My son recently invited me to the bookstore – an offer my children know I cannot refuse. Since we planned to relax in the cafe for a while, I grabbed a few items to scan over coffee, including Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. I’d read both authors before but was unfamiliar with this particular book.
I skimmed the introduction…and couldn’t put it down. I ended up purchasing the book on the spot, devouring it within a day, and highlighting something on nearly every page. Sandberg’s personal experience regarding the tragic death of her husband, coupled with psychologist Grant’s expert knowledge and practical insights, blended seamlessly to create a book both vulnerable and useful all at once.
We all experience loss over the course of our lifetimes. The death of a loved one, job loss, the end of a relationship, trauma, a diagnosis, or any number of unexpected (and even, at times, expected) turn-of-event moments can make us temporarily lose our footing. While dreading or fearing such events won’t help us navigate them, learning tools and strategies to help us grow through them will. The introduction of such tools, along with Sandberg’s genuine and heartfelt sharing, makes this one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
Though I could write a book about my takeaways from this book (!), I’ve chosen three points to support your personal and professional development: 1) The 3 P’s for Building Resilience, 2) Practical Ways to Support Post-Traumatic Growth, and 3) What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say.
1. The 3 P’s for Building Resilience
Martin Seligman, frequently identified as a founder of positive psychology, has written a number of excellent books (I recommend Authentic Happiness and Flourish) to share his profound research-based insights with a wider audience. One such insight involves the 3 P’s that can serve as obstacles during difficult times: Personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. Sandberg references these early in the book and refers to them throughout, as her understanding of them played a key role in her healing and growth process.
In short, personalization is the belief that we are solely responsible for the tragic event; pervasiveness is feeling like the event affects everything; and permanence is the belief that the aftershocks of the event will continue forever. As Sandberg and Grant explain, “The loop in your head repeats, ‘It’s my fault this is awful. My whole life is awful. And it’s always going to be awful.'” As you might imagine, such beliefs can make recovery and healing rather difficult.
But knowledge of the 3 P’s can help us recover more quickly. When we realize, for example, that our present emotions won’t last forever, we become better able to cope and perhaps more likely to reach out for help.
“Not everything that happens to us happens because of us,” the authors assert. By relating back to the 3 P’s often throughout the book, Sandberg demonstrates how beneficial such knowledge can be in healing.
2. Practical Ways to Support Post-Traumatic Growth
You’ve likely heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. But do you know of another phenomenon often experienced after tragedy: post-traumatic growth? According to the research, post-traumatic growth – ‘bouncing forward’ after a tragedy – can take different forms. Some trauma survivors uncover newfound personal strength, others deepen relationships, and still others find stronger meaning and purpose in life. These effects don’t necessarily appear immediately, and many of us would choose to forfeit the growth and avoid the trauma if we could, however the subsequent impact can lead to positive outcomes.
Sandberg shares a few tools that supported her growth after her beloved husband’s death, including journaling, helping others (ie, making a contribution), and intentionally deepening her connections. One of my favorite lines in the book addresses the latter: “We find our humanity…in our connections to one another.”
I found this to be the case a few years ago when my mom passed away. My tendency, typical for me, involved retreating inward. For a long time after her death, I didn’t want to go out, didn’t want to accept invitations; I wanted to build a little cocoon in my home and hide there. My dear friends threw me a 40th birthday party a few months after her death, and I was still in such a state of loss that I arrived late to the party and left early. I didn’t – it seemed I just couldn’t – explain why. Only the most persistent could break through the sturdy barrier I had built, and I am forever grateful that they kept trying.
Which leads to my third takeaway from the book.
3. What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say
“I couldn’t understand when friends didn’t ask me how I was,” Sandberg shares. “People continually avoided the subject.”
Did they just not care?
They likely cared a great deal, they just didn’t know what to say – or feared saying the wrong thing.
I related so much to this chapter. I, too, was shocked how frequently people wouldn’t mention my mom – and I realized how frequently, prior to this experience, I practiced the exact same kind of avoidance. I would think, “What if they’ve just gotten over it and I bring it up?” I let my own fear or discomfort prevent me from being fully present with someone experiencing loss.
Sandberg and Grant share wonderful insights here. For example, the reminder that “avoiding feelings isn’t the same as protecting feelings.” If a friend or employee experiences a tragedy, avoiding the subject (or avoiding the person) will not lessen the pain or lighten the load. A sincere “I don’t know what to say” will likely support them much more than you realize.
Remember, too, the great gift in simply showing up. Arriving to the hospital or showing up at the memorial, even if no words are exchanged, will demonstrate your support more than good intentions.
Also incredibly enlightening for me: Rather than offering to do anything, do something. The authors cite Bruce Feiler: “While [offering to do anything] is well meaning,” Feiler writes, “this gesture unintentionally shifts the obligation to the aggrieved.” He gives examples like sending packing supplies to someone moving out after a divorce or holding a “fire shower” (like a bridal shower) for a friend who lost her home. When my mom died, friends created a meal train to make sure my family ate during a time when I most certainly did not feel like cooking. If they had asked me what they could do, I never would have thought of that, much less verbalized it. I was rarely the one answering the door during that time, but I cried – in a good and grateful way – each time I smelled their loving gifts wafting through the house.
Building Resilience – Even In “The Club You Never Wanted To Join”
I need to make a confession: Although my outline sits in front of me, this post has taken on a life of its own. Rather than being part book review and part coaching support as intended, it’s also become part personal therapy session for me. I’m not sure I’ll even hit ‘publish.’
But what I love about this book, what it reminded me about my own experiences with loss that I really want to impart, is this: You can build your resilience.
You can grow through any situation.
You do not live with a fixed set-point for learning or resilience or joy that you are powerless to change.
Instead, you are resilient beyond measure, stronger than your circumstances, and here to make a difference. Even through the hard times.
To help strengthen that resilience in ourselves and others, Sandberg and Grant suggest developing a few core beliefs: That we have some control over our lives. That we can learn from failure and difficulty. That each one of us matters – not because of anything we have done, but simply because we are human beings. And that we each have real strengths which we can rely on and share.
“The most resilient [people],” the authors write, “realize they have the power to shape their own lives… Tragedy does not have to be personal, pervasive, or permanent, but resilience can be.”
So if you are navigating hard times or are trying to support a friend, colleague, or employee who is, consider these ideas – and check out Option B. You can build resilience and experience growth, and help others do the same, even in hard times.
And you may just come out stronger, freer, and with a greater sense of meaning and purpose than you ever imagined possible.