Dear Sheryl Sandberg,
We have never met, but I want to thank you for getting me through what was easily the most difficult time in my life.
It’s not because you showed my generation how to lean in and ask for what we rightfully deserve, or because you are the COO of the social network that is my go-to for watching puppy videos, binging old photos and connecting with friends from middle school. It’s because at a time in my life when no one seemed to know what to say, you did.
My mother passed away less than a week before your husband Dave Goldberg in 2015. I never would have known this fact, but in a true testament to the times, I found out on Facebook.
On June 3, 2015, you posted a touching Facebook essay, detailing how you were dealing with your grief in a way that felt like you were writing directly to me. And I wasn’t the only one who caught this feeling. To date, your post has been liked more than 914,000 times.
To better understand why your post connected with me (and the 913,999 other people gave it a thumbs up) I reached out to a grief expert.
“In the old days, when we lived in villages and someone died, the community was there to support the grieving person. Everyone was involved in the grief because the loss affected the small community,” says Toronto-based psychotherapist Dr. Mel Borins.
“These days, people in the city are more isolated. Sometimes family is spread across the country and we don’t have that community of support when we lose somebody. So, I think the idea of connecting on social media is a way of reestablishing that community support that’s sometimes lacking.”
For me, it was even more than that. In your post, and now with your new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, you share a seemingly unfiltered look at grief. Words that go beyond the tropes we so easily rely on like, “Oh he’s in a better place now,” or “At least she didn’t suffer.”
When you hit “post” you shared a look at the details of what it means to deal with a loss—like the daunting prospect of celebrating birthdays or your sentiments about what life is like right after a loved one dies.
“I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser,” you wrote.
Your message was shared on Facebook more than 402,000 times, and that number includes many of my friends and family. At a time when we didn’t know how to process what we were thinking and feeling—let alone say the right thing to each other—you broke through the bullshit and said what we were afraid to say.
“When people say to me, ‘You and your children will find happiness again,’ my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again,” you wrote. “Those who have said, ‘You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good’ comfort me more because they know and speak the truth.”
In the years that have followed, the truth you spoke has comforted me, too. Your words have played in my head during birthday parties and weddings that continue to be joyous cake-filled occasions, but are now punctuated by painful moments of wishing my mom was there to enjoy them with me. And that’s OK.
To me, your online message speaks to the need to talk about grief in a frank and open way—because let’s be real, losing a loved one is the absolute worst and yet basically a universal guarantee. It also demonstrates the power of social media, a place where a then 25-year-old journalist from Ottawa could feel like she was grieving with a Silicon Valley genius.
While social media can bring such strangers together in times of need, Dr. Borins reminded me that relying solely on Facebook messages isn’t enough.
“Social media is not a replacement for interpersonal relations,” he says. “I believe it provides a false sense of connection. Especially young people have no problem sharing stuff on social media whereas actually verbalizing and sharing it, they have difficulty. I don’t think that’s a very good thing.”
That is part of the reason why I want to thank you for what you’re doing at this stage, two years after your husband and my mother passed away. You have seamlessly taken that conversation offline and continued it, speaking on talk shows and promoting your book that goes deeper into the idea of “life after death” (as Time so eloquently put it).
As you point out, when someone dies people tend to say: “Let me know if there is anything I can do,” leaving the person who is grieving to also figure out what it is they need at a time when nothing seems to make sense.
The way that you continue to talk about loss is the embodiment of doing rather than asking what needs to be done.
And for that, I sincerely thank you,