When the father of a friend of mine passed away after years battling illness, I didn’t know what to do.
I debated calling, but that seemed futile—I told myself she was surrounded by family and probably too busy to take my call. I tried to compose a condolence text and I found myself stressing over whether a heart emoji was appropriate. In the end, what I sent was a stripped down version of my initial message, devoid of any real emotion. I thought about my friend often in the days and weeks following her father’s death, but I didn’t reach out. I told myself it was unnecessary and that there was nothing I could do.
After reading Option B, Sheryl Sandberg’s new book about grief, I realize that my reaction (or lack thereof) to my friend’s grief wasn’t at all unique. The Facebook COO spends an entire chapter discussing why it is that, “If your ankle gets shattered, people ask to hear the story. If your life gets shattered, they don’t.”
Co-written with Wharton professor Adam Grant, Option B is partially a memoir recounting the days and months following the death of Sandberg’s husband, Dave Goldberg, and partially a research-based exploration of how people face adversity. The book has much to teach us about how to grapple with our grief, but it’s also an essential read for anyone who knows someone going through a hard time (so, everyone). Here are some of Sandberg and Grant’s top tips for how to offer support in times of need:
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1. Ask “How are you today?” In Option B, Sandberg writes about how painful the casual greeting “How are you?” was to her after her husband’s death. It hurt, “because it didn’t acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary happened,” she writes. Instead, Sandberg suggests asking “How are you today?”—a formulation that shows you’re aware that the person is struggling to get through each day. For Sandberg, the phrase became a shorthand among her coworkers to express empathy.
2. Instead of offering ‘anything,’ do something. The question, “Is there anything I can do?” seems innocuous enough, but Sandberg points out that it is the opposite of helpful, since most of the things the aggrieved wants either feel like an imposition or are impossible. (The Facebook exec’s example: “Can you invent a time machine so my kids and I can go back and say good-bye to Dave?”) A better approach is to do something specific, no matter how small, because “instead of trying to fix the problem, they address the damage caused by the problem.”
3. Use “we” language and make your presence felt. One of the most painful parts of grieving, Sandberg recounts, is feeling alone in your grief. She writes: “Lots of people nicely tried to assure me, ‘You will get through this,’ but it was hard to believe them. What helped me more was when people said they were in it with me.”
4. Share your problems, too. After acute grief fades, it’s important to restore balance in your relationship—and that means talking about worries and troubles even if they feel trivial when compared to those endured by the aggrieved. “I wanted those close to me to know that I was there to help carry their troubles too,” Sandberg writes.
5. Follow the “platinum rule” of friendship. The golden rule of friendship is to treat others the way you want to be treated. The platinum rule, according to Sandberg, is to treat others the way they want to be treated. “Instead of making assumptions about whether or not someone wants to talk, it’s better to offer an opening and see if they take it.” In the end, everyone grieves differently. The best way to be there for someone is just to be there—and make sure they know it.
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