When life changes in an instant, nurture gratitude

Sheryl Sandberg, dressed in black, sat in a chair next to Mary Matalin on the stage of the Academy of the Sacred Heart’s Nims Fine Arts Center on St. Charles Avenue last week, klieg lights in her eyes, with an audience of 1,200, mostly women, in relative darkness, holding her book, “Option B,” and hanging on her every syllable.
 
Sandberg, 47, the chief financial officer of Facebook, came to New Orleans last week to talk about life, death and life after death.
 
Two years ago – on May 1, 2015 – Sandberg and her husband Dave Goldberg, the CEO of Survey Monkey, were feasting with family and friends in the opulence befitting a “1-percenter” power couple, ensconced in a nine-bedroom, $12,750-a-night Mexican beach villa. Their two children were staying with Sandberg’s parents in California so that the adults could relax for the weekend and celebrate a friend’s 50th birthday.
 
Sandberg went swimming, and Goldberg hopped on the resort’s elliptical machine.
 
Then, his heart stopped.
 
When Sandberg found her husband face up on the gym floor, he had turned blue, and blood had pooled behind him from a gash in his head. Goldberg was 47, and even though an ambulance snaked its way to a hospital 30 minutes away, despite all efforts to resuscitate him, he was gone.
 
“My world changed, like that,” Sandberg said, snapping her fingers. “The grief for me – and it still feels this way when it comes back – feels like a void closing in on you where you can’t breathe. My brother-in-law talks about it as a boot crushing on his chest.”
 
Suffering is universal – a child transformed into collateral damage in a drive-by shooting, a mother lost to breast cancer, a teen consumed by drugs. Death does not discriminate, no matter what the decimal points on the W-2 reveal about your standing in the marketplace.
 
Admittedly, Sandberg has unlimited material resources to search the world for answers to the unknowable why. But no psychologist, no counselor, no scientific data could change the fact that Goldberg was dead and Sandberg had to explain that to her children, who were 10 and 7 at the time.
 
“I had to fly home and tell them they wouldn’t see their father again,” Sandberg said. “And I was really worried, above all, that their happiness would be destroyed in that instant.”
 
At the funeral, the kids got out of the limousine with their mom, but “they fell to the ground, unable to take another step.” Sandberg knelt down and hugged them as they “wailed.” She told them this was “the second-worst” day of their lives.
 
“We lived through the first and we will live through this,” she told them. “It can only get better from here.”
 
It is amazing now to think about how God works, but Sandberg, who is Jewish, was overwhelmed by an urge to sing the song of peace that she learned in her childhood, the “Oseh Shalom.” It is a communal song, the final words of the Kaddish, which is a Jewish prayer for mourning: “He who makes peace in his high places/ He shall make peace upon us/ And upon all of Israel/ And say Amen.”
 
Sandberg worked through her grief with many people, but chief among them was Adam Grant, a psychologist who identified three “myths” that are roadblocks to recovery. He called them the three p’s: personal (I am somehow responsible for what happened); pervasive (sadness engulfs everything, leaving no room even for the smallest sliver of joy, light and humor); and permanent (I will never feel better).
 
“Those are three basic traps,” Sandberg said. “When Dave first died, I thought it was my fault that he had fallen off an exercise machine. My brother is a neurosurgeon, and he kept saying, ‘That’s not what happened. If he fell off an exercise machine, he would’ve broken an arm. Something happened to make him fall.’ Then we got an autopsy, and we discovered he had cardiac arrhythmia and almost certainly died in an instant before he hit the ground. Then I blamed myself for the fact that I’m the only non-doctor in my family. Maybe if I had been a doctor, I could have diagnosed this. I blamed myself for the disruption in everyone’s life, and Adam said to me, ‘You have to stop saying that word ‘sorry.’ So I started saying, ‘I apologize.’”
 
As for the pervasiveness of grief, Grant got Sandberg – shockingly, she thought – to consider: “Well, things could be worse.”
 
“I was thinking this brilliant professor had absolutely lost it,” Sandberg said. “I would’ve thought you should think of happy thoughts if you’re trying to recover, but Adam said, ‘Dave could’ve had that cardiac arrhythmia driving your children.’ And then you say, immediately, ‘My two kids are alive. I’m good.’”
 
The searing pain isn’t permanent. “I always thought I would feel like this forever,” Sandberg said. “Still, today, when the grief comes back, I have those moments when I feel like it won’t lift. People who’ve been through this told me that time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it gets a lot better.”
 
Sandberg said her Jewish rabbi, Nat Ezry, told her to expect life to be awful. That reality girded her for the worst and allowed her to enjoy the fleeting moments of light.
 
One of the fascinating aspects of her journey to recovery is what she does every night before she goes to bed.
 
“I write down three moments of joy,” Sandberg said. “Often, these are just super-small moments: ‘I had a really great cup of coffee.’ Today, in New Orleans, it will definitely be that fourth piece of fried chicken! Or it could be, ‘My daughter gave me a hug without being asked – maybe it was hinted at, but not full-out asked.’ I’m going to write down those moments of joy at the end of the day.
 
“I realized that I used to go to bed every single night worrying about what went wrong, and now I don’t do that. But I also notice little moments more. When I bite into that piece of chicken or have that cup of coffee or my daughter gives me a hug, I think, ‘This’ll make the notebook.’”
 
The fascinating thing, really, is that about 500 years ago, St. Ignatius of Loyola, before the first psychology book ever was written, essentially offered the same spiritual prescription to a happy, examined life. St. Ignatius made the daily cultivation of gratitude for God’s abounding love the foundation of his Spiritual Exercises.
 
Sandberg said recalling daily her moments of joy “makes me pay attention.”
 
“So much of life is what we pay attention to,” she said.
 
Twenty minutes into her talk at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, an audience member fell ill and slid to the floor. A hush fell across the hall and people scurried over to help. One of the responders was Sandberg’s father, a doctor, who was accompanying his daughter on her cross-country book tour.
 
“Is she breathing?” Sandberg asked with unmistakable urgency. “She’s breathing and talking? Did someone call 911? She’s OK? She’s responsive? And an ambulance is on the way?”
 
Ten minutes later, a lifetime it seemed, an EMS crew arrived with a gurney to transport the woman to the emergency room. For Sandberg, those 10 minutes were a flashback to the moment two years ago when in a dimly lit hospital she wrapped her arms around her husband for the last time.
 
“So, I want to say something that’s totally off the topic, but this was in my original Facebook post (in 2015),” she said. “When I was in the ambulance with Dave, one of the most chilling things was how few people moved out of our way. I am dead serious about this. This (wait for the ambulance) has been a long time, and it’s probably because people didn’t move out of the way, and I find that so upsetting.”
 
Sandberg said because she has counseled her children to “respect their feelings,” she knows she must respect her own, especially the ones that still are so raw.
 
So, if you’re pro-life, prove it by moving to the side of the road to let an ambulance pass! And maybe, in a “super-small” way, you can bless Sandberg and her children by sharing that message on Facebook.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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