My aunt died last summer. She was vivacious and alert, an amazing cook, undaunted by diabetes. A fast-spreading cancer took her away from us in just over a year. Her daughter, who spent all of that time taking care of her, talking to doctors and managing her frequent hospital admissions and home nurses, all but collapsed. A year on, my sister goes through her workday efficiently, taking meticulous care of the rest of her family, all the while enveloped in a shroud of sorrow. Occasionally, she cries her heart out. There’s also a growing anger in her.
Six years ago, I lost my father. He had been unwell for months. His time had come, but I was closest to him. His passing opened up a huge chasm of loneliness inside me, as if there’s always an empty chair next to me. I lack someone who completely understands me. Now I know, I will always have that void. Death can be life-shattering for those left behind, a tragedy from which recovery seems impossible. Tragedies befall us all the time, any time. A job loss amid high unemployment, a divorce, sexual assault, a permanent disability, political unrest, natural disasters, loss of home or homeland—all these can be as traumatic as death, sometimes more. They turn our lives upside down, signalling a future so bleak that we feel we’ll never be happy again, nor experience a moment of pure joy. Yet, we do.
Yes, it’s possible to come out of the void, or even live with it. And, dare I say it, laugh and be happy again. Humans are remarkably resilient. Our best description is that we are survivors. We have come thus far in civilisation by conquering the harshest nature. But tragedies often can, and do, stop us in our tracks, and forever change the way we live. We can get depressed and lonely, and often lose the will to go on. Finding no option to return to our old happy lives, we can choose to forego all hope—or we can decide to kick the hell out of option B.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg did the kicking, screaming all the while. And lived to tell the tale.
Sandberg’s world shifted in a moment when her 11-year-old marriage ended with the sudden death of her husband and best friend, the man who pulled her out of a failed relationship and her eroding self-belief. He was her ‘rock’. Sandberg and her husband dated for almost seven years before taking the plunge. How does one forego a close friend of 18 years, the father of your young children, a beloved companion, the kingpin of a perfect family? Worse, how does one learn to live without him?
More than anything, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy is an honest telling of the raw pain of those left behind, the struggles with loss, the loneliness of a single mother and the daily challenge of summoning the will to go on. This is especially true for Sandberg, who had written about how crucial supportive partners are to women’s success in the workplace in her enormously successful book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
I was Sandberg’s polar opposite and I secretly resented her (is that why most successful men have several successive partners to complement their journey? I sniggered at her pat corporate ideas, doubly proved by my experience—successful career women must be good managers of their personal lives as well, definitely on Facebook at least!). I didn’t want her to find out the hard way what single women with children and no support go through and how she betrayed us by giving us no hope. When she shared her devastation in a post, I wept for her, as well as for myself.
Lean In sparked a movement, but Option B is a stronger book. It acknowledges, with rare candour and honesty, the mistakes made in her initial assessment of life. “Lean in? I could barely stand up,” Sandberg writes at one point and poignantly admits that even the world’s biggest job can be cold comfort in the face of a torn family life. While the money helps, it’s a poor protector of pain and never stands in for the comfort of friends and family members, and their combined strength, to pull us out of any adversity.
Sinking in the tsunami of grief, Sandberg reached out to Adam Grant, her friend, psychologist, professor and best-selling author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, for lessons in human resilience. Grant explained that resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity and it can be built by each of us. We can’t control or avert a tragedy in our life, but we can control its impact on us and our loved ones. We can build resilience as a muscle, raise resilient children and build resilient communities. And, as Sandberg discovered, it’s also possible to “experience post-traumatic growth. In the wake of the most crushing blows, people can find greater strength and deeper meaning.”
Grant, the co-author of the book, which is told in first person by Sandberg, walked her through the data—the modern way of doing things. Grant’s research gave her a glimpse into the future that seemed more certain than the present. Sandberg learnt of many such survivors and, more importantly, of women who had found love again despite the betrayal it signalled to the loved one’s memory. Sandberg is dating again, though she is certainly not over her husband’s death.
She found that sharing on Facebook and the outpouring of stories about her husband from strangers and their own stories helped her find comfort and solace. “I connected with the Facebook mission of helping people share in a way that I never had before,” she writes. Not many would agree with that, especially in the era of fake news and closed minds, but it did help her acknowledge her grief and grasp the elephant in the room.
To buttress her argument, Sandberg gives examples from around the world of trauma survivors within and beyond her social circle. Some of the striking instances are of building resilience together for survivors of racist/supremacist violence and massacres, natural or manmade disasters and war refugees. “Collective resilience requires more than just shared hope—it is also fuelled by shared experiences, shared narratives, and shared power… By helping people cope with difficult circumstances and then take action to alter those circumstances, collective resilience can foster real social change,” she writes.
Kicking the hell out of option B sounds very much the disruptive Silicon Valley solution to a problem—indeed, it’s now a slogan on the walls of the Facebook headquarters—along with data-crunching and theorising of post-trauma on offer. But what stays with the reader is Sandberg’s raw vulnerability, her candid account of grappling with uncertainties, making thousands resonate with the book. She offers insights into ways of dealing with a friend’s tragedy or a colleague’s, and how to get back to work after—for some, a solace and, for others, a necessary evil. Sandberg admits how she often broke down before or during meetings or Facebook annual events. “Not exactly the kind of disruption Silicon Valley is looking for,” she writes.
Unfortunately, for the Valley, technology has still not been able to disrupt tragedy. “In the US alone, grief related losses in productivity may cost companies $75 billion annually”—one wonders what the figure must be for India!
Sandberg argues for better corporate strategies for employees to cope with grief. I remember getting a three-day bereavement leave when my father died and wondered if 21st-century grief, like our projects, had a pre-ordained deadline of 72 hours!
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Option B may often read like a ‘disruptive growth’ playbook and it probably is, but it’s also real and readable. If it offers people like my sister ways to come out of adversity and love life again, it will have well served its purpose.
Paromita Shastri is a former financial journalist