I measure every grief I meet
With analytic eyes;
I wonder if it weighs like mine,
Or has an easier size.
I wonder if they bore it long,
Or did it just begin?
I could not tell the date of mine,
It feels so old a pain.
I wonder if it hurts to live,
And if they have to try,
And whether, could they choose between,
They would not rather die.
I wonder if when years have piled –
Some thousands – on the cause
Of early hurt, if such a lapse
Could give them any pause… Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson writes about intense grief that sometimes makes it hurt to live. As she walks around, she wonders whether the grief of those around her measures her own very painful sorrow. One hundred years later, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the author of Lean In, wrote a book about dealing with her own grief. That book, Option B, asks many of the same questions that Dickinson deals with in her poem. Sandberg also incorporates some lessons from the bright minds around her and the corporate culture that she is immersed in.
As with most problems in her life, Sandberg approached this one logically. She asked her esteemed friends who are world renowned psychologists and professors for a plan. She simply wanted to know what to do. As she explains:
I thought resilience was the capacity to endure pain, so I asked [University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant] how I could figure out how much I had. He explained that our amount of resilience isn’t fixed, so I should be asking instead how I could become resilient. Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity – and we can build it. It isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.
In the book she writes about the capacity of the human spirit to persevere. She examined the steps that people take to help themselves and others. In her own characteristic way, Sandberg writes that you don’t always choose the life you live; it is not always Option A. So, when life hands you Option B, you might as well make the most of it.
She also explains that she is writing this book for all those who have not experienced tragedy, so they can learn to strengthen those muscles around their backbone.
“I now know that it is possible to experience post-traumatic growth. In the wake of the most crushing blows, people can find greater strength and deeper meaning. I also believe that it is possible to experience pre-traumatic growth – that you don’t have to experience tragedy to build your resilience for whatever lies ahead.”
In her book, Sandberg provides multiple helpful tips for those who are grieving. Among them are:
The Three Ps. Psychologist Martin Seligman writes that the three Ps are what stop people from recovering from tragedy: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. Personalization is the belief that you are at fault; pervasiveness is the belief that this tragedy affects all areas of your life, and permanence is the belief that the aftershocks of the tragedy will last forever. In other words, you feel, “It’s my fault this is awful. My whole life is awful. And it’s always going to be awful.” Helping the griever understand that it is not his fault, it will not affect all areas of his life, and the aftershocks will not continue forever, will ultimately help him recover. Obviously, this process takes time.
Speak about the Elephant in the Room. It’s easy to become isolated and to not share your pain with others, but this just creates a cycle of pain in which the griever is the only one who experiences the pain. Instead, let people know about the traumatic event that you experienced. Kick that elephant out of the room.
Ten turns at a time. Sandberg writes about a time that she was stuck on the top of a difficult ski slope and her mother told her to take it ten turns at a time. She felt that she was capable of doing ten turns and each time she completed ten, she was ready to take on another ten. Believe in yourself and take on those seemingly monumental tasks a few turns at a time.
Celebrate your successes. Research shows that people who are grateful lead happier lives. When you are dealing with grief, you need a bit more of a push. In that case, it’s great to celebrate the ways in which you have contributed to the world around you. Sandberg wrote down three ways in which she was an active participant every day. This helped her see what she did well and how she was making a difference.
Pay attention to happy moments. In the first crushing moments of grief, it’s difficult to experience joy, but eventually there will be small moments of joy. Give yourself permission to pay attention to them, take them back, and celebrate.
Some tips that I suggest for those who have friends or family who have experienced a tragedy:
Offer to do a specific thing. Don’t say, “Is there anything I can do?” Instead, say, “I am bringing dinner over tonight.” And then just drop it off. Or say, “I am going to drive you to the doctor’s appointment on Tuesday” or “I am going to pick up your kids after school on Thursday.”
Ask the grieving person, “How are you today?” rather than “How are you?” “How are you?” is too open ended, and asking “How are you today?” shows people that you recognize how difficult each day is.
Pay attention to the other person’s cues. Don’t assume he or she wants to be treated the way you would like to be treated. Instead, try to just be there for the griever in a way that allows him or her to know that you understand.
May we all always live our Option A, but if we get stuck with Option B, let’s learn how to rise above.
Register now for an anger management workshop by Dr. Ross Greene on November 14. Please call Mrs. Schonfeld at 718-382-5437 for more information.