I had something different planned for today, but whatever.
As you’ve probably heard, Sheryl Sandberg’s (COO of Facebook and author of Lean In) husband died suddenly last month at the age of 47. Sandberg took to Facebook last week to mark the end of sheloshim—the first thirty days—for her husband in a moving tribute.
I highly recommend reading the whole post (grab a tissue first), and saving it to come back to. It’s rich with insights into life and meaning, grief and resiliency.
Sandberg also shared a smattering of practical tips for navigating grief, or comforting those who are in its throes. There’s good stuff there, but one brilliant, instantly applicable tip stood out. Sandberg’s loss made her realize that she never really knew what to say before to others in need, but in the last month, she learned how to do better:
Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.
This makes so much sense to me. When someone puts the question to me—How are you?—my instinct is to get philosophical, to step back and reflect on the big picture, how whatever is rocking my world fits into the grand scheme of things. There’s a time and place for this, of course: it’s healthy to get some perspective, sometimes. But too often how are you? is an invitation to put on a brave face, to turn to platitudes.
When I’m talking to a grieving friend, or if I’m the one who’s grieving, I don’t want platitudes.
Sandberg’s suggestion, “How are you today?” doesn’t invite so much reflection. That’s a good thing, in situations like this. Instead, it’s an invitation to talk about real life, as it stands.
Sometimes I think the question should be “How are you right now?”
(I’m about to transition from talking about losing a husband to losing a dog. They are not by any means comparable. But comparing losses doesn’t help anyone, anyway.)
Yesterday was the hardest day we’ve had around here in a long time. Our family dog hasn’t been doing well. We started her on meds a couple of weeks ago and they seemed to be helping, but yesterday morning she took a dramatic turn for the worse.
Will was in Seattle (though hopefully his plane will be landing about the time you’re reading this). The kids and I had planned a much-needed peaceful day at home—our first one in a month. Instead, we spent the day watching her decline, rapidly. I decided to tell the kids what the vet told me on the phone: she’s giving up.
If you ask me how I am, I would tell you it’s hard, but she’s been a good dog, and she’s had a long, full life for a lab, and it’s just her time, and that I’m grateful she was part of our family.
But if you ask me how I am today?
I’m not great. This is my second dog, ever, and I don’t want to say goodbye. This is the dog that we brought home when Jack (now twelve) was one. They can’t remember a time before Harriet. Three kids cried themselves to sleep last night.
And if you ask me how I am right now? I’m grieving for myself and grieving for my kids and grieving that my husband will come home to witness the stark difference between Harriet today and Harriet when he left.
And I’m overwhelmed: anyone who gets a pet knows on some level that this day will come, but I have very little idea of the best way to help the kids. (Hit me with tips, please and thank you?) They’ve never experienced a major loss, so we’ve had a crash course in grief: it’s okay to be sad. It’s healthy to cry. Sometimes you’ll want to cry alone, and sometimes you’ll want to cry with someone who loves you. Sometimes I’ll cry. It’s all okay.
I’ve been thinking of Sheryl Sandberg, and asking them: “How are you today? How are you right now?”
And I’m trying to give myself the grace to ask myself the same questions, and be honest with myself about the answers.
I’d welcome your thoughts on helping the kids through this. Thank you.