We Need More Stories About Grief (Sheryl Sandberg Can't Do it All, Guys)

Grieving is a lot to handle all on your own.
Photo by Matthew Henry.

I just read Option B by Sheryl Sandberg. Hoooo boy!

For those of you who don't know, this book exists because her husband suddenly died while they were on vacation. It's about grief and adapting to new realities in life. Some aspects of it are tough to read, but it is also beautiful and encouraging.

One thing that it really highlighted for me was the impact of other people on her experience and how they let their own discomfort get in the way of being there for a grieving friend. Some quotes:

"Two things we want to know when we are in pain is that we're not crazy to feel the way we do and that we have support. Acting like nothing significant is happening to people who look like us denies us all of that."

"I felt invisible, as if I were standing in front of them but they couldn't see me. When someone shows up with a cast, we immediately inquire, 'What happened?' If your ankle gets shattered, people ask to hear the story. If your life gets shattered, they don't."

While there are some people who are just going to avoid heavy feelings no matter, I think most people avoid bringing up the terrible losses their friends have suffered because we have no idea what is best. It feels like walking through a minefield of "making things worse," and you don't know what is going to set off a bomb for this particular person.

Plus, if you have watched movies and TV shows where people are grieving, they make it seem like people's well-wishes and consolations are a burden. By the time I was a teenager, I had seen many an actor grieve on television, saying things like, "I'm just so sick of people asking how I'm doing," or "If anyone else brings me a casserole I am going to throw it on the ground," or "I can't stand to tell anyone else what happened."

The lesson was pretty clear: grieving people don't want any of the things that we do in our culture to support them. They don't want food. They don't want sympathy. They don't want to answer questions (especially how they are doing). They don't want cards. They don't want condolences. They don't want it brought up.

What do they want? It seems that they want one friend who is straightforward and slightly brash in their supportiveness and will make a joke that strikes just the right tone between irreverence and understanding while eating cold casserole with them straight out of the pan OR for that person to actually be a love interest and say all that before having passionate "let's forget it all" sex.

What I have never seen depicted is a person who needs and accepts the help of their community. A person who feels abandoned and rejected because their friends AREN'T asking if they are okay or if they want to talk about it. Someone who needs the active support of everyone around them for a long time because major loss rocks your life for a long time.

So is it any doubt that when faced with grief like Sheryl Sanberg's, most people freeze? NOPE. Our cultural story is that everything we want to say or do will make it worse.

What I am learning is that if I'm going to screw up, I want to screw up on the side of caring. If a person I love could either feel annoyed/exhausted/angry because I showed up or lost/abandoned/invisible because I didn't, I want to opt for the first. Because at least that way, even if I do accidentally make it worse, they know that someone cared.

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