THE GREAT ACHE

My experience of grief looks nothing like Sheryl Sandberg’s

For the first three years after my beloved brother’s death, I could not bear to say his name out loud or look at a picture of him. So it was with both compassion and dread that I read Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, And Finding Joy, which describes her life in the wake of her husband’s sudden death in May 2015.

In Option B, Sandberg—the chief operating officer of Facebook—explains the strategies she used to reclaim her life, with help from her co-author and friend, psychologist Adam Grant. Sandberg doesn’t shy away from depicting the rawness of her suffering; she tells us that she was a total mess, that the pain is now less “acute” but still ever-present, that grieving is always a singular, individual process, for which is there no right or wrong. Still, for her, within a year or so, the fog of grief lifted—enough that she wrote a book and is now giving eloquent, heartfelt commencement speeches and interviews where she speaks lovingly of her late husband, Dave Goldberg. She is clear-headed, disciplined, and determined enough to make meaning out of a loss that many of us find literally unspeakable.

And that’s the rub.

Sandberg is extraordinary. She is a gifted leader who seems productive, smart, and generous in all aspects of her life. She is also a billionaire with access to resources and opportunities the average person cannot even fathom. As a human being, I am heartened by Sandberg’s resilience in the face of her catastrophic loss. But as someone in the trenches of mortal mourning, it is tempting to measure her response against my own, even though she tells me not to. And I worry that others may read the book, meant to be a resource for others coping with profound loss, and feel that they’re coming up short—and somehow failing at grief.

This isn’t a new problem for Sandberg. Her first book, Lean In, touted as a revolutionary new look at women and leadership, took a fair amount of well-deserved criticism. It promoted a path of high-powered personal and professional fulfillment and nuclear-family partnership—a model wholly unrealistic for the vast majority of working women. Option B suffers from some of the same faulty underlying assumptions. I feel protective on behalf of the messier, muddled masses of grievers like myself—many of whom are the same working moms who couldn’t “lean in” because we had nothing to lean on.

Similarly, in loss, Sandberg models a kind of super-humanity I feel compelled to gently counter. Her life, marriage, and career reached the have-it-all stratosphere. She applies that same energy to her meteoric rebound, sharing her rabbi’s advice to “lean into the suck.” Reading the book, I couldn’t help but think Sheesh, a year in and she’s digging deep, powering through, thriving. I can’t remember ever showering. I found myself both envying and wincing at the way she uses her husband’s name over and over in the book. She seems so healthy and evolved, so together. It still requires all my strength for me to tell my sweet nephew stories about his remarkable father.

Clearly, one of Sandberg’s many gifts is to process her life publicly; first by leaning in, and now by bouncing back. But when I read about her learning “that by six months, more than half of people who lose a spouse are past what psychologists classify as ‘acute grief,'” I gasped out loud.

I lost my brother eight years ago. His name was Joe, and he was the best person I have ever known. He was my baby brother, who became my mentor, keeper of my secrets, my life’s witness, my very best friend. He was an extraordinary person of enormous warmth, expansive compassion, a lion’s roar of a laugh, and an unquenchable ability to build up broken souls and broken systems. His absence remains unbearable.

For me, grief is a shape-shifty bastard. A friend of mine calls it the Great Ache. Folks I know move around with it in different ways at different times. Sometimes it’s a shadow beside you, or a hiss of cold air like a Dementor sucking out your breath. Sometimes it’s a giant tortoise shell you trudge beneath. Joan Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, captures it: “Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”

I seek nor find a reason for my brother’s death, and I am resigned to the idea that my grief has no goal or end game. I no longer grasp for some larger truth or meaning. I accept all the ways I feel. I surrender entirely. He is gone, and it’s horrific and stupid and heartbreaking. I tried fighting my grief, talking it away, meditating on it, breathing it, visualizing it, naming it, deconstructing it. I tried it all. But wherever I am, I feel the full weight of the loss, and I let it take me, as if I have a choice.

The truth is that there are as many reactions to grief as there are people who are grieving. And so while many will find solace in Sandberg’s story, some of us may find our experiences better reflected by authors like Didion, or C.S. Lewis, whose book A Grief Observed is a singularly raw and honest account that I found deeply comforting even in the first few years of my own loss. Lewis writes:

“For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?

But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?

How often—will it be for always?—how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time.”

Personally, I experience little choice, or control, in how I deal with my family’s loss. But Sandberg holds out hope for both. She writes that her co-author Grant “convinced me that while my grief would have to run its course, my beliefs and actions could shape how quickly I moved through the void and where I ended up.”

I hope that she is right.

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