Two years ago, my husband Clayton was murdered. That summer, I wrote a lot in my journal. I felt angry at how so many people reacted to Clayton’s death. I wanted to memorialize our memories together. I wanted to remember through writing. I snarkily told my family I was going to publish my own how-to book on grief titled Don’t Cry Unless I’m Crying and Other Tips to Help a Grieving Friend. My aunt told me that Sheryl Sandberg also was writing a book about grief. Her husband died two days after mine that year. I was pretty sure our takes on grief would be different. I was right.
Sandberg’s new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (co-authored with Adam Grant, a professor of psychology and management at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania), provides a readable guide to working through grief, loss, and other trauma. The book’s main point is that we can build resilience in the face of any tragedy—and come out stronger for it. “In the wake of the most crushing blows, people can find greater strength and deeper meaning.” Sandberg tells us that we all want to live Option A — the life we hoped and worked for. But, as she writes, “Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B. This book is to help us all kick the shit out of it.”1
This idea — that we can become tougher, better, shit-kicking people — is what makes me dislike the book. Its premise is flawed. The overarching thesis — that we have to learn and grow and be better people after a tragedy — is simply erroneous. Since when did we have to approach every event as some sort of hurdle to grow from? Since when has “resilience” become not a character trait that we could rely on, but one that it was simply imperative we cultivate?
The book’s underlying neoliberal logic — that growth, improvement, and yes, even efficiency are traits we need to strive for (and that striving in and of itself is a good thing) — negates the real, human experience of death and grief. It elides the fact that sometimes, we feel helpless, hopeless, and sad. Most importantly, those feelings are not something we have to address with the mindset: “How can we, as human beings, become better people from this feeling?” How about, “How can we just be?” Why do we need to be happy, in the words of Sara Ahmed?
One example of this mindset is found in the book’s take on finding and expressing gratitude. As Sandberg writes:
I have often thought this about Clayton. Things could have been worse. After he was murdered, several other police officers were tortured to death. One was pulled behind a horse until he died. Another was burned alive. I thought: “It could be worse. Clayton could have been tortured to death. Luckily, he was only gunned down with a machine gun.” I do feel grateful for this small thing. But that gratitude definitely didn’t overwhelm me and take over part of my grief. Actually, it made me sadder — and angrier. It’s good to find gratitude. But to expect that gratitude to be the step towards a more resilient, better you is wrong. That gratitude just is. There’s no end goal. And if the gratitude makes me angry, that’s okay too.
In an interview with NPR in April, Sandberg expanded upon this idea of gratitude. She told a story about her cousin Laura and the meaning of gratitude, telling the radio host, “My cousin Laura turned 50 on Valentine’s Day and I called her. I said ‘Laura, I’m calling to say Happy Birthday. But I’m also calling because in case you woke up this morning with that ‘Oh my god I’m 50 thing,’ this is the year that Dave won’t turn 50 … I’m celebrating that you’re 50 today.’” Listen. If you had called me when I turned 31 and told me, “Cassia, I know you don’t want to turn 31, but hey, Clayton died when he was 30, so you need to be grateful that you’re alive,” I would have told you to f@&# off.
Why not let Laura fret over turning 50? It’s her life, her body, her anxiety. I get it. It hurts so much; it’s so unfair that Dave won’t turn 50; that Clayton won’t turn 31. Sandberg said that Dave’s death has made her think “How do we live knowing that every single day is precious, and life is short?” But what does precious mean? I’m pretty positive I don’t live every single day as if it were precious in Sandberg’s definition. Or maybe my definition of precious is different from hers. I don’t always “say yes to life.” My definition of a precious day is making a list and crossing off everything on it. Sometimes that means that I don’t interact with people, or I work too much, or I sleep. But who says all those things aren’t my definition of a “precious life?”
I am all for concrete strategies and approaches towards grief. And the book provides those. For example, Chapter Two is titled, “Kicking the Elephant out of the Room,” and it describes how many people stopped talking to Sandberg after Dave died. She writes “I couldn’t understand when friends didn’t ask me how I was. I felt invisible, as if I were standing in front of them but they couldn’t see me.” She soon realized that many people remained silent because they felt uncomfortable. They didn’t know what to say, and so they said nothing at all. This is much more common than you think. Many people reacted to Clayton’s murder in the same way. It hurt (it still does), and it made me very, very angry. Sandberg writes that when people would ask her “How are you?” she would want to scream back “‘My husband just died, how do you think I am?’” She realized that people were “doing their best,” and she began to address the elephant, first in a Facebook post, and then one-on-one with friends who continued to remain silent.
Maybe, however, Sandberg should have snarkily responded to her friend that her husband was dead. Sure, it would have caused a jolt; maybe she would have ended that relationship. Maybe she would be better for it. After Clayton’s death I often told myself: “intention versus impact.” Yes, I know that people’s intentions can be very different from their impact, and we have to keep that in mind. But impact also matters. Not talking matters. My friends who remained in silence are no longer my friends. I did speak with them about how their silences hurt me. They continued to be silent. And I feel that thinning the herd, something that happens as we grow older anyway, has strengthened my life, not weakened it. Their reactions reinforced long-standing beliefs that, perhaps, they weren’t that great of friends. And you know what? That’s fine. We all don’t have to like each other.
I’m not advocating that you stew in resentment, anger, and sadness after a traumatic event. It’s why you go to therapy, ask for help, work on feelings. I have gone to counseling continuously throughout the last two years. But I am not doing these things so I can become “resilient” and “stronger.” I am doing these because I need to remember Clayton; I need to sleep; I need to breathe. There’s no end goal here, no desire to flex my “resilience muscle.” Just to be.
Sheryl Sandberg also tragically and unexpectedly lost her husband. And I’m so sorry that he died. I am not challenging her right to feel pain and grief, and to confront and approach those feelings in the way that works for her. But I do have a problem with the idea that we have to grow and come out stronger from every tragedy. Many of the concrete pieces of advice she gives are spot on. But her logic is flawed. I’m not trying to have a “grief-off” here, but I’m not leaning into grief.3 I’m just trying to be, to survive.
To Read Instead
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, (New York: Knopf, 2005).
Luis Alberto Urrea, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border (New York: Anchor Books, 1993).
- Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (London: WH Allen, 2017), Epub, Intro. Return to text.
- Sandberg and Grant, Option B, chap. 1. Return to text.
- Check out Orange is the New Black S05E04, “Lichfield’s Got Talent” for the grief-off. Return to text.
You have some very neat ideas here. Why must we always have to try to turn a negative into a positive? It reminds me of “the power of positive thinking” and some criticism that Barbara Ehrenreich made in her book Bright-Sided.
Thank you for your comment Kate. I have not read Ehrenreich’s book, but I will check it out.
I enjoyed your essay. I think of death, grief, and loss as formidable foes that cannot be easily managed, controlled, or “commodified,”at least not according to a formula. I agree with you that it trivializes the event and the emotions when we treat grief as commodity or teachable moment–as some kind of currency to build character or success, although I believe pain and loss can make us stronger! It occurred to me that we don’t have much of a culture surrounding death and grieving anymore. People used to be able to portray their grief, as in wearing mourning clothes or expressing sadness in public. Thanks for writing this. .
Dear Yvonne, thank you for your comments. I completely agree about how our culture around death and grief has disappeared. We hardly even use the word death anymore. It’s “passed away”, or “gone”. This lack of a space makes it hard for people to talk openly about death.
My son is not dead, but he suffers with social death as a person with Asperger… and I see parallels in your argument, regarding grief, and fear, and isolation… and the platitudes about these opportunities for us to *grow* — in reduced circumstances. I want to scream… but also to reach out to you and say hat you are absolutely correct… and that there has to be an end to the insistence that we turn all “adversity” (how trivializing) into an opportunity for *personal* growth. Mostly what I see is community failure.
Dear Morgan, thank you for your thoughts and I loved that you brought in the concept of social death. I think what is becoming clear from the comments is that this is a community and not individual issue. We lack a social contract surrounding death–any kind. Our highly individualized society reinforces the idea of perfection and improvement and precludes community responses.