One of the world’s most prominent women, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, suffered an unimaginable loss this week when her husband died in a freak accident while holidaying in Mexico with his family.
Lots of words are being written about Sheryl Sandberg today.
Words describing her relationship with her husband, words detailing her husband’s sudden death, words speculating on how it might feel to be her, words describing what she had and what she has lost.
Some of them are even her words, republished and polished so that we, her audience, might understand what she has lost in the midst of all that she had. After all, one of the reasons we know about Sandberg is her blockbuster book Lean In, which at its most basic is an upwardly mobile narrative of success, a recipe for her audience to apply to their lives.
But now Sandberg is in the news not because of her success but because of loss. Two days ago her husband, Dave Goldberg, died unexpectedly, and in that instant nothing, not money, not positive thinking nor fame could protect her from this.
You see, at the end of things we are all the same.
I’m thinking about Sandberg tonight because nearly 13 years ago my husband died young and suddenly. At the time he was being treated for severe depression and I had secretly feared his death but when the news of it came it was still a violent assault. Two years later my mother too died quickly. In 10 weeks she went from being a healthy, active grandmother to a skeletal shadow of herself. Cancer claimed her effortlessly.
In contrast to these sudden deaths I write this piece at the airport on the way to visit my father who is dying. He’s been dying for months now. Each time I travel to see him he is further into the business of it, it’s a sinking in, a shutting down and of course in the face of it I am absolutely powerless. Death does this to us. Forces us to face our own mortality. This is the third time I’ve walked to the edge of the world with someone I love and perhaps in contrast to my husband and mother, it is a little easier because he is older and his life has been full and his last years have been eaten away with pain. Death looks a little different for him. But I know on the other side, when he is gone I will be once again a foreign land and I will once again lose my way.
It still shocks me that I’ve become schooled in death.
From one of our writers: “I am slowly experiencing grief for the first time.”
When my husband died I was pregnant with our second child and our daughter was five years old. I read of Dave Goldberg’s death and think of his wife trying to explain to her children and instantly I’m sucked back into this time. Public deaths do this to us. We relate from our own experience, place our own griefs quietly beside someone like Sandberg and think, I know this and it is hard. When I think of the time after my husband died all I can remember is the silence. People said things to me. I said things to them. I responded to other people’s sadness, I made appropriate noises and almost without realising it I stepped into a performance of a grief. But the performance came at a cost. The world became muffled. The only things that were bright and crisp were my children; the kick of my baby’s foot under my ribs, a squeeze of pain echoing down my leg as he rolled deep within my body; the small hand reaching out for me when I tucked my daughter into bed, the fierce strength of her five-year old fingers needing to hold me, the vast depth of her china blue eyes. These things I could see.
Eventually the silence healed me and I carry its scar. I wonder if it would have been healthier to have wailed loudly, to have never stopped crying. Healthier to perform grief in a tumultuous welter of noise, to have let people see the face distorted by tears, the streams of snot, the bloodshot eyes. Healthier to have unwrapped my clothes and aired my wound to the world. But our society demands we hide such things. It judges those who grieve loudly as well as those who grieve silently. Many times I wished my wound could be seen – so that instead of having to find the words to answer the question – are you all right? I could open my shirt and let them see the puss seeping from the stitches in my soul.
It’s nearly 13 years since my husband died. But when I read of Dave Goldberg’s death I fell back into silence. Sheryl Sandberg’s successes as a business woman, as a best-selling writer, as a pin-up modern mother living in the brave new world of a feminist marriage, will mean nothing to her in the midst of this. I know all those things are stripped. Instead I think of her standing in the silent snowstorm of grief.
In that place no one can reach you. It’s a place you must find your own way out of. I think if I could presume to offer her anything I would say to trust the silence. Trust the smell of her children as she tucks them into bed. Trust the performance of her grief and her grief itself are two very different things. I hope beauty visits her and surprises her. Perhaps it will come to her in the sweep of her child’s eyelash closed in sleep, or the half moon rising golden over water, or the sighing of the tide drifting in over sand, or the keening of a bird on the edge of the day. I hope she will not be afraid of the silence, I hope instead she has the room to seek it out.
Death finds us all. It’s a part of life. It finds us in different ways and in different times. Sometimes it finds us swiftly, other times it stalks us relentlessly. It doesn’t differentiate between rich and poor, between good people or bad, it doesn’t recognise need or importance, instead it’s greedy and it’s inevitable. We spend our lives pushing back against it. But it’s there. When someone like Dave Goldberg dies in a freak accident leaving a widow and children we howl at the unfairness of it. We think, this can’t be. Not him. Not them. What hope is there for us? But the truth is we need to live for the now. We need to realise that life is not some ladder that must be climbed, that there is no recipe for success. Life’s riches reside within us. In our families, our relationships, our daughters and sons, our nieces and nephews, our grandchildren.
On how to cope: 10 things not to say to a grieving person. A 7 things to do.
Tonight I will get off the plane and into a taxi that will take me to my father’s bedside. There I will sit with him as his body fights to hold onto life. Tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that death will wear him down. I know this. Yet I want to be with him as he resists the inevitability of his end. After he dies I will be bereft. Words will fail me and silence engulf me. I suspect. I hope I will say the things that need to be said. But I will be less because he’s gone. Sandberg is less. We are all less. But the scars that are left to mark our loved one’s passing, make us more.
How have you survived grief?
Maggie Mackellar has written two books on the history of settlement in Australia and Canada and two memoirs, When It Rains and How to Get There. She now lives on the East Coast of Tasmania with her partner and two children.