My Option B
Sheryl Sandberg recently published ‘Option B’ together with her friend, psychologist Adam Grant. It is a powerful account of loss, grieving and the big elephant in the room that is or isn’t acknowledged by one’s personal surroundings. By sharing her story, talking about it in public and by writing this book, Sheryl Sandberg has opened up the conversation around grief, loss, coping with adversities and eventually building resilience.
In many countries it seems to be a taboo to talk about this very intimate and — let’s tell it like it is — devastating and excruciating experience. Sandberg talks about the elephant in this context. How there are two kinds of people, those who acknowledge the elephant and those who don’t. The former requiring a good dose of courage and empathy to overcome the barrier of not knowing the right words to say or the right thing to do. But there is no universally right thing to do or say. The important thing is to do something. By not saying or doing anything at all, you don’t acknowledge the person’s exceptional situation and thus this ignorance can be really hurtful. I am convinced that people’s paralysis in such moments is not stemming from ignorance but from helplessness.
All it takes, I think, is to take a moment out of our busy lives to write a note, send a card, call the person — let them know we care about what’s happened and that we are there if they need anything at all.
What touched me most when my dad passed away was the amount of people who showed up to his farewell ceremony. The ceremony was just coming to an end and up until then I could more or less hold it together. His closest friends had told a few stories they’d experienced with him, his best friend sang a song, another close friend lead us through his life sprinkled with anecdotes — it was a beautiful and hopeful ceremony. When it came to an end, I felt liberated from a suffocating weight on my chest. As I got up and turned around to start walking out of the church, I saw that it was packed — people were standing in the back and on the sides, every single seat was taken. It hit me like a wrecking ball: All these people came to say goodbye to the exceptional man my dad had been. It was a testament to his kind, loving and unique nature. He was the kind of guy who got along with everyone. The moment I realised it wasn’t just me, his daughter, who obviously looked up to her dad, but all these other people as well — I couldn’t hold it any longer.
As collateral as the pain was, so was the beauty of that moment. And it is exactly this that gives me comfort. More than words ever could. It is also what inspires me to pass on when someone close loses a loved one. To be there and acknowledge their loss, because it makes such a huge difference.
Back to Sheryl Sandberg’s book — why did I start reading it? About half a year ago, I saw her graduation speech in my newsfeed and was really inspired by it, especially by this quote:
‘Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.’
It is the hopefulness that I have found after losing my dad and someone just put it in the right words for me. I get it. I don’t just understand the sentence, I know what it means. It is my motto, my mantra. It is what has made me move forward. Embracing life and all it’s opportunities, seizing every day, because — believe it or not — life is short.
I have learnt that when I was 4 years old. My younger brother, Tom, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma. I remember playing at my friend’s house and my mum saying she’s taking my brother to the hospital after a doctor’s visit. From then on it is all a blur. There are scenes of rushing to the hospital in the middle of the night; us playing innocently together; people visiting and helping my parents take care of us; me praying, asking God to heal my little brother. Eventually, me stepping into Tom’s room with him lying peacefully on his bed, wearing his favourite red overalls. I was six.
Two years later, my paternal grandma suddenly got very sick — pneumonia — and died a few days later. It turned out she didn’t tell anyone she’d had cancer, after what our family had been through with my brother. I was eight.
Another two years later, my father’s brother was diagnosed with melanoma underneath his skin — so there was no chance in the world anyone could have spotted it. Three months later, he was gone. I was ten.
A year later, on December 23 2003, we got a phone call. My dad had been complaining about back aches for months and had done multiple scans, but so far no news. Until that day: they had found malignant cells. I don’t know why, but as my dad was on the phone and everyone around the table got quiet — I just stood there staring at him. I knew this was not good news.
Bearing in mind the last few years, these news translated into a death sentence in my head and I fell around his neck when he told us.
The next three years were filled with therapies — conventional and unconventional ones — moments of desperation, moments of joy. I don’t have a very good recollection of these 10 years of cancer in my life, but I remember bits and pieces — mainly about my dad, as we were very close and I was in my early teens. His muscles faded during Chemo and he was walking very slowly. One day, I went to a nearby town with my mum to go shopping. We took the train back home which was also the train my dad had been taking into work since he couldn’t drive anymore. He was coming up the stairs to the platform as the train started moving. He was so helpless in that moment it shattered my heart into a million pieces. My dad who has always been such a strong force. A good-hearted man who could spend hours on end playing with me; studying with me; comforting me. Now he was reduced to the limits of his body.
It was a three year long rollercoaster ride from that phone call onwards. I hated the conversations at dinner. Ever since my brother had passed away, we talked about what came after death — “where do you think Tom is now? How would you like to be buried one day? ..” Of course it was essential that we talked about these questions and my parents made sure there was a platform to share our thoughts. But I just wanted to live a normal life and have normal worries. Not think about where my brother or now my dad are.
I could lose myself in the pain of these experiences, but I am not. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of Tom and my dad. There are days when it hits me more, but most days I find strength in the pain. I embrace life and all its opportunities. I work hard for my dreams; I tell people I love them, because I want them to know; and I appreciate all the beautiful moments possibly just a pinch more, always knowing that life is a gift and you never know how long it’s going to last.