I admit it: When “Lean In” came out, I couldn’t stand Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. I thought she was smug, insular and tone-deaf, writing to a small subset of advantaged women who possessed the luxury of ambition without considering the broader social forces that hold so many others back. Never mind the fact that not all women even want to lean in, or should. (I wasn’t alone in my sentiments.)
Death is a cruel leveler. In 2015, Sandberg’s husband, David Goldberg, died suddenly while on vacation in Mexico. Unwillingly, she became every woman. Death doesn’t discriminate based on wealth or career. It can blindside anyone; nothing, not even success, is protective.
But Sandberg is in a position to write about grief, and she’s done it eloquently in “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.” She found her husband’s body next to an elliptical machine, bleeding and blue. At the funeral, her children “got out of the car and fell to the ground, unable to take another step.” She worried that they would never have another happy day again.
It could be you, it could be me. Recently a friend told me, out of the blue, “I don’t know what I’d do without my husband.” I don’t either. Not just in terms of coping with the sheer grief, but in terms of the actual mechanics of life: Soccer games. Laundry. Sharing the burden of slogging through day after day. Say what you want about love and romance, but sometimes it’s also easier just to have someone around. To vent about the annoying coworker. To analyze the terse email. To load the dishwasher. To soften the rough edges of life.
Recently, Sandberg launched a new employee benefit at Facebook: 20 days of paid bereavement leave, twice the amount that was offered previously. And she’s speaking candidly and vulnerably about how much a spouse’s death hurts but giving hope that, yes, it does get better. It’s only fitting, of course, since in “Lean In” she framed marriage not only as a private partnership but a strategic one, too, as one component of a successful career.
But no amount of decision-making can help us outmaneuver fate. And it seems Sandberg has realized that. Option B is about coping with and accepting the life we never imagined we’d have. As The New York Times wrote: “It reveals an aspect of Sandberg’s character that ‘Lean In’ had suggested but—because of the elitism at its center—did not fully demonstrate: her impulse to be helpful. She has little to gain by sharing, in excruciating detail, the events of her life over the past two years. This is a book that will be quietly passed from hand to hand, and it will surely offer great comfort to its intended readers.”
She was once the woman many of us wished we were. Now, she really could be any one of us. My husband is still here, and nothing bad has happened to me—yet. But I’m going to read it, because nobody is immune to loss. Nobody can have it all, and there’s a humbling power in realizing that this is true for you, for me, and for Sheryl Sandberg. Everyone needs an Option B. While we were once being urged to have it all or to lean in, hollow slogans that turned us into human “doings,” now it’s acceptable to have an Option B. Our role models are becoming human beings.
And that’s a comforting thought.