Can life return to normal after the death of a spouse?
A month after her husband's sudden death, Sheryl Sandberg has published an emotional post on Facebook. She writes about "the look of fear" in co-workers' eyes when she returned to work and the difficulty of finding "a new normal".
Sheryl Sandberg writes that she has spent moments "lost in that void" after the death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, and is aware that "many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well".
But the chief operating officer of Facebook also adds: "When I can, I want to choose life and meaning... For me, starting the transition back to work has been a saviour, a chance to feel useful and connected."
When she went back to the office she realised relationships had changed, however. "Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why - they wanted to help but weren't sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say?"
"That's very common," says Anne-Marie Conlan at the Bereavement Center of Westchester in New York state. "People don't know how to react. They don't want to remind you of it, especially if you are having a good day.
"There is no solution and that scares people too. They can find it frustrating and don't know what to do… It's a weird reminder of the fragility of life and that it can happen to them."
When one British man, Ed, suddenly lost his wife 15 years ago he took three months off work - he had a baby to look after - but on his return to the office there were some awkward moments. "Men really didn't know what to say apart from, 'Could have been me mate.' It was quite a difficult position and yes they did have that look of, 'I'm glad to see you back but hope you're not stopping too long,' because they really did run out of things to say.
"Because I was in a management role the incident was soon forgotten and you were expected to be back up to speed 100% quite quickly, which is what I found the hardest thing.
"One chap said to me, 'This is something you're going to have to live with now and get on with your life,' which is an easy thing to say... I was actually told that my situation wasn't as important as the shareholders I work for." Comments of this kind, he says, "stop you in your tracks".
For Sandberg, it helped to admit that she was vulnerable, and invite co-workers to talk about it. "One colleague admitted she'd been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should come in. Another said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing," she writes.
People deal with loss in their own way - but Conlan agrees with Sandberg that telling a bereaved person, "It's going to be OK," is not particularly helpful. "People ask, 'Will I ever feel the same, or better?' We say, 'No you won't - you'll feel different.' They will never feel the way they did... it's accepting the reality and coping with that."
As for returning to work, "You make your own blueprint," says Conlan. "People need structure in their day and if you feel productive and useful and still have a purpose, that helps. Kids normally go back to school a few days later."
Ed agrees. "If you have too much time then you sit and dwell and that's self destructive. You need to get out and do something. Everyone's different, some people throw themselves into work, some people throw themselves into hobbies. I think focusing on my son and making sure he was well and brought up properly was 90% of my survival.
"Equally you do have to grieve, otherwise all you do is put it behind a brick wall and at some point that brick wall is going to come down. I suffered worse five years later - delayed grief.
Sandberg writes that she "will never feel pure joy again", and 15 years after his loss, this is something Ed can relate to. "It's not the same - that's kind of a different lifetime almost. This year I've been without her as long as I was with her and that hits home quite hard... It'll never be the same again. Obviously one thing [Sandberg] says is she looks at her children and counts her blessings for that - and I do too.
"You never recapture what you had. I'm not down, you come to terms with it and you learn to live with it and you have to move on or you die with them. When you've got a child you can't afford to do that because you've got someone else who depends on you. You can't just give up."
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