What Sheryl Sandberg gets right about life after death

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Story highlights

  • Sheryl Sandberg's new book is "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy"
  • Peggy Drexler: The book is a grief memoir, a medium proven to have a cathartic effect for the writer

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)When Sheryl Sandberg's husband died suddenly two years ago at the age of 47, she noticed that her friends and co-workers were hesitant to talk about it and that she was reluctant to talk about it herself.

In her new book, "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy," out next week, the Facebook COO and Lean In entrepreneur writes about the unexpected death of her husband, David Goldberg, and the mourning process that followed.
Peggy Drexler
It isn't the first time Sandberg has written about her experiences with love and loss. Less than a month after Goldberg's death, she took to Facebook to write a public post about the previous 30 days.
"I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice," she wrote at the time. "You can give into the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts our ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning."
The post has since received nearly a million likes, inspiring 75,000 comments from men and women sharing their own stories of grief and loss. After that, Sandberg told The Guardian, "I didn't feel alone anymore."
She began to understand that it wasn't that people didn't want to talk to her. It was that they didn't know how.
So it's no surprise that Sandberg has progressed from writing a Facebook post to writing a grief memoir, a form of writing as old as time. In deciding to write a full-length book about her grieving process, Sandberg takes that dialogue a step further, making it even easier for those afraid to broach the subject with her to speak up. In other words, she creates a new avenue for communication.
But it's not just friends and family who benefit from this kind of prose. There's evidence that writing about yourself can be cathartic -- even if you never plan to share that writing with the world or anyone at all. Reflective writing has been shown to have both physical and emotional health benefits, including decreasing anxiety, rage and depression and increasing control and creativity.
Learning to 'make medicine from suffering'
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Many of us who kept journals or diaries when we were younger might remember them as ways to process events, both happy and sad. With a personal tragedy, writing can be helpful in processing emotions in a culture where we're taught not to talk about those emotions -- either because they make us uncomfortable or because they make others uncomfortable. Or, in some cases, because we simply don't know how.
In her new book, Sandberg and co-author Adam Grant aim to address all issues relating to grief. They suggest that grinning and bearing it may not be the best solution, and that businesses can and should play an important role in easing the feeling many of us have that we should get over it as quickly as we can. (To this end, Sandberg helped enact a new employee benefit, changing Facebook's bereavement leave from 10 to 20 days.) The authors also suggest that those who are suffering cannot only recover in the wake of tragedy but, in fact, thrive.
The irony, of course, is that even as we're afraid to engage in conversations with the grieving, we're somehow not afraid to pass judgment on them: Are they doing it properly? Do their actions reflect what we think they should be feeling?
Sandberg talks about this too, especially in the context of being criticized for starting to date less than a year after Goldberg's passing.
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Was it too soon? That's not for Sandberg, or anyone else, to answer. Grief is personal, and Sandberg doesn't attempt to tell readers when to move on. But she will give us permission to find joy even as we grieve.
One of the things that unexpected death can teach us is that life is short. The rising numbers of young Americans getting certain kinds of cancer imparts that lesson as well. As the narrative of loss in our 40s and 50s becomes an all-too-familiar reality, moving on as quickly as possible becomes even more important.
"Option B" tries to help readers find out how. Because while grief is indeed personal, there are some commonalities between the different ways people process tragedy. And Sandberg truly believes that certain techniques proven to build resilience can help the grieving achieve "post traumatic growth."
One of those techniques? Writing. As she reports in "Option B," "Writing about joyful experiences for just three days can improve people's moods and decrease their visits to health centers a full three months later."
Whether it works for you, of course, is entirely personal. But Sandberg is proof: It's worth a shot.