Nonfiction: Sheryl Sandberg Finds Comfort for Herself and Offers It to Others

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OPTION B
Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
By Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
226 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95.

You could almost hear the collective gasp when news broke, in May 2015, that the internet entrepreneur Dave Goldberg had died suddenly while on vacation in Mexico with his wife, Sheryl Sandberg. Their marriage had become a public one ever since the publication, two years earlier, of “Lean In,” her book about women and leadership. In it she had written some revolutionary things about marriage (she called it having a “partner,” but the book was so much about redefining gender roles that she clearly seemed to be talking about husbands). Deciding to get married — and the choice of whom to marry — weren’t just central to one’s private life, she wrote. Together they made up the “most important career decision that a woman makes.” She observed that most women at the top aren’t the lonely, single women of clichés; they are married women whose husbands support their ambitions and take equal responsibility for making a home. She said that her great success (she is the chief operating officer of Facebook, which has made her a billionaire) would have been impossible without the unwavering support of her husband. Now, in the cruelest way, she had lost him.

“Lean In” sparked a movement, but it had its critics, among them single mothers, women who worked outside corporate America, and those who could not afford to hire the nannies and helpers upon whom the Sandberg-Goldberg household clearly depended. There were also those who thought the principal value underlying the book was flawed. They didn’t want to find ways to make their work more exhilarating; they wanted to find ways to accommodate it to their lives as parents. The tragedy was a vicious reminder of the truth we work hard to forget: Life is cruel. It will casually take away the people we love the most. Even the vaunted “C-suite” job is cold comfort when it cost you hours with a lost loved one. Now, two years after Goldberg’s death, Sandberg has written a new book, “Option B,” which forthrightly addresses all of these issues. It is a remarkable achievement: generous, honest, almost unbearably poignant. It reveals an aspect of Sandberg’s character that “Lean In” had suggested but — because of the elitism at its center — did not fully demonstrate: her impulse to be helpful. She has little to gain by sharing, in excruciating detail, the events of her life over the past two years. This is a book that will be quietly passed from hand to hand, and it will surely offer great comfort to its intended readers.

“I have terrible news,” she told her children, after flying home from Mexico. “Daddy died.” The intimacy of detail that fills the book is unsettling; there were times I felt that I had come across someone’s secret knowledge, that I shouldn’t have been in possession of something that seemed so deeply private. But the candor and simplicity with which she shares all of it — including her children’s falling to the ground, unable to walk to the grave when they arrive at the cemetery — is a kind of gift. She was shielded from the financial disaster that often accompanies sudden widowhood, but in every other way she was unprotected from great pain.

As she did in the memorable Facebook post composed a month after the death, she reports turning in her misery to the psychologist Adam Grant, a friend who had flown to California to attend the funeral and is an expert in the field of human resilience. She told him that her greatest fear was that her children would never be happy again. He “walked me through the data,” she writes, and what she learns offers comfort. Getting “walked through the data,” is as modern a response to grief as the notion that “resilience” is some kind of science. The book includes several illustrative stories that seem to come from Grant’s research, but they are not memorable. It is Sandberg whose story commands our riveted attention, and it is her natural and untutored responses to the horror that are most moving. “This is the second worst moment of our lives,” she tells her sobbing children at the cemetery. “We lived through the first and we will live through this. It can only get better from here.” That is grief: Somehow, you find a language; somehow you get through it. No research could have helped her in that moment. She is the one who knew what to do and what to say. They were her children, and she knew how to comfort them.

Death humbles each of us in different ways. Suddenly a single mother, Sandberg realized how hollow her “Lean In” chapter about the importance of fully involved husbands (“partners”) must have been to unmarried women. If only she had known how little time she would have with her husband, she thinks, she would have spent more of it with him. But that’s not the way life works; Dave Goldberg fell in love with a woman who wanted to lead, not one who wanted to wait for him to come home from the office. The unbearable clarity that follows a death blessedly fades with time. We couldn’t live with it every day.

Sheryl Sandberg followed the oldest data set in the world, the one that says: The children are young, and you must keep going. Slowly the fog began to lift. She found she had something useful to offer at a meeting; she got the children through their first birthdays without their father; she began to have one O.K. day and then another. She made it through a year, all of the “milestone days” had passed and something began to revive within her. Grief is the final act of love, and recovery from it is the necessary betrayal on which the future depends. There is only this one life, and we are the ones who are here to live it.

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Source: New York Times

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