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In times of sorrow, this is something to hold on to

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‘A vast emptiness that fills your heart and lungs and restricts your ability to think or even breathe.’ This is how Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, describes her loss after husband Dave suddenly passed away. How can you survive such suffocating grief? That’s what ‘Plan B’ is about, the book she wrote together with psychologist Adam Grant.

The title refers to something a friend of hers said, when she needed someone to join her to one of her kids’ activities. ‘But I want Dave!’ Sheryl said, inconsolably. ‘Option A is not an option,’ the friend said. ‘Let’s kick the shit out of option B.’

Option B. It isn’t something you choose, but it’s the only thing you’ve got. You think you can’t do it, but you can. You have to. And during the deepest grief, Sheryl noticed that three thoughts helped her make the weight bearable.

1.     It’s not personal

When something terrible happens to you, you tend to think it’s your fault and blame yourself – because you might have done something to prevent it from happening. Sheryl Sandberg blamed herself because she didn’t see her husband’s cardiac failure coming. But how could she have known something that doctors didn’t see either? She stresses: ‘You’re not to blame for everything that happens’.

2.     This doesn’t affect your whole life

When life knocks us down, it seems incomprehensible that the world just keeps turning. You have no idea how to deal with your life. But no matter how devastating events are, there are always aspects of your life that remain undamaged. Sandberg mentions a meeting at work. She noticed that for one second she didn’t feel like she was being engulfed by grief – and this gave her hope.

3.     It’s not permanent

In times of deepest sorrow, you are certain that this will never pass, and that the rest of your life will be as hard as this moment. This is the hardest thing to deal with, Sandberg says. At first, the feeling of grief is so overwhelming, you can’t imagine it ever to decrease. Still, there is a thought that you can hold on to: there will be a time when life feels less heavy.

This is what you can do to help yourself

These ideas are based on research by the American ‘happiness psychologist’ Martin Seligman. Essential in the outcomes of his research is the confidence in people’s ability to overcome setbacks. Sandberg puts it like this: we have a psychological immune system, similar to our physical immune system. There are things you can do to help yourself. Cherish friendships. Find things to be grateful for. Before you go to sleep, write down everything that went well today – no matter how small. Give in to grief – and at the same time, have confidence in your resilience. You will overcome this. Hang on to the fact that what happened to you is not your fault, that it doesn’t affect every aspect of your life, and that it will decrease.

We all have to deal with option B

Breakups, sickness, loss. Sooner or later, we all have to deal with option B. ‘We’re more vulnerable than we thought, but stronger than we ever imagined,’  Sandberg writes. In the end, it’s all about trust. Grief seems to be endless, but eventually, you’ll reach the bottom. When that happens, you can take off, break through the water and surface again. Sometimes, knowing that is the only thing you have to hold onto. But at least it’s something: there’ll be a time when you can breathe again.

More Sheryl

Read the beautiful book ‘Option B’  by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant (Random House US). Or watch Sandberg’s Commencement Keynote Speech at Berkeley in 2016. At the book website you can read personal stories about regaining resilience after a major setback. 

Text: Anne Wesseling - Photo: Rhendi Rukmana