Sheryl Sandberg’s Advice for Grieving, Cont’d

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed the Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg about her new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, which describes how she learned to move forward in the wake of her husband’s sudden death. Katherine Shear, of the Center for Complicated Grief, responds:

I read your article “Sheryl Sandberg’s Advice for Grieving” in The Atlantic and I want to thank you for writing about this topic. I am a Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University School of Social Work and I spent the last two decades studying complicated grief. There is no question that Sheryl Sandberg has done the world a great service by speaking about her painful grief with “forward-looking optimism.” People need to follow Sandberg’s lead—to share our grief stories, bear witness to each other’s pain, and choose Option B. Except when Option B isn’t an option.

As Sandberg’s story illustrates, acute grief is a very intense and disorienting experience. It’s a testament to human resilience that most people adapt to painful losses and move forward in their lives with a sense of meaning and purpose and possibilities for happiness. In Sandberg’s terms, they choose Option B. However, not everyone can do this. About 10 percent of bereaved people get caught up in ruminating over troubling aspects of the loss, engaging in extensive avoidance of reminders of their loved one’s absence, or feeling overwhelmed by seemingly unrelenting emotionality. These people have a recognizable syndrome called Complicated Grief that affects an estimated 10 million people in the United States. They want to choose Option B, but they can’t.

Fortunately help is available for people with complicated grief. We developed a short-term (16-session) intervention that focuses on fostering adaptation. We collaborated with colleagues across to country to test it in three large studies funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Results showed a very high response rate and were published in major medical journals (e.g JAMA, NEJM). Additionally, colleagues worldwide have published hundreds of other studies of this condition.

In spite of this extensive documentation, information about complicated grief has not yet reached much of the grieving public. Many mental health professionals also remain unaware. Sandberg and her co-author, the psychologist Dr. Adam Grant, don’t mention this condition. People need to understand that Option B is not always an option. Professionals need to know how to recognize people with complicated grief and what can be done to help. The good news is that CG sufferers do still have options.

Find out more about those options from the Center for Complicated Grief, which offers resources for health professionals and for those struggling with CG.