2016—and all of us—about her own sorrow in the hope that we might learn from it.

“I am not here to tell you all the things I’ve learned in life. Today I will try to tell you what I learned in death,” she said.

I admire Sandberg, for her many achievements, including launching an important discussion about how some women hold themselves back. She also owns her mistakes, recently admitting that Lean In failed to capture the reality of life for single moms.

But I am skeptical that one can prepare for grief, or tap the gratitude that comes from being sucked into its void in advance of the experience. Like love, and parenting, its impact is most acutely felt by living it. The sadness she describes so eloquently comes from a place of knowing. C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, a sort of diary he kept when his wife died that is one of the most beautiful reflections on loss:

We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.

Sandberg lays out for Berkley’s graduates the bitter reality that pain and suffering await them: “The question is not if some of these things will happen to you. They will. Today I want to talk about what happens next.” And she tells them that they will find in themselves a well of resilience that is greater than they know.

It’s a reality some graduates already know, she says, and one others won’t be able to fathom.

Sandberg lays out some tools we can use to cope with grief when it happens. Citing the work of the psychologist Martin Seligman, she explains the importance of not believing that everything that happens to you happens because of you, of understanding that grief will not consume all of you forever, and that you can compartmentalize, even in small bits, over time.

“You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive,” she said.

I loved that line, and I believe it. But you can read 100 cancer stories and have no idea how you will react when faced with a scan showing cancer in your bones, or breasts or liver. You can cry your eyes out over the New York Times story about the family which had to decide to stop treating their toddler son for a disease that would kill him. You can listen to Sandberg and see her tears and hear her sadness and feel tremendous empathy. But then you will go back to your life.

When you are at the bottom of the well of grief, there is no getting back to your life: in my experience, grief is your life.

Sandberg was brave to take on the task of a commencement speech and braver still for opting to speak about something so personal and painful.

But when the moment passed, and the graduates wiped away their tears, could they know grief—and gratitude—any better? She said:

It is the greatest irony of my life that losing my husband helped me find deeper gratitude—gratitude for the kindness of my friends, the love of my family, the laughter of my children. My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude—not just on the good days, like today, but on the hard ones, when you will really need it.

She was right to try. And she did as well as anyone could have. But as she said, it is usually from a place of great loss that we find that gratitude. And it is only then that we see how precious everything really is.

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