Why we need to read books that make us all sad and weepy

Why we need to read books that make us all sad and weepy

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's new book is one among many that could help us grapple with loss. And you don't have to be actually grieving to learn about 'post traumatic growth'

By Nivriti Butalia

Published: Sat 29 Apr 2017, 5:24 PM

Last updated: Sat 29 Apr 2017, 7:28 PM

So, here's the thing. I like books on grief. I'm drawn to them. And I haven't figured out why. Perverse curiosity? Although, what's perverse about it? Maybe it's a voyeuristic fascination, a way to get all red-nosed and weepy in advance for inevitable times when I will know grief properly. I don't know what it is. I just know at some point I'm going to have to deal with some horrible sh*t, so maybe these books work something like ABCD for beginners. Maybe I can learn something that will give me an edge when the time comes.
One October, when I was a school kid, I saw a car crash on a hairpin bend in the hills near Sanawar in India that killed two of a family of four. I didn't know at the time, looking at glass smithereens on the road, that we knew the people in the car, that they were family friends returning from a school reunion. The father and older son died in that accident. I had never seen or witnessed or heard anything as horrendous. The six degrees of this tragedy stuck for a long, long time in my young head. The family had a lot of dogs, I remember. And the older 'late' son, a teenager and older than my brother and I, was someone we had, just a year earlier, played croquet with on their lawn in Chandigarh. He had called me Ma'am. (No one calls a 10-year-old Ma'am).
Some months after that accident, when the mother and younger son came and stayed with us, I was dumbstruck. I remember a very long walk from our house - my brother and I and the surviving silent brother of the sweet person who used to call me Ma'am - to the squash court where we played squash with tennis balls. No one said a word.
This memory came back to me reading Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. She writes, "Since Dave passed away, so many people have said to me, "I can't imagine." They mean they can't imagine this happening to them, can't imagine how I am standing there talking to them rather than curled up in a ball somewhere. I remember feeling the same way when I saw a colleague back at work after losing a child or a friend buying coffee after being diagnosed with cancer. When I was on the other side, my reply became, I can't imagine either, but I have no choice."
There's mention of her supportive boss Mark (Zuckerberg) and how he and his wife Priscilla Chan invited Sheryl and the kids to a beach that they hadn't seen before, the hosts hoping it would be more bearable to go to a new, unfamiliar place where there weren't memories of Dave. That didn't work.
Sandberg writes about how her colleagues dealt with her in her grief. "I have long believed that people need to feel supported at work. I now know that this is especially important after a tragedy." She talks of the frequent "cry breaks" she would have to take, the welled-up eyes in conference rooms, the need for empathy, how companies should be more sensitive, offer people time off. It makes more sense. She says, in America, grief-related loss costs companies $75 billion annually.  Of the 258 million widows across the world, she writes, more than 115 million live in poverty.
CS Lewis and Anna Quindlen are quoted, and they're good quotes. How part of misery is misery's shadow (Lewis) and how people confuse resilience with closure (Quindlen).
It's a bit of a relief that she acknowledges her financial privilege in being able to cope, to not have to pull out her kids from an expensive school because dad's gone. The book is loaded with examples of how other people in other parts of the world cope with grief. Not to take away from her devastation, but I thought it was - what, nice? Civilised of her? Compassionate? Not myopic? - that she acknowledges people have it much, much worse. I was thinking of Sonali Deraniyagala's Wave, an exquisite book on the author losing her husband Stephen and her two boys Vikram and Nikhil in the 2004 Tsunami.
Sandberg says, "More than 65 million people have had their lives viciously torn apart. If Option B for me means coping with the loss of a spouse, Option B for refugees means coping with loss upon loss upon loss: loss of loved ones, home, country, and all that is familiar."
Can you imagine? But like she says, what choice do the ones going through it have. The part where she dwells on people's behaviour to her - the friends who came through and asked 'how are you doing today' - is especially useful for anyone struggling to converse or seem normal with friends or colleagues who're grieving. Don't not bring it up. She talks of the golden rule: behave with others as you want others to behave with you, sure. But then there's this platinum rule: behave with others (in grief) as they want you to behave with them. Take their cue. Don't ignore the elephant in the room. Useful tips for the lot of us at sea when interacting with people, grieving colleagues, friends.
I annotated a whole lot of stuff from the book. Two bits I especially liked for the vulnerability, honesty, and it's true - sympathy that it evoked in me - "I was suffering from so many insecurities that I almost started a People Afraid of inconveniencing others support group". Ha.
And then there was that lovely, sorrowful paragraph ender: "In the middle of a meeting, an image of Dave's body on that gym floor would flash before my eyes. It was like augmented reality - I knew that I was in a Facebook conference room, but it felt like his body was there too. Even when I was not seeing his image, I was crying constantly. Lean in? I could barely stand up."
Nivriti likes 'human-interest' stories and has a thing for the quirky, oddball stuff

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