Saturday 16 December 2017

Inspiring guide to tackling tragedy and grief

Health: Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience And Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, W.H. Allen, €15.99

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg... 'although she is a billionaire, her tragedy is an ordinary one'. Photo: Mark Condren
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg... 'although she is a billionaire, her tragedy is an ordinary one'. Photo: Mark Condren

Frieda Klotz

In her last book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg wrote about the importance of having the right spouse. In a chapter called Make Your Partner a Real Partner she argued: "I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is." It was a statement that begged some questions. What about the multitude of other decisions a woman might choose to make at one time or another? What about the women who are single at various points over the course of their lives? It whitewashed over a more complicated reality; and Sandberg's restricted view of women's experience was one of the book's main flaws.

Two years on, Sandberg experienced the sort of tragedy that leaves many women unpartnered, when her husband, David Goldberg, collapsed at the gym while they were on holiday. They had been one of Silicon Valley's golden couples, she the COO of Facebook, he the CEO of SurveyMonkey. But their wealth and success were not enough to ward off tragedy. Goldberg's death, caused by cardiac arrhythmia, occurred when he was just 47 and Sandberg 45; the couple had two children, aged seven and 10.

Option B is a kind of Lean In for the distressed and grieving. It is a project as much as it is a book; readers are invited to visit the website Optionb.org and click through to Facebook communities focusing on resilience, family problems and bereavement. It's co-authored by Adam Grant, a psychologist based at the Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania. Before Goldberg's death he and Sandberg had already collaborated on a series of articles published in The New York Times about equality (sample title: How Men Can Succeed In The Boardroom And The Bedroom).

Yet it's written in Sandberg's voice with a single "I" narrating the text, and this proves to have been a good idea. Sandberg, as we encounter her here, is a modest and likeable character. Her personal tragedy provides a structure, while Grant's scientific data gives weight to the account.

There's little doubt that Sandberg's abrupt introduction to widowhood was brutal. She was hanging out by the pool at their friend's fiftieth birthday party in Mexico when she began to wonder where her husband was and went to look for him in the gym. "We found Dave on the floor, lying by the elliptical machine [cross-trainer]," she writes, "his face slightly blue and turned to the left, a small pool of blood under his head." Sandberg gave him CPR, then his brother tried, and then a doctor, followed by a frantic trip to the nearest hospital in an ambulance. It was too late. Sandberg flew back to California, tasked with telling her children their father was dead.

She recalls how her daughter walked out of the house with a friendly, "Hi Mom." Her son realised instantly that something was wrong. "Why are you home?" he asked. "And where's Dad?" Though Sandberg is a billionaire, her tragedy is an ordinary one. That said, Option B introduces readers to the most elite of circles. Celebrities and billionaires, who seem unnervingly benign, populate the account. Elon Musk, the inventor and engineer, invites Sandberg and her children to watch an attempt by his company SpaceX to land a rocket at sea. Malala Yousafzai (who provides a blurb for the book) visits her to talk about her fight to give girls access to education. Mark Zuckerberg plays a major supporting role, flying Sandberg to a beach so she could experience something she had never seen with her husband. When she began to feel upset, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, comfort her. This isn't name-dropping. It simply represents Sandberg's life.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Facebook features as another intriguingly benign presence - a place where feelings can be expressed and an ideal venue for them. "I did not truly understand how important Facebook could be to those suffering from loss until I experienced it myself," Sandberg writes.

Sandberg observes in the book's opening that: "We also know that not every story has a happy ending." But by its end, she is dating again, and there's a feeling of the circle closing (even if she makes clear that she still misses her husband). A woman suffering from an eating disorder recovers; and a man whose brother died in an accident grows up to work at McKinsey [management consultants].

In a sense, the story that Option B tells is a profoundly American one, in which grief itself can function in the service of capitalism. Referring to a Facebook employee who decided to tell colleagues she had breast cancer, she notes that "this openness made their work more efficient… Being more open personally led people to be more open professionally."

Option B is likely to achieve the same wild popularity of Lean In, and it contains plenty of valuable insights. What's missing, though, is a portrayal of ambivalence. Anecdotes about people who lived less than glittering lives after hardships or of failure that leads to more failure (not success) are conspicuous for their absence. Achieving what it sets out to do, Option B is about overcoming challenges and powering through.

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