By now, you may have read Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebook post from June 3rd that she wrote to mark the end of sheloshim – a period of religious mourning – for her late husband, Dave Goldberg. (See Sheryl’s original Facebook Post.)
On May 1st, Dave died in a gym accident while on vacation with his family. He was 47. Sheryl’s profoundly personal, deeply touching post is all the more poignant when you consider that she wrote it so shortly after losing her husband. And I can only imagine that many of the thoughts, emotions, and revelations that she shared will continue to inform each and every day, in some way or another, for the rest of her life.
While Sheryl’s post has been widely credited with starting a public conversation about grief – and indeed made an extra splash given Sheryl’s prominent role in social media – the conversation is a familiar one to those who have already experienced an overwhelming loss. Over the last few years, I have talked with many people stricken by grief and have found that, for as personal a journey as it is, much of the experience that emerges from grief is common to all of us. In exposing her grief to the light of public discussion, Sheryl does a phenomenal job of putting into words what many of us have felt.
Devastation of Loss
For many, the earliest phases of grief are marked by sheer devastation. Sheryl writes about consciously choosing life and meaning over “the void” or “the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe.” In my case, I would not have believed that I could ever survive the death of one of my children. Then my 19-year-old daughter, Emma, died suddenly in 2011, and I learned firsthand that the human being has a remarkable ability to find a way to keep standing, even after being knocked down by what many would agree is the ultimate blow.
As a friend said to me – when something this bad happens, you have three choices: you can let it 1) define you, 2) destroy you, or 3) strengthen you. Even if you can never “get over it” or “move on,” you can simply go on, and many days that will feel like enough. The death of someone we love as profoundly as Sheryl loves Dave and I love Emma becomes the start of a new “normal.” This normal will probably never feel as good as what you once had, but it is what you have and, from the moment you open your eyes that first day after your loss, you have begun the journey of living with it.
Depletion of Joy
Another early dimension of grief is the remarkable absence of joyful feelings, and Sheryl acknowledges this aspect when she writes about how, in her new normal, she knows she “will never feel pure joy again.” I remember this emotion vividly, and in fact I still don’t believe that I will ever experience unfettered joy again – I expect that good times will always be connected to a layer that says “Emma should be here.”
On the other hand, after almost four years, I’m no longer startled by happiness, nor do I feel the guilt I initially felt the first few times I recognized it. I’m more aware of happiness, joy, and laughter when they come, though they are much rarer than they once were and I’ve had to work hard to let them in. In an important way, that makes them all the more special.
Perhaps this is part of the experience of gratitude that Sheryl attributes to her husband’s death. “Real gratitude,” she writes, “for the things I took for granted before – like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted.”
I have no idea how many days I have left, but one thing I learned from Emma’s death is that each day is special. To take it one step further, so much of what I’ve learned from mourning is about living, and living the right way, and living in a way that brings honor to you and the people you love.
Strength with Time
I “lean into” each day now. Some days it’s giving into the tears, embracing the grief that can still stagger me, learning new kinds of sadness over the loss of my youngest child. Other days, it’s finding new ways to let happiness wash over me, opening myself to the signs that say my daughter is still with me, or learning ways to shape my newfound strength. The important thing is that I, like Sheryl and so many others, have chosen – and still choose – life.
The one aspect of grief that Sheryl hasn’t yet experienced is how grief weathers the passage of several years, and often the changes are hard to discern. But, when I read Sheryl’s post, I realized how far I’ve traveled on my journey, and how much stronger I’ve become. Given the insights that Sheryl has already found and so generously shared, I have little doubt that, despite the utter depletion that her grief has caused, she will continue to regain her amazing strength over time in new and significant ways.