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Being Mortal

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Sheryl Sandberg’s guide on coping with loss and how to be a better friend


Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy | Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant | WH Allen | 226 Pages | Rs 599

EVERYBODY HAS AN Option B, whether trivial (I wanted to wear my maroon shirt but it was creased, so I had to wear my blue one) or significant (If I get good marks I’ll apply to the top IIM. If not, then any business school will do).

But when Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, the acclaimed book on how women can empower themselves in the workplace and achieve leadership positions in a male-advantaged society), lost her husband Dave at the tragically youthful age of 43, finding Option B was something she had to learn how to do. Option A was obvious: that somehow, Dave should come back into her life and into the lives of their young children. But what was Option B—and how could she identify it from within the depths of her grief?

Here’s where Sandberg’s friend and co-author Adam Grant mentored her and helped her to develop strategies to create an Option B. One such was a technique ‘where you write down a belief that’s causing you anguish and then follow it with proof that the belief is false’.

In Sandberg’s case, her belief was that her children would never have a happy childhood; followed by examples of people she knew who had lost their parents while children and yet grown up to be perfectly happy and well-adjusted people.

Another strategy that worked was journalising: ‘Turning feelings into words can help us process and overcome adversity.’ Studies show that trauma victims who write about their traumas are able to achieve emotional well-being more quickly than those who do not. Also important is developing self-compassion because loss is often accompanied by guilt: Was I as loving as I could have been to the departed? Did I show impatience during their terminal illness? Questions such as these haunt survivors. Learning to forgive ourselves is a step towards regaining emotional strength.

On every page there are stories of untimely deaths of partners, children and siblings by fatal accidents; of rape victims and mutilated war veterans, the list goes on

But as much as this is a how-to book for victims of trauma, with the how-to objectives being articulated in the subtitle (Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, And Finding Joy), it is also a behavioural guide for friends of the victims, with very clear Do’s and Don’ts to observe in their conduct towards traumatised friends. Here, the ‘barriers that block us’ from supporting our friends who are undergoing a crisis are discussed.

While this section universalises the appeal of the book—after all, not everyone is in a continuous stage of trauma— it also provides helpful lessons for the rest of us. ‘There are two different emotional responses to the pain of others: empathy, which motivates us to help, and distress, which motivates us to avoid.’

As a reader, I connected with this because I have myself suffered bereavements and been hurt by the silence of several of my friends from whom a word of support would have been comforting. And the words of support should not be, “Is there anything I can do?” to which the only logical answer is, Can you invent a time machine so I can go back to before this happened? While well meant and sincere, these words fail to comfort because they shift the obligation to the bereaved. ‘Instead of offering ‘anything’, just do something.’ Even if it’s something as seemingly banal as showing up with a burger or giving a hug.

This is an inspiring, but also a profoundly depressing, book to read. On every page there are stories of untimely deaths of partners, siblings and children by fatal accidents, cancer, MS, MND; of rape victims; of mutilated war veterans… the list goes on. I reached the last page with a sense of relief. And, to regain my own emotional equilibrium, went back to re-read the quotation by Albert Camus that serves as one of the chapter openers: ‘In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.’ Amen to that.

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