Meghan O'Rourke: Sandberg leads by example by mourning in public
But the "Lean In," "muscle-through-it" approach can't work for everyone, she says
Editor’s Note: Meghan O’Rourke is an essayist and poet who has taught at Princeton, The New School, and New York University. She is the author of “The Long Goodbye,” a memoir and cultural study of grief and mourning in the aftermath of losing her mother. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Warning: This commentary contains language that some might find offensive.
At her commencement address at the University of California, Berkeley, on Saturday, Facebook COO and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg told the crowd she wanted to break with tradition. As that day’s “voice of wisdom,” she told the crowd, “I am not here to tell you all the things I’ve learned in life. Today I will try to tell you what I learned in death.” What followed was a moving, emotionally revealing speech about the painful truths she has learned in the year or so since her husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly of a heart arrhythmia while the couple was on vacation in Mexico.
Sandberg’s speech has gone viral, celebrated for its rawness and directness about her suffering. At times she fought back tears. Near the end, she shared the fact that “a year after the worst day of my life … I have a huge reservoir of sadness that is with me always — right here where I can touch it. I never knew I could cry so often — or so much.”
Such revelations are useful, even socially important. In an era that remains uncomfortable about death, where the American ethic of mourning, as I wrote in my book “The Long Goodbye,” is still suffused with a kind of avoidant, “let’s muscle-through-the-pain” spirit, Sandberg is pushing back to try to show death’s real toll on the living.
Her aims here seem not all that different from those in “Lean In” for women in the workplace, whom she counsels not to pretend they are automatons with no family life – to actually talk to their managers about their plans to get pregnant, for example. Showing emotion on stage at Berkeley is a similarly rebellious gesture: For years women in leadership roles have feared seeming “too emotional,” as the cliché goes, and American popular culture too often portrays leaders, like the female president on the TV show “24,” saying things like grief over the loss of a child is a “luxury” that she can’t afford.
But it’s notable that even in this raw, no-holds-barred speech about the realities of loss, Sandberg continues to subscribe, in a rather muddled way, to the notion that mourning is something to manage and succeed at. Look closely at her speech on Saturday, and you’ll see embedded in it — in ways she may not even realize — a coded message to get on with it and a palpable discomfort (perhaps an understandable one) with her own powerlessness over these huge emotions.
In a sense, Sandberg has turned grief into more grist for the mill for her “Lean In” model. At the core of her approach is a story she has been telling for months now: A few weeks after Goldberg died, her friend Phil came by to help with a father-son activity. “We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, ‘But I want Dave.’ Phil put his arm around me and said, ‘Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.’”
Even though she has noted elsewhere that at the time part of her thought she didn’t want to lean in quite this way, Sandberg now embraces this mode as her grieving mantra. And she has been trying to “kick the shit out of option B” ever since, in part by embracing Harvard psychologist Martin Seligman’s work on how people bounce back from challenges through “resilience.”
Rather than delve into the true reality of the “hard days,” she has said that she now writes down three moments of joy each day, and tells herself to be glad her husband didn’t have his heart attack while driving her children. In her speech, she spoke about being in a Facebook meeting “in a deep, deep haze” shortly after Dave’s death, wondering how any of it could be said to matter — a common feeling — when for a second she got drawn in and “forgot about death.”
The “easy days will be easy,” she continued. Instead, “It is the hard days — the times that challenge you to your very core — that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.”
But what if how you survive is messier, and less tidy, and less certain than Sandberg suggests it is? What if sitting in that meeting you realize it really doesn’t matter, rather than comforting yourself with the distraction of work? Around death in the workplace, and even among friends, we’ve adopted a sort of “Ask, don’t tell” policy in our culture. We may express concern — “How are you?” — but the mourner quickly figures out that people don’t really want to know the answer.
With her high profile, Sandberg has an opportunity to convey the real lessons of death, not life, which are that you don’t always get what you want; you can’t always “kick the shit” out of option B; and sometimes pain — or illness, or divorce — lingers in ways that make it impossible to reach for that resilience. By moralizing our response to one of the most significant human experiences, Sandberg fails to articulate its full complexity. Understandably, perhaps; maybe it is just too painful for her right now to do that – to do anything but focus on getting through.
But the real lesson about grief would let us all linger near the void of loss, feeling its chill, before coming back to the warmth of life, which doesn’t always respond to our master plans to kick the shit out of it.
Meghan O’Rourke is an essayist and poet who has taught at Princeton, The New School, and New York University. She is the author of “The Long Goodbye,” a memoir and cultural study of grief and mourning in the aftermath of losing her mother. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Warning: This commentary contains language that some might find offensive.