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A Look Inside Sheryl Sandberg’s New Book, Option B

Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave passed away suddenly in 2015. In her new book, she talks about coming to terms with his death, nurturing her resilience, and how she managed to reclaim joy.
by Carrie M. King | May 24 2017

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg became famous for writing Lean In, a book that encourages professional women to stand up and be counted. Her second publication, Option B, is certainly not one that she ever thought she would write. In 2015, Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg passed away suddenly after falling from a treadmill during a holiday in Mexico. At first, it was thought he died from head trauma and blood loss, but later an autopsy revealed a cardiac arrhythmia.

Sheryl Sandberg

Sandberg was, of course, devastated. Her husband had been her supporter, co-parent, and partner-in-crime. Now, she was suddenly a widow at just 45 years-old, faced with the task of piecing her family and her life back together. Her original plans and routines, option A, were no longer possible, and she had to find a new way to navigate the world. Published almost exactly two years after the death of her husband, Option B is about how she found her way through grief and back to a joyful life.

What’s it about?

Death, grief, and resilience. Option B is based on Sheryl Sandberg’s personal experience of losing her husband, her ensuing devastation, and how she found her way out the other side. Her story is not one of getting over someone, but about perseverance through grief, and emerging from it to reclaim joy.

Who wrote it?

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO at Facebook, and is possibly best known for the Lean In movement which grew from her bestselling book of the same name. She is an outspoken activist on women’s equality in the workplace, and helping women to achieve their goals. Her co-author is Adam Grant, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and an award-winning writer.

Finding your way back to joy

3 Things You Can Learn from Option B

1. Learn to understand the three Ps

Personal tragedy or trauma jolts life off-course and leaves people feeling alone and rudderless. However, we are all capable of reclaiming a sense of normalcy if we try to understand our own reactions and accept them as normal. Psychologist Martin Seligman has identified the three most common responses to tragedy which he calls the three Ps: personalization; pervasiveness; and permanence.

1. Personalization means blaming oneself for the tragedy. Sheryl Sandberg went through this stage after her husband’s sudden death. She blamed herself for not keeping a better eye on him, his diet, his doctor visits, and any number of small things that she believed could have saved him if she had only thought to take more care. Sandberg felt at fault, no matter how much people reassured her that she was in no way responsible for what happened.

2. Pervasiveness is the feeling that tragedy, and its accompanying pain and sadness, seeps into every aspect of life. Normal day-to-day interactions feel stripped of meaning and joy. When Sandberg returned to work at Facebook, she felt she couldn’t get through a meeting without having a breakdown.

3. Permanence is when a bereaved person feels like the acute pain of grief will last forever. This is the most difficult P to navigate because deep depression feels immovable, too heavy to ever be shaken off.

2. Learn to nurture resilience

When you’re grieving, it can be hard to believe that you’ll ever feel normal again. It weighs you down and discolors your viewpoint. However, by being kind to yourself and nurturing your own resilience, you can find your way through the depths of grief. This doesn’t mean ignoring your pain, or trying to force yourself out of it before you’re ready. It simply means understanding that suffering is a part of life that unfortunately, cannot be avoided. Only when we acknowledge that can we start to see past it. Keeping a diary of how you feel on a day-to-day basis can help to normalize your feelings. Sandberg kept a journal by her bed in which she noted down three happy moments from her day, and kept a record of her accomplishments — even ones as small as making a decent cup of coffee. These might seem pointless, but when life seems bleak, even the smallest boosts can make a difference. Resilience is not about suppressing emotions, but instead learning to see the good in the saddest of life’s challenges and letting that carry you through.

3. Learn how to help someone else who is grieving

As difficult as it is to grieve, it’s also hard to help someone else who’s going through deep grief or trauma. When bad things happen, the person left behind to deal with it often finds themselves alone, because others simply don’t know what to say or how to help. However, there are some simple things you can do to help someone in need of emotional support.

1. Acknowledge their situation

Don’t pretend that life is back to normal when someone’s clearly (or privately) still struggling. You don’t have to make everything about what they’re going through, but small tweaks such as saying, “how are you, today?”, instead of saying “how are you?”, or worse, not asking at all, can make a massive difference to someone who’s going through ups and downs.

Just be there

2. Offer specific help

Saying “let me know if you need anything,” may be a genuine offer, but can feel like a platitude to the person in question. If you really mean to help someone, offer to do specific things like collect their kids from school, buy groceries, or walk the dog. By offering to do small, tangible things it makes it feel more authentic, and crucially, is much easier for the person to accept. Having to ask someone for help in times of need is difficult, and people are far more likely to struggle on in silence. By saving them the trouble of having to reach out, you’re taking a world of pressure off their shoulders.

3. Be their panic button

Reassure the person that you’ll be there when they need you. Chances are they won’t reach out, but just knowing that there is someone available should they need them can alleviate a lot of stress. In 1971, social psychologists David C. Glass and Jerome Singer conducted experiments on urban stress where they asked participants to solve puzzles while being subjected to loud noises and music. Some participants were given a panic button that they could press at any time to stop the noise. Just having the option of the panic button made the participants calmer and more focused, and not a single person actually pressed it. The experiment suggests just knowing that help is within reach helps people to better endure stress.

If you only remember one thing, make it this:

Everyone deserves joy

After losing someone or suffering any kind of life-changing event, enjoying yourself again can feel like a betrayal. People often feel guilty for laughing, or for taking part in activities that make them feel like themselves again. However, it’s important to remember that the person you’ve lost wouldn’t want you to feel guilty now that they’re gone. They’d want you to reclaim your life and finding small moments of joy in the everyday can help you to do that.

Option B is a useful and empathetic read for anyone who is grieving or trying to support someone else through grief. Personal anecdotes are grounded by psychological facts and the book offers simple, applicable tips that can be crucial when you really don’t know what to do. It serves as an important reminder that there’s always option B.

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