Can you take the measure of grief? During my usual trolling around the internet I came across a piece in the Huffington Post on Sheryl Sandberg’s decision to return to work ten days after the sudden death of her husband. There was the usual mix of support and derision about this choice. Some people felt this was too soon, some were bitter she took so much time. I understand that Ms. Sandberg is a public person, and so her private life is up for scrutiny, but it took most of my self-control not to respond to some of the horrid things being said about her and her choices.
I don’t know Sheryl Sandberg, in fact I haven’t even read Lean In, but I do know grief. I harbor a special kind of anger for people who feel it is their place to voice an opinion about what grief should look like whether it is aimed at Sheryl Sandberg or the woman down the street who lost her dog. Grief is decidedly personal and profound. Grief is not linear.
Going back to work, resuming a semblance of normal life and getting out of bed each day are what you must do even if you are in pain. We either keep living, or we die, and how we keep living is no one’s place to say but our own. I believe Sheryl Sandberg is making the best choices she can for herself and her children at this very moment. She may be making a mistake, taking the best possible action, or most likely in twenty years or so she may know where this decision fell on that continuum. No one can say what is best when the worst thing has happened.
Returning to work has nothing to do with grief, and everything to do with moving forward. Just a few weeks ago I said something that bears repeating: when something tragic happens you don’t get to stand still and wait, time picks you up and carries you forward. Time will not change anything; nothing will make this horrible thing that happened to Ms. Sandberg and her children un-happen. The pain will diminish and the loss will impact the rest of their lives whether they return to their routine today or in six months.
I spent years berating myself and wondering what was wrong with me that I wasn’t able to get over my mother’s sudden death. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties and read Hope Edelman’s Motherless Daughters that I was finally able to understand that getting over it was never going to happen. This single event had shaped me, and made me who I am and my return to school a week afterwards was irrelevant.
To all the mean-spirited, compassionless people criticizing Sheryl Sandberg I ask what is an appropriate threshold? What would be an acceptable time frame for her children to return to school, or her to work? What actions could she take that would satisfy your expectations of the expression of her grief? I have no doubt she is making decisions she will second guess at some point, as we all do in much less stressful circumstances. To all of you taking this opportunity to voice your disapproval I say SHUT UP!
You may be shocked and horrified that Sheryl Sandberg is going back to work a mere ten days after her husband’s death. You may be angry and jealous that she had the luxury of ten days to work through the trauma she has suffered. I don’t care, and I’m not sure why you do. I hope when you lose someone dear to you no one writes on the walls of your house how cold, stupid, self-indulgent, greedy, or what a bad parent you are. I hope no one stands in judgement of what your grief looks like or how it appears to them. I hope you have the love of people who will hold you, and care for you, and understand that no one can take the measure of your grief.