The Working Title Is…I’m No Sheryl Sandberg

Not that anyone was confusing the two of us, mind you. Even the mere mention of her name morphs me back to a self-conscious high schooler…admiring from afar all of someone’s strengths that seem to only spotlight my shortcomings.

She’s written books, and I’ve only talked about writing one someday. She worked in India for a year on projects aimed at eradicating AIDS, leprosy and blindness. I worked in Wisconsin for a year and once scooped melon balls for five solid hours in a horse barn for a Milwaukee AIDS Project event. (Granted, it’s not India, but I’ll never forget how many flies there were in that barn. And I’ll never eat another melon ball.)

There are similarities between us. We’re both brunettes. She went to Harvard, and I’ve been to Harvard. Well, not Harvard exactly, but I’ve been to Lizzy’s Ice Cream in Harvard Square. Delish!

And then, of course, there is the fact that we both buried a husband without the opportunity to hear his last words or even say goodbye. We both have been left to raise two fatherless children. Her children were younger, but at 11 and 14, my daughters were equally far too young for their world to be shattered.

Almost two years ago, as I approached the fifth anniversary of our life without Pat, my Facebook feed was filled with people sharing and re-sharing a post written by Sheryl Sandberg following the death of her husband.

Beautifully written, it was ultimately the foundation for her newest book released this week, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.

She wrote of the profoundly personal experience of grief and credited the “bravery of those who have shared their own experiences” as to what has “helped her pull through.” She’d been taught the three pillars of resilience and shared their role in her growth. And she offered all this incredible insight after the time defined by Jewish tradition as the end of religious mourning for a spouse…thirty days.

Thirty days. Thirty days? All I could think was, “How can this woman write, ‘I am sharing what I’ve learned in hope that it helps someone else’ after only thirty days?”  Thirty days?  I hadn’t “pulled through” anything after just thirty days. In fact, I don’t think I finished clearing the funeral food out of the fridge yet, much less begin clearing my thoughts. I remember staring at her words on my computer until tears blurred the screen.

How had she accomplished in thirty days what I have been working toward for five years? Oh, believe me, in our house, we had been kicking the shit out of Option B since my husband drew his last breath. In fact, that was all we were doing for those first thirty days, and the next thirty and the thirty after that. My tears turned to sobs as I thought about all the people in our lives that had lifted us up for the past five years—lifted us with their love, with their prayers and with their presence and support. I became increasingly aware of the fog I had been living in during those first years without him. I looked back over my calendar and realized how much I had absolutely no, or very little, memory of—things that only existed like blurry snapshots in my mind—not the least of which was Pat’s funeral.

I began a cathartic journey of self-awareness. I thought maybe someday I’d even be able to write a book about it. Well, wouldn’t you know, two years later, that multi-jillionaire/thirty day-wise widow/corporate titan capable of bringing actual change to the world/superwoman beat me to the punch there too!

I pre-ordered her book, and it magically appeared on my Kindle Monday morning. As with anything created by someone of whom I am jealous, I hated the book before I even clicked on the cover art. Which I also wanted to hate. But I couldn’t.

I read the book in one sitting, getting up only once to get coffee. It is very well done and covers not just grief that follows the death of a loved one, but a huge expanse of subject areas including rape, chronic illness, war, incarceration and life after all kinds of disappointment and loss.

The book is thought provoking and insightful. Some parts pertained to me in a very personal way, others I just couldn’t relate to, and some I had a completely opposite experience.

But that is to be expected and is what, in my opinion, should be the opening paragraph of any book or conversation about grief.

Buried almost a third of the way into the text of the book, Sandberg writes, “There’s no one way to grieve and there’s no one way to comfort. What helps one person won’t help another, and even what helps one day might not help the next.”

That is the key message of grief. And it’s one that takes more than thirty days to figure out.

Our reaction to loss and heartbreak are as unique and individual as the relationship we shared with the person who no longer walks beside us. Our “fingerprint” of grief is ours and ours alone. So while Sheryl Sandberg’s book is well worth the read, it can be only one tool in the toolbox of someone who suffers and seeks reprieve.

Reading her book led me to pick up my pen and write and write and write. Emotions flowed on to my paper as I re-read her book, page by page. Realizing how different my experience has been and appreciating the ways we’ve walked the same path. I began writing on themes as broad as joy and hope, as nitpicky as the semantics of death and the liberal use of the word friend, as pivotal as humor and faith and as confusing and daunting as finding love again.

Maybe Someday I’ll Write a Book just as a point/counterpoint to all of Sheryl Sandberg’s books. I haven’t read Lean In yet, but I’ve been leaning in all sorts of directions since the day I was born with scoliosis, so I’m sure I’ll have something to say about that one too.

What I do know is that Sheryl and I were both blessed beyond belief to be married to our very best friends. The way she writes of Dave sounds so very much like Pat. A friend to all, love and laughter always intertwined, even down to the ten college roommates who were like brothers and the fact that both men loved the musical Wicked.

While we own our individual fingerprints of grief, I do believe we have been changed for the better, Sheryl. And because we knew them, we have been changed for good.

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The Working Title Is…There Ought to be a Word for That

I have long known that happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive emotions. And it’s no mystery to anyone who knows me that I tend to experience emotion on a plane that is both guttural and transparent.

I remember, as a child, my Grandma Hogan comforted me by holding my pink, splotchy, tear-stained face in her hands saying, “The Irish feel things deeply…in a way others just can’t understand.”

I’m not sure how directly my emotions are tied to “the old sod,” but I do know that there is an undeniable depth to my feelings. I’ve experienced happiness and joy where my heart beats so loudly I can hear it in my head and feel as though it has expanded in my chest cavity to the point it will likely explode.

I have felt sadness so profoundly that my chest physically hurt. The weight of anguish made it difficult to even breathe, and when I finally surrendered enough to exhale, I was certain that I lost something of myself in that breath.

I have felt the anxiety only parents know when watching their child compete or perform. With bated breath, it seems as if your heart pauses mid-beat, only to resume once the child’s task is complete and pride replaces the post once held by anxiousness.

And then there are those occasions where I have felt completely happy and completely sad simultaneously; not half and half, but if there existed a gauge to measure emotion, it would read 100% happy and 100% sad.

I just don’t know how to describe that conflux of emotion in a single word.

I remember feeling it for the first time the day my Grandma Hogan’s cat died, the same day she held my face in her hands.

We didn’t have a pet of our own yet, and I wanted nothing more than an animal to love that would love me back. That’s why I hated that damn cat with every fiber of my being. I’d chase it around my grandma’s house yelling, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.” But it ran from me every time, and on the rare occasion I did catch her, she’d hiss and scratch at me until blood gushed from my single-digit aged skin.

Damn you, Beauty, for forcing me to pretend it didn’t hurt, and forever proving that emotional scars heal far slower than physical ones.

I’m not going to lie. I was thrilled that cat was dead, until, that is, we walked into Grandma’s kitchen and saw her crying. I never saw my grandma cry before. This tiny woman looked even tinier sobbing in her rocking chair. Without that damn cat to compete for rocker space, I crawled on to Grandma’s lap and cried and cried and cried. I was completely happy and completely sad.

That duality has returned many times over the years, most recently, last month with a Marquette University basketball game as the backdrop.  The happiness meter was off the charts. My daughters and their friends, our friends from college and beyond college and their children and their friends all surrounded me.

I was so happy, and yet, the notable absence of those loved ones who can only be present in spirit and in memory left me so, so very sad.

There ought to be a word for that blend of emotion, but I couldn’t come up with one.

And, then, perhaps not so ironically, Death entered my mind.

Death, the narrator of Markus Zusak’s remarkable novel The Book Thief, is a surprisingly likable and humorous character. He speaks of first seeing the colors associated with his difficult work, and then he sees the faces.

Perhaps my emotion could be articulated through color? For me, 100% happy is a spectacular fuchsia, and my 100% sad would be a gunmetal blue-grey.  So it would stand to reason that this dichotomous emotion I experience would be a welcoming, soothing, peaceful color in the deep purplish end of the color chart.

A feeling only attainable when the brilliance of blessings—cherished, now mourned, from the past, savored and protected in the present, and dreamt of and hoped for the future—blend into one.

Benjamin Moore Paint color 2116-30 is named Cabernet.  Sounds good to me.

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