Option B, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
Nearly two years after experiencing the loss of my dad, I re-lived the grief of that loss with Sheryl Sandberg in Option B. Although life after the loss of a loved one has its hard moments, Sandberg’s upbeat and heartwarming autobiography in the aftermath of her loss serves as a reminder that the after is not all bad. Specifically, the after often comes with an awareness of the fragility of human life that catalyzes a new appreciation for life, a rejuvenation of relationships, and the resolution to help others going through similar experiences. This last point is what I see Sandberg has done with her grief and why I have deep admiration for her. While holding a C-suite position at one of the most successful tech companies in today’s industry, she has committed to sharing about her grief through publishing books, advocating for policy changes at her workplace, and giving unlikely graduation speeches about her experience.
For me as for her, this resolve to help others has emerged from the role that community played in the wake of our respective losses. Our communities walked with us and helped us get back on our feet when we were engulfed in grief. Yet Sandberg and I both recognize that beyond helping the bereaved process grief, communities are a vehicle for sharing narratives and changing paradigms about life after death. While Sandberg has taken her experiences to tackle not only the after but how it applies to other disruptive life experiences, I also see the potential of communities to be a space to start conversations about death and dying. Our society is at once desensitized to death and fearful of acknowledging it. Death is treated with excessive stigma despite our collective knowledge that it will one day be all of our fates, and there are inevitable consequences to a continued refusal to discuss it.
Specifically, outside of reinforcing my own experiences, Sandberg’s narrative increased my empathy for two groups. The first was my own mom. Losing a partner for life is loss in a very different capacity than losing a parent. It gave me new perspective on the emptiness my mom must have felt after being married to my dad for over 20 years and the gaping jaws of a future she faced without him. Like Sandberg, my mom has built something new out of life after her husband. But to this day, my mom suffers from the consequences of my dad’s stubborn rejection of his dying condition and a consequent refusal to participate in any activity that resembled preparation for the end of his life. This amounted to a formidable task of logistical housekeeping that my mom had to deal with during the peak of her grief and still today. Lack of preparation for death increased my mom’s pain far beyond the loss of my dad.
Secondly, I recognized a dispersed but growing population of children marked by early parental illness and loss. I saw myself in Sandberg’s kids, though they are considerably younger. I began to wonder about a future in which parental illness and loss become increasingly frequent among children. Right now, caretakers are mostly adult children who have families of their own; yet as people get married later and have kids later, the age of caretakers will decrease. What will be the impact? I think of my own peers who are in their 20s, most of whom are pursuing their ambitions and setting up their careers, and what would happen if they were suddenly thrust into the role of primary caretaker. As death and illness threaten to disrupt life at an earlier age, we are challenged to consider their incompatibility with conventional child development and the lack of infrastructure people will have at that age to support such a disruption.
Thus, we need more conversations in community about death and dying. Without increasing awareness and addressing issues within this changing landscape, we threaten to create an undue burden not only on society but on the ones that we ultimately love most.