Monday, May 1, 2017

Sheryl Sandberg, Widowhood and Life Stories

I wrote a memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, about the loss of my husband to cancer when my kids were seven and eleven. There is much to be said for writing our sad stories, so long as there are universal takeaways that readers can apply to their own lives. Then writing our stories is a true gift.

That’s a comment I left in The Washington Post comment section after reading a column, Sheryl Sandberg becomes a most unlikely Every Widow.

Written by a woman who lost her husband to cancer, the column's headline with the  phrase "every widow" immediately caught my attention. Are widows equated to "everyman?" Do we all share a universal journey, a club, as my father used to say, "no one wants to belong?"

Probably, although one widow can never speak for all of us. No one person holds the copyright to this story.

Sandberg’s book Option B is a self-help book on losing a husband when you have young children. I haven’t read it and won't. I'm not interested in revisiting the past, that way. I'm older now. Wiser. My sons have grown into men. It's been a rocky road but we're all still here, surviving as best we can.

Sandberg, the author of Lean In, apparently offers a new generation her thoughts on widowhood when you have small children ... children who one day wake up and just like that have no father. She's a celebrity so she gets a lot of press on this. Still, though, it's helpful. Good for her for sharing her journey.

Like Sandberg, I felt my sons' welfare was my priority after John died―although there is no “one size fits” all way to get through a tragedy of this magnitude, no self-help book, no how-to manual on grief's trajectory. It's flying on a trapeze without a safety net.

I remember I talked to my boys … “Always remember your dad,” I said, sharing my stories and anecdotes of the man I loved. It was that simple. I had no one―not really―but my children. They offered me solace. (Rule No. 1. Don't always try and be in control.)

Then I remember … Daniel at seven years old, running into my bedroom as we got ready for a school concert. “Mom, can you tie my necktie?” I felt helpless, I had no idea how to tie a tie! For a minute, I panicked. What kind of a mother was I that I couldn’t even knot a little boy’s necktie? How would I ever manage? What kind of men would my sons become without a father by their side?

John’s parents weren’t around and my own father would die seven months after John. So, "option B" was suck it up, along with the slow realization that time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds ...  the pain just becomes a little less intense. What I found unfathomable after John died was that someday I would be old and look back and say, “Oh, he has been gone now thirty years.”

Seven years from now I will be at that moment.

As writers, our task is to share, not just by offering helpful information and coping strategies, but stories that touch the human heart, testimonies that we are not alone. That said, we can’t burden our readers, rather, we offer them a reward. At the end of the road is the wisp of hope … we will fly again, along with the knowledge that life isn’t fair and it isn’t our fault when terrible things happen to good people.


This same week the Sandberg column ran, the Washington Post ran another story: Diane Rehm, at the age of eighty, is getting remarried again and “that no one is more surprised than she.”

Rehm’s story sounds like a happy, happy story of two old people who didn’t want to be alone anymore. They had known each other forever. (There's no old high school boyfriend about to pop back into my life.) But I'm happy for her. Despite the knowledge that with age there comes fewer and fewer dates, we all need to live with the hope that when we least expect it, something wonderful can happen,

I suppose it’s all about your purpose and your life. That's where life story writing comes in. You get up in the morning, put the dog out, make a cup of coffee and start putting pen to page ... and soon, very soon you know that whatever happens, it's all going to work out just fine ... or, at least, the way it should.

Your comments and thoughts are welcomed.

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