On June 3rd, Sheryl Sandberg posted an update on her Facebook page about grieving the sudden loss of her husband, Dave Goldberg. She had just completed sheloshim for her husband, which is a 30-day time of religious mourning for your loved one. This post is filled with raw emotion, and also some perspective, as Sheryl reflects on those who have taken this 30-day journey with her. Loved ones and strangers sharing their stories and comfort. In her post, Sheryl says this:
I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else. In the hope that there can be some meaning from this tragedy.
There is profound wisdom in Sheryl’s post. Wisdom that comes from one of the most difficult experiences one can ever go through. Wisdom we can use when we or someone we love experiences a significant loss.
What to Say When Someone is in Need
I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, ‘How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die?’ I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.
Sheryl is right. So often we try to make people feel better by offering hope. Yet it can come across as empty platitudes. Real love sits with a friend in grief and despair and goes to the difficult places. Asks the difficult questions. Doesn’t offer a pat answer. Offers presence and a commitment to wrestle with the hard questions together.
Michele Cushatt talked about this in a recent blog post and interview. What is it like to wrestle with your faith in the midst of searing pain and loss? And how can our friends come alongside us? We so often want to avoid these situations because they remind us that we are not immune. The more we embrace our own frailty, the more we can connect with others who are in need.
There Are No Guarantees
I have learned how ephemeral everything can feel—and maybe everything is. That whatever rug you are standing on can be pulled right out from under you with absolutely no warning.
We tend to have a sense of entitlement in this country – we who are so wealthy compared with most of the rest of the world. We live under the illusion that if we live a good life, good will result. Sometimes that’s true. And we can certainly improve our chances by the choices we make.
But it is also true that anything could happen at any time. Michele Cushatt gets cancer multiple times. Sheryl Sandburg’s husband dies on a treadmill. My husband dies in the driveway while operating a snow blower. My sister goes to work one day and find out her job has been eliminated. A friend has a brain tumor.
The rug is pulled out. And we fall to the ground. And have to figure out how on earth to get our footing again.
Resilience Is a Skill
I have learned that resilience can be learned.
In a book called “Performing Under Pressure”, the authors talk about this very thing –we can learn techniques to strengthen resilience, and practice them with minor problems. Exercising those muscles through less difficult circumstances serves us in good stead when we get the wind knocked out of us.
As much as I appreciated Sheryl sharing about ministering to those in grief, the apparent randomness of life, and resilience, what hit me most was what she shared near the end.
I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, ‘But I want Dave. I want option A.’ He put his arm around me and said, ‘Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the s#*! out of option B.’
Dave, to honor your memory and raise your children as they deserve to be raised, I promise to do all I can to kick the s#*! out of option B. And even though sheloshim has ended, I still mourn for option A. I will always mourn for option A.
When tragedy strikes and knocks us down for the count, we mourn for option A. We wish with all our might that we could go back to option A. Our loved ones know it isn’t possible, so they try to make us feel better by telling us that something better is around the corner. That somehow justice will be served, or we will be redeemed.
Sheryl's friend doesn't do that. He reminds her that plan A is no longer available. And then he vows to help her not only deal with that reality, but also find a way to make plan B work. This is a true friend. Honest. Empathetic. And encouraging in just the right way.
Have you lost your Plan A?
I have. Plan A was to retire with my husband when he turned 65, get a part-time job or do consulting, and spend more time riding our motorcycle around the country. Instead I am alone and don’t think I’ll be touring the country on my motorcycle any time soon. Every once in a while I still mourn for Plan A. But I am indeed kicking the s#*! out of Plan B, and am loving it too. My family and friends have helped me build a life that I couldn’t have imagined in those days after my husband died. And in the intervening years I’ve helped a few of them knock out their own Plan B’s.
If you’ve lost your Plan A, I’m not going to tell you it’s easy. Or that life will magically improve. But there’s still room for Plan B. Or C. Don’t compare it to Plan A. You don’t even have to like it at first. But you can make the best of it. Practice resilience. Put on your boxing gloves and steel-tipped boots. Set your face toward Plan B. And kick it all the way from here to eternity.
Do you know someone who has been hit by tragedy and needs a Plan B? Send them this post via e-mail or Social Media.