From the August 2017 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Guiding Clients Through Grief: Advice From Sheryl Sandberg

Transitions expert Amy Florian finds good advice to follow — and what to avoid — in Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's book on adversity

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant (Photo: Matt Albiani) Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant (Photo: Matt Albiani)

Sheryl Sandberg lived through a tragedy. She was suddenly widowed on vacation and left alone to raise two children. The book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” is her story, but it is much more than that. Sandberg teamed up with Adam Grant, a psychologist, best-selling author and respected public speaker, to write a guidebook of strategies that anyone can use to become more resilient in every aspect of life, no matter the obstacle, tragedy, failure or circumstance.

(Related: Amy Florian — Leading Through Loss: The 2017 IA 25)

Sandberg's story of coping with overwhelming grief is a prominent theme, dominating the first chapters of the book and then forming the thread running through and connecting the remaining chapters. The book is written in her voice with her co-author referred to in the third person, yet as Sandberg states in the introduction, substantial portions of the book consist of Grant's research, experiences and advice.

Working Through Grief

Sandberg's personal story is powerful and riveting. The Facebook COO tells it with honest raw emotion undergirded by her determination to heal. She details the pervasiveness of grief throughout her day, the dread of bedtime and the regrets that all grievers have. She recommends the therapeutic benefit of journaling and expressive arts, self-compassion and self-care, looking for small successes to help rebuild self-confidence and coping ability, and forgiveness for self and others amid the total upheaval that death causes in one's life.

She highlights the fact that in our society we deny death and grief, leading to an almost universal lack of understanding of the grief process or how to help. She hears the endless recitation of well-meaning but empty platitudes and the too-easy reassurance of those attempting to “fix it” or cheer her up. She acutely feels the invisibility that comes with being the “elephant in the room” even among friends.

Sandberg also correctly asserts that grief takes far more time than most people realize. The first anniversary of loss is not the end of grief. Even beginning to date again does not mean she has healed or put her husband behind her. It only means that she is committed to living and finding joy in spite of losing her best friend and great love, whom she will continue to miss and mourn.

Perhaps most importantly, the authors emphasize the possibility of post-traumatic growth, of coming out of the experience a better person than the one who went in. Guided by Grant and others, Sandberg eloquently writes about how grief changed her perspective and helped her gain more authentic appreciation for life and people; she found increased courage to form deeper relationships built on the awareness of loss.

Today, she finds ways to bring meaning out of what happened, and highlights the vital effects of connecting to a purpose greater than oneself. An essential tool in this growth was the gradual movement in her nightly routine from writing down three things she’d done well that day, to writing down three moments of joy and then to writing down three ways she had helped others. The final two steps are particularly pertinent in regaining life and happiness.

How Advisors Can Do More

Given so many points of wisdom and insight, I disagreed with a few things in Sandberg's book.

Sandberg advises comforters not to ask what they can do, but to just to do something. My caution: Such advice can backfire. In my work, for instance, one widow's siblings decided to “save her immense pain” by cleaning out her husband's closet while she was gone and donating the clothing. Their well-meaning attempt multiplied her pain and almost threw her into despair.

My revised suggestion: Unless comforters know for certain that an action is helpful (i.e., mowing the lawn or picking family up from the airport), ask first. Ideally, offer choices — “Would you like me to do this, that or would something else be better?” This avoids disconnect between needs and actions, and also prevents overlap with the efforts of others.

On more than one occasion, people essentially told Sandberg she was grieving incorrectly or taking too much time, and she needed to snap out of it, get happy again or start dating. She reports that she was OK with the “kick in the pants” in those particular instances and from those particular people. I was dismayed, however, because it implies a benefit to telling someone to stop grieving and get with the program.

While a gentle challenge is a good and sometimes necessary thing, it must not devolve into telling someone what they “should” be doing, thinking or feeling. Grief takes a lot of time, and as long as they are continuing to move toward healing, people need to be companioned, not wedged into someone else's schedule or expectations.

Sandberg rightly advises not to ask “How are you?” The suggestion she gave was “How are you today?” That is better, but I would complete the advice by recommending that advisors ask time-limited or open-ended questions that cannot be answered by standard responses such as “fine.” For instance, other options may include:

  • “Is this an up day, a down day, or an all-over-the-place day?”

  • “How do you wish people would act around you right now?”

  • “This morning, would you rather talk about Jim, the sports game, your cat or what?”

  • “In what ways is it getting easier and in what ways is it still just awful?”

  • “What kind of a night was it for you last night?”

Sandberg advises telling grievers, “I’m here. Call me any time.” In practice, grievers hear that from countless sources, yet unless the speaker is in their innermost circle and they have a deep bond of trust, they are highly unlikely to call.

They know that everyone has boundaries, and most do not want a tearful call at 3 a.m. They are also aware that their own lives are shattered but others’ lives are back to normal, so they feel needy, vulnerable and reluctant to interrupt someone's normal life to ask for something.

Since the vast majority won't call, comforters should proactively call them. Close friends and family may consider a regular appointment for a daily or bi-weekly call. Conversations may be quick if the mourner is busy or doesn't want to talk at that point, but it relieves their burden of having to decide whether to pick up the phone. Instead, the comforter is constantly there, and the willingness to remain involved increases the chances that an unscheduled call from the grieving person may come when it is needed.

Another potential shortcoming of the book for at least some readers is that, as Sandberg admits, she is privileged and has a vast array of resources. She never worried whether she could keep the house, feed her kids, afford the best counseling or find a way to live without the second income.

A close circle of family and friends enfolded Sandberg, even staying with her every night for five months. She holds a secure high-paying job, her supportive and compassionate boss gave her significant time off work plus flexibility when she returned, and her colleagues care deeply.

It is infinitely harder to cope when one or more of those resources is missing. I worked with a widow who was fired three months after her husband died because her boss felt she wasn't “happy and upbeat enough” to greet customers.

A young widow who had left the workforce to raise three children had to find childcare and get a full-time job within weeks after the funeral. A deceased husband's hidden debts forced an older widow, a former concert pianist, to sell their large home and her grand piano. A widowed man had no children, had long since retired from his job, and no longer fit into his circle of married friends, leaving him totally alone.

While it is not Sandberg's fault that she in is such a privileged position nor does it negate her experience or sage advice, it may be difficult for people in situations like these to relate to her situation or take advantage of the wisdom she offers.

That being said, the authors address this concern from several angles. First, Sandberg freely acknowledges her privilege and how much easier the grieving process is with strong support systems. She becomes a proponent for changing business policies and increasing access to resources, and implements such policies at Facebook. Perhaps her very public voice will help initiate a wider conversation that results in greater support for those who grieve.

At the same time, Sandberg and Grant elevate to their rightful significance several stories of people victimized by poverty, violence, sexual abuse, isolation, prison and many other extreme challenges, who yet were able to survive. They offer thoughtful and poignant discussions of social justice, the inequitable allocation of resources and our human responsibilities toward those who are less fortunate than ourselves. They propose directions for needed legislative change and illustrate social attitudes that need adjustment, while decrying budget allocations that only serve to increase suffering and inequality.

Finally, the authors admit that the resilience they describe isn't always possible, acknowledging cases where a person's obstacles are insurmountable given the paltry resources available to them. In fact, a good portion of the book, especially in the second half, is spent describing the horrific circumstances faced by the majority of the world's population, young and old. Although transformation in many of these areas is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future, perhaps those sections of the book can increase awareness among those willing to engage them.

Be Proactive About Grief Education

The last thing I would add to the list of suggestions in “Option B” is for advisors to take on grief education for themselves. It is unfair to grieving, hurting, suffering people when they have to educate those around them on how to help. If we all had accurate knowledge of the grief process and were taught truly effective ways to help, we would be better able to support others when something happens to them — and to heal when something happens to us.

Expressing and resolving our collective grief would make the world a better, less angry, more compassionate and more hopeful place. This book is an excellent start. Despite the few points of disagreement, I applaud Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant for making valid information available in the context of such a powerful story. I have no doubt it will achieve the goal of building understanding, support and therefore resilience.

Sandberg's final journal entry, written on what would have been her husband's birthday, is an appropriate ending:

“Looking at Dave's grave, I realized that there is nothing left to do or say. I don't get to tell him that I love him ever again. I have learned how to make sure I talk about him constantly so our children remember him but I will never again have another conversation with him about them. I can cry all day every day — but it will not bring him back. Nothing will. We are all headed for where Dave is … we will all end up in the ground. So each day has to count. I don't know how many I have left and I want to start living again. I am not happy yet. But I know how much I have done these past five months. I know I can survive. I know I can raise my kids. I know I need a ton of help — and have learned to ask for it — and I believe more and more that the core people are in this with me for the long haul. It is still scary but less so … I am not alone. We all need other people — and I do more than ever. But at the end of the day, the only person who can move my life ahead, make me happy and build a new life for my kids is me … So today I end this journal. And try to restart the rest of my life … .”

--- Read Everplans: A Tech Tool That Could Be an Estate Planning Game-Changer on ThinkAdvisor. 

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