A message for the colleagues of Sheryl Sandberg

My co-worker’s daughter died a few years ago. She wasn’t sick and it happened suddenly. He asked if I could design a program and enlarge photos for the services. I still remember when he came to my house, my husband hid upstairs with the kids. I was glad to have an official assignment to discuss—it distracted me from what was really going on.

After the funeral was over and he returned to work, I could see he was in pain but we carried on…business as usual. I didn’t want to be responsible for making him cry so I pretended it never happened and each time he would bring up her name I wanted to run away (sometimes I did).

I fumbled my way through this time trying to figure out what to do and say, but I couldn’t find the guidance I was looking for. The grief books said you couldn’t rely on friends who weren’t part of the same exclusive grief club (that they never wanted to be part of) and I kept looking for the sidebar that said “If you aren’t part of the club but want to help, here’s what you can do” but it wasn’t there.

Months of silence passed when I finally asked, “How are you doing?” and the dam burst wide open. “How do you think I’m doing, my daughter died, my family is broken and people cross the street when they see me coming.” There was a lot more to the conversation, but this was the core. He was grieving, he needed to talk about his daughter and he felt isolated.

I realized most people felt like I did—unprepared, uncomfortable and incapable of supporting someone who is grieving…unless they were part of the exclusive club. I wasn’t (and thankfully, still not) part of it but I wanted to help, I just didn’t know how.

Sheryl Sandberg shared a Huffington Post article on her Facebook page today

by Laura Wellington

The Exclusive Club Sheryl Sandberg Never Intended To Join

A longtime member of the club herself, Laura Wellington (mamamediact.com) shares her wisdom and offers guidance and condolences to Sheryl and her family – a very helpful top ten list of how to grieve. As a matter of fact, this is great advice for anyone facing loss. I especially like #5 where she acknowledges friends and family are not intentionally being hurtful.

I’m hoping the friends, family and co-workers of Sheryl Sandberg know what to do, but it’s likely they do not. They will behave badly like I did—not because they are terrible people but because they don’t know what to do. Perhaps they can learn from my mistakes.

As a society, we unintentionally hurt the grieving by not giving them the freedom to talk about their loss. We make them feel uncomfortable and apologize for their grief. We stop calling because we don’t know how to handle it and they are left to grieve alone. They need to talk about their grief to move through it and this cycle extends the grieving process for them. 

Eventually I found what I was looking for and it became the backbone for my website, Heart2Soul.com. The website goes into more detail but I wanted to share my own short list for the friends, family and co-workers of Sheryl Sandberg. Here is the sidebar I was looking for…

Shut up and listen. This is one of my favorite quotes from Liz Aleshire’s book, 101 Ways You Can Help. Realize there is nothing you can do or say to make things better so just listen and let them grieve.
If you want to send food ask which day would be helpful, find out about food preferences, write down warming instructions and please, use disposable containers!
Be specific about how you can help “I would like to offer to pick up your groceries, mow the lawn, pick up your kids from school or babysit so you can go for a walk”. Do not say “If there is anything I can do to help, just let me know” unless you are prepared pick up the dog poop in the backyard if they ask you too.
Let them know you’re thinking of them. Send a card, mail a letter, make a phone call. Don’t be afraid to reach out – if they don’t want to talk they won’t answer the phone.
Show up and be there for them. Attend the services, invite them to go for walks, coffee, lunch or dinner and keep trying (but don’t be a nuisance). There will be so many distractions in the days following the death, but they will need you for months and years later. One day they will say yes.

My condolence message to Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl, it sucks you and your kids are going through this. I don’t wish to ever be part of your club, but I’m empathetic and sorry you’re feeling this pain. Forget everything you ever learned about being professional regardless of the circumstances—this doesn’t count. If you need to cry, do it and don’t apologize for it. It’s time everyone else learns to adjust to help the grieving, not the other way around. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

With deepest sympathy,
Karen Zinn