Several months ago, I found myself climbing the rickety stairs of a run-down commercial building to a dank, windowless office, where I waited with two other middle-aged white women whose cars, like mine, had been unceremoniously towed earlier that afternoon.
Sitting behind the desk was a clearly flustered African-American woman in her late 20s. Even seated, she was statuesque, with cornrows wrapped in a neat scarf. But her hands shook as she took $120 from each of us in exchange for the return of our vehicles.
“I'm really sorry,” she said, as much to herself as to any of us. “I'm still trying to figure this all out. This was my husband's business. He died six months ago, and if I don't figure this out, I'll lose everything he worked to build.” I'm not sure I had ever seen a lonelier soul.
As she led us toward the impound lot, I reached out and gently touched her arm. “You're going to be OK,” I told her. “My husband died 10 years ago; it's hard, but you'll get through it. You're a strong woman.”
She looked back at me with gratitude and perhaps a glimmer of hope. “Really? You look like you're doing good.”
I am not normally a sharer, and I have a strong resolve to respect other people's personal space, so this was far from typical for me. But the premature and world-shattering death of a spouse is a great equalizer. The simple democracy of the experience can unite perfect strangers in a moment of humanity.
That is a significant part of the takeaway from “Option B,” Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's deeply personal self-help book. Published just shy of the second anniversary of the sudden death of her husband, SurveyMonkey chief executive David Goldberg, the explicit point of the book – written with organizational psychologist and family friend Adam Grant – is to figure out what life looks like when “Option A is no longer available.” Sandberg exposes, with at-times heartbreaking honesty, the reality that nothing – not money, success or education, nor even the support of an online community – can inoculate you against the pain of grief that is delivered when least expected and very much out of the proper order of life. And in the telling of her own story, Sandberg becomes the most unlikely Every Widow.
I approached the book with significant skepticism. I was not a big fan of Sandberg's phenomenally successful first book, “Lean In.” It felt for me – as a mid-life professional woman when it was published in 2013 – both obvious and pandering to millennial first-world problems. And as with “Lean In,” Sandberg is launching “Option B” alongside a campaign to create support circles, connected through Facebook. I am an at-best occasional and always deeply conflicted social-media user. Facebook was in its infancy when my husband died in 2007, but I can't imagine, even today, that I would have shared his struggle and ultimate death that way.
And yet, time and again, Sandberg had me nodding my head in affirmation or thinking, as I read a piece of advice, “That would have been helpful.”
She is most effective when talking about the most wrenching part of her story: the grief she shared with her two children, who were 7 and 10 at the time of their father's death.
Sandberg recounts calling a childhood friend while still in the hospital with her husband's body and, before even explaining what had happened, screaming hysterically into the phone: “Tell me my kids are going to be OK! Tell me they're going to be OK.” The subsequent scene in which she returns home to tell her son and daughter their father is dead took me back to the excruciating helplessness of telling my 11-year-old twin sons that their father had lost his seven-month battle with cancer. The desire to hold them close, to assure them their whole world hasn't collapsed, that what they still know of their lives – friends, school, home and, most essential, Mom – will abide.
But the book is more than memoir, and so interspersed with such devastating scenes are equally powerful strategies for coping when your world has gone tilt.
Early in “Option B,” Sandberg presents a diagram of concentric rings of grief that her co-author created for her. At the center are her children; one ring out includes herself, Dave's mother and brother; one ring further are her family members and Dave's other relatives; and beyond that are more family and friends. The conceit is simple: Seek to console those who are closer to the center than you; accept solace from those in circles further removed than you.
That left Sandberg needing to comfort her children while she was bereft. It meant finding a way to grieve and heal herself while not losing control when her kids needed her most.
“One day my son told me it made him sad when I cried,” she writes, “so I began holding back my tears, running up to my bedroom and closing the door when I felt them well up. ... A few days later my son asked me in anger, 'Why don't you miss Daddy anymore?' By protecting him from my tears, I had stopped modeling the behavior I wanted from him. I apologized for hiding my emotions and started letting him see them again.”
Sandberg goes to great pains to acknowledge that, even in tragedy, she is lucky. For too many families, economic stability, as much as emotional stability, is shattered by death. With that emphasis, she largely avoids the narrow focus on the world of privilege that was one of the chief sources of criticism of “Lean In.” The exception in “Option B” is the chapter “Failing – and Learning – at Work.” It opens with Sandberg taking her kids, at Elon Musk's invitation, to a SpaceX rocket launch, and it concludes with her giving a symbolic necklace to a co-worker running a new division at Facebook while battling cancer. Reading it, I felt divorced from Sandberg's experience.
Still, sharing this loneliest of journeys is at the heart of what Sandberg tries to do, and largely succeeds in doing, with “Option B.” She is wise and honest and funny and practical in ways that are likely to stay with the reader. She quotes author Bruce Feiler's advice - “Instead of offering 'anything,' just do something” – as a powerful answer to the oft-repeated lament “I don't know what to do or say to someone who is grieving.” My husband died nine days before my 43rd birthday. A dear friend announced to me at his funeral: “We're going out to dinner on your birthday. Steve will look after the kids.” No asking, just declaring. To this day, it remains one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.
Sandberg's book is not lyrical in the way that C.S. Lewis' or Joan Didion's reflections on grief are. But neither is she almost pornographic in her depiction of the pain of loss, as those authors are. She spends very little time dwelling – for example, she found comfort in journaling but stopped purposefully after 156 days.
Sandberg does not set herself up as the widow role model. There are clearly many ways to grieve, and as she notes in a knowing way, grief morphs from day to day and sometimes from hour to hour. Her experience – losing a spouse suddenly, without a chance to say goodbye – is different from the slog through cancer or other long-term diseases. Yet she seems to understand that when children are left without a father, no discussion of “a good death” is possible.
Through stories of others, she explores other types and manners of losses: children, siblings; car wrecks, suicide. But at its core this is a book about being a young widow. It is a book for them, and for those who love them but can't quite fathom what might be going through their minds at any moment.
For those of you wondering, this is what it is like to be a widowed mother, trying to reconcile your old, seemingly quotidian life with your new, unfathomable one: “Sometimes I'll be working at the kitchen table and my heart will skip a beat when I think for a brief second that he is opening the door and coming home.”
By the end of the book, Sandberg has started to heal. But she is honest enough to acknowledge that the journey is not a linear one. And she very likely will be in a very different place five years from now.
Still, in sharing that vulnerability, in showing that she really has walked the widow's walk, she earns the credibility to remind readers that no matter how devastating the loss, there is always an “Option B” – and that there is not only an opportunity but also a responsibility to figure out what that is.
And that is a message as useful to a widow who inherited a tow-truck company in the Washington suburbs as it is to a Silicon Valley executive.
Tracy Grant is a deputy managing editor of the Washington Post.