An Open Letter to Sheryl Sandberg

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My heart aches for you, even more because the same thing happened to me. You will get through it. But you never will get past it.

I was so very sorry to hear about your husband’s death. You must be inundated with condolence letters and here I am, adding one more to the pile.

I write from a position of knowing, which makes me unspeakably sad for you. My own husband, Matthew Lyon, died in 2002, while on a business trip. He died suddenly, on a treadmill in the gym of a Seattle hotel. He was 45. Our daughter was eight.

Nobody plans for this. We would all go insane if we did. Because we live life as if we have time.

Here is what I can tell you: From now until forever — a forever your husband will not get to share with you, which contributes to the pain of this — you will question everything you thought was true about your life. Your trust in everyone’s ability to get from A to B without incident will never be the same. We all know that nothing is certain, but we know it in a vague, theoretical, I’ll-think-hard-about-that-tomorrow way. You now know it as established fact, and this changes the way you see everything.

People will tell you that time will heal. This is true, but only in part. You and I — and the thousands of others who have lost our spouses suddenly — wind up walking through a world washed grey with grief. The fact of his sudden death will nag and tug, and sometimes it will feel stuck in your throat. You might even have trouble swallowing. There’s a medical term for it — globus hystericus, and I had it for weeks after my husband died. I called it my “grief lump.” It will go away.

When you go outside, the world will seem somehow out of joint. How can people still be walking their dogs, standing on street corners laughing with a friend while waiting for the light to change, jogging with their earbuds in, carrying their Starbucks cups? Don’t they know?

There will be self-recriminations. You might think about the last conversation you had with him, and wish you had said something else. You’ll think about the last conversation that your kids had with him. (They will too, over and over.) These are the things over which we have no control.

Yet there are many things over which you do have control. The well-worn advice about waiting a year to make any big changes is the best advice of all.

And here are a few other things. Once you are no longer distracted by the oddly pacifying logistics of death — the funeral, the letters to read and respond to, the countless floral arrangements, and, in your case, the thousands of beautiful memories of your husband shared on Facebook— you will be left to deal with everything that hangs in suspended animation; a modern, intensely personal version of Pompeii. You will have his voice mails on your phone. You will have his computer, containing the poetry of his life. You will have to decide whether to read his personal email (my advice: don’t). You may discover things he never told you. Love him all the more for this.

How the next weeks, months, and years go for you will be colored deeply by the most personal details of your life, your outlook, your resources (wealth, of course, but far more than that — wealth can help with the nuts and bolts but is no help at all for much of this).

Here are some recommendations that, I think, are universally helpful. First, let people take care of you. Have a few people around at all times. Don’t allow yourself to be alone, especially at night.

Everyone will have a lot to say to you. Every once in a while someone will say something strangely insensitive, perhaps even hurtful. Remember that what they are saying is about them, not your husband, and definitely not you. And, for the most part, they are trying to help. Just as you didn’t prepare for this moment, neither did they. Be forgiving.

And everyone will want to help. Let them. Delegate. Allow your friends and family to deal with his death certificate, his frequent flyer account, his cell phone. But don’t delegate your children. Keep them close to you as much as you can. Because in the way children have of squaring themselves with the world, they figure if they could lose him so suddenly, then you too are up for grabs.

In a few weeks after everyone who has flown in from all parts has left, it will get worse. Because you will find yourself sitting with just yourself. You might think you’re fine, that you can go back to work. You are clearly a remarkably self-sufficient person, and your fame has come, partly, from helping women find their inner confidence. But then something will happen — you might receive a bill from the hospital that tried to save him addressed to him — and you will fall to pieces all over again.

When you drop your children off places, as they are getting out of the car they might say to you, “Promise you won’t die.” With this, they’ll mean, “Don’t die today.” And you won’t be able to make that promise. Tell them you will do your very best not to die today, or tomorrow, or any time soon. And hug them close.

Know that a child’s grief is ineffable, complicated, and unpredictable. Adults do predictable things: we cry, we experience an unfillable hole in our hearts yet we are able to articulate that; we feel and express our pain, our anger, our guilt. We feel and carry through on a need to tell people how it happened, and with each re-enactment we are working our way through to the other side. If we are in a fog, we are conscious of our fog. Then we emerge and carry on. We get up in the morning, take a shower, drink coffee, get dressed, put on makeup. Yet we’re bloodied and bandaged inside.

Our children’s insides roil too, but in a way they cannot comprehend or confront. Go, immediately, and find a grief therapist. My daughter’s therapist saved her life. At least that’s what she and I tell ourselves.

Your children will eventually stop remembering their father in the deep way that you do. Their memories will be airbrushed, in both directions — sometimes adding heroic myth, sometimes colored by anger or confusion. And the memories they do have won’t necessarily jibe with what you remember.

And one day, you will wake up and say to yourself, “My kids are okay.”

My daughter is 21, and she is fine. And I am now happily remarried, to a wonderfully compassionate man (who, in fact, suggested I write this letter to you). Yet when I remember that Zoe’s father won’t be here to see her graduate from college in two weeks, I want to kick a wall. And no, he is not here in spirit.

Here’s the oddest thing: I’m thirteen years into this and still my husband’s visage comes to my mind’s eye unbidden. Even in the broken light in which he appears, I can see that he hasn’t changed a bit.

You have helped millions of women with your advice. I hope mine is helpful to you in this terrible moment. Please know that I am thinking of you every day and for many days yet to come.

Love, Katie

Katie Hafner is a journalist ( @NYTimes mostly ), the author of  Mother. Daughter Me and a contributor at Medium, where this post first appeared.

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