Who would guess that I have anything in common with Sheryl Sandberg, the brilliant, young, Jewish COO of Facebook? or with the 94-year-old Alzheimer victim in the London suburbs?
We are all widows, sharing the universal language and experience of grief.
In her recent speech to the University of California–Berkeley graduating class, Sandberg—widowed one year 13 days previously—described being “swallowed in the deep fog of grief.” Everyone speaks of the fog, which can hang on for months, even years. And while I generally refer to it as the “haziness and craziness,” it is that same fog, a fog that not only swallows us but invades our throat, lungs and brain. We can’t swallow, breathe or think.
An Excursion to Kent
A week ago I engaged a guide to take me from London to visit castles and gardens in Kent, a daylong excursion with hours spent in London gridlock traffic. My guide asked me what I do.
“I’m a writer.”…“What do you write about?”…With some reluctance, “Currently I’m writing a memoir of grief.”
She was unexpectedly interested and curious. She described her 94-year-old mother-in-law, whose husband died in January. “What surprises us is her anger. She is angry that he’s not here to take care of her. And because she has dementia, she doesn’t understand that she can’t really take care of herself.”
Of course, the woman is angry. That is part of bereavement. And it’s only been a few months. This person whom we depended on has been taken from us. I was angry on Wednesday—seven years later—when I had to exchange outdated pounds at the Bank of England and realized that I had insufficient identity documents and too little money to get back to my hotel. Lev had always taken care of currency on trips, Lev had bought these pounds before his death, and I was stuck with exchanging them.
But the guide went on to say that her mother-in-law is grateful for the efforts they make to help her and says that “I’m lucky, because I have a family and not everyone does.”
That attitude of gratitude makes the difference. Gratitude is why some widows emerge from the fog more quickly than others.
Sandberg’s advice to Berkeley graduates is better than what I have written. I’m still learning. She quoted her rabbi, “Lean into the suck.” A younger generation’s vernacular, but I wish someone had told me that. I wish I had given into the grief, instead of wearing a mask of stoic strength, trying to deceive everyone, including myself.
And while I figured out the importance of gratitude early in my journey, I like what Sandberg has to say. She was advised to “think about how much worse things could be.” Her husband could have suffered the fatal aneurysm while driving the children. She had much to be thankful for. “Gratitude overtook some of the grief.”
While I took time to say thank you God at lunch every day, Sandberg learned to end each day by writing down three things she was thankful for. She went to sleep each night focused on “that day’s moments of joy,” instead of ruminating about the bad parts of that day or worrying about her responsibilities the next day. Like so many of us, she bore witness to the fact that gratitude leads to resilience and resilience leads to joy. I agree with her.
We can choose joy.
What have you learned from death?
Note: Above is a link to both the video and transcript of Sandberg’s speech. Watch the video. She has so much to say that is both wise and practical, and no article—no matter how sensitive—can capture her voice and emotion. You can also go to Sandberg’s Facebook page, which has many links to media coverage and the video.