Lessons on Grief: What I Learned from Sheryl Sandberg’s Commencement Speech

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer at Facebook and author of Lean In gave the commencement speech at the University of California at Berkley last week, chronicling the lessons she’s learned since her husband, Dave, died a year ago.

As someone who’s only followed Sandberg since her Facebook post on grief last year, her words resonated with me.

Her lessons included learning to live with “Option B” and how she’s found joy after the pain. But more than that, her speech was a call to overcome adversity, no matter what trials we face.

“It is the hard days — the times that challenge you to your very core — that will determine who you are,” Sandberg says. “You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.”

Her speech struck a chord with people around the world because Sandberg is an example of resilience in the face of a devastating blow.

And like Sandberg, I’ve dealt with what psychologist Martin Seligman has defined as the three P’s: the personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence of grief. These three P’s, as Sandberg explains, are necessary hurdles to overcome as we process our grief and bounce back from hardship.

The Personalization of Grief

Personalization is the belief that we are at fault for our loved one’s death. Sandberg explains, “When Dave died, I had a very common reaction, which was to blame myself. He died in seconds, from a cardiac arrhythmia. I poured over his medical records asking what I could have — or should have — done. It wasn’t until I learned about the three P’s that I accepted that I could not have prevented his death. His doctors had not identified his coronary artery disease. I was an economics major; how could I have?”

Like Sandberg, I struggled with the realization that I was not able to stop my son’s death. I questioned why I hadn’t taken him to the children’s hospital sooner and whether it would have made a difference.

There was not a doctor in the world who could have cured my son’s disease. But that didn’t matter. I was his mom. I was supposed to protect him. In my mind, I had failed at my most basic job.

After months of feeling like a failure, I finally talked to a counselor friend about my feelings. They told me I was not to blame. I did not fail. It was not my fault. My son had an incurable disease. I needed to let go of the guilt.

By dealing with this, I gave myself a chance to recover in the same way that Sandberg did — by letting go of what could we could have done.

Pervasiveness of Grief

Pervasiveness is the belief that an event will affect all areas of your life and you will not be able to experience joy again. Your grief will become an all-consuming sadness.

Ten days after her husband’s death, Sandberg was encouraged to return to work and send her children back to school. Although she felt like she was in a fog when she returned, she had a moment in a meeting when her mind was able to focus on her work and she experienced a brief glimpse of life without the crushing weight of grief.

Grief sometimes leads us to believe that life will be tainted by sadness and that we will never experience joy or relief from grief again. But here’s the thing I’ve learned: the deeper the pain and suffering, the more aware we become of those moments that bring us satisfaction and gratitude.

I have more happiness now because I’ve realized I can still enjoy life despite the pain. It’s not one or the other. It can be both.

Never is this more true for me than now. I love laughing with friends over a good story. I get pleasure from traveling to new places with my family. Sitting on my back patio with my daughter and husband is one of life’s greatest pleasures. These things do not eliminate the hole in my heart from my son’s death. They coexist with it.

The key to getting out of the pervasiveness of grief is recognizing that God brings redemption to our sadness. There is joy in the morning. We will laugh again.

Permanence of Grief

Permanence is the belief that grief will last forever. Sandberg says that we often “project our feelings out indefinitely,” believing that if we feel sad, then it will never go away. To combat this belief, a psychologist encouraged her to focus on how much worse things could be.

He said to Sandberg, “Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia while he was driving your children.”

Sandberg realized that the outcome could have been much worse. Instead of losing her husband, she could have lost her whole family.

“The moment he said it,” Sandberg admits, “ I felt overwhelming gratitude that my family was alive. That gratitude overtook some of the grief.”

Though gratitude is key in getting over the feeling of permanence, focusing on eternity also leads us to look beyond our current circumstances. Not only am I thankful for the good things that happen to me today, but I’m grateful God promises to wipe away all tears from my eyes, so that someday, I will no longer experience pain and suffering. I will see my son again. This is not the end. He turns our mourning into dancing again.

For that, I am truly grateful.

Though I’ve cried many tears, I’ve also learned there are gifts in grief. I’m more joyful than I used to be. I try not to take the gift of life for granted. I look forward to eternity in a way I hadn’t before. I’m more resilient to life’s ebb and flow of trials and joy.

As Sandberg concludes, “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are — and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”

This article first appeared on Poets and Saints.

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