Jessica Douglas, 32, married Ben Winger on May 27, their guests on that mild and breezy Saturday evening treated to a sublime setting overlooking the Mississippi River. Jessica’s mother, Laurie Douglas, 57, walked her daughter down the aisle, then took her future son-in-law’s hand and put it in Jessica’s.
“I remember saying to him, ‘You’d better take care of her,’ ” said Douglas, of Edina. “I did not cry giving her away. I had my tears beforehand.”
I thought about Douglas as I reread passages of “Option B,” the new book by Sheryl Sandberg, founder of the Lean In movement and chief operating officer at Facebook.
The book explores how we best face adversity, build resilience and reclaim joy after loss or tragedy, be it illness, divorce, sexual assault or even war. Sandberg co-wrote the book with psychologist Adam Grant after her husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly of an undiagnosed heart ailment in 2015.
He was 47. They’d been married 11 years and had two young children.
It’s a beautifully written, brave and sometimes funny book, worth reading whether or not you are facing adversity. But I hope Sandberg will take good care, and continue to be easy on herself as she presses forward.
Grief, as she is learning, is a stubborn and enduring companion.
Laurie Douglas’ husband died 28 years ago.
Newlywed Jessica was 4 then; her brother, Alex, 2. I met Douglas a dozen years ago, when I first wrote about young widows and widowers, and I was happy she made time to see me again.
“I still miss him,” Douglas said over iced tea a few weeks ago. “He’s still a part of our lives.”
Her husband, Bruce, who served two tours in Vietnam, took his life in 1989. They had been married for just five years, but were friends far longer.
“The first year was easier than the second year,” said Douglas, who works for the Evine home shopping network.
“You’re still numb. You just survive. Then, holy crap, it’s real.”
Well-meaning friends said hurtful things: “You’re young. You’ll remarry. You’ll have more kids.”
“It was like this was just a passing thing,” Douglas said, “instead of something that would affect my whole life.”
Losing a spouse after 30, 40 or 70 years carries its own awful burden. But grief counselors say there is one big difference between long-marrieds and those whose march down the aisle was more recent, such as Douglas’ and Sandberg’s.
The first group grieves the loss of what was — a lifelong companion, a keeper of memories and shared history. The second group must grieve the loss of what was yet to be: “He’s never going to see our kids ride a bike. He’s never going to be there for a birthday.”
Even something as seemingly innocuous as buying corn on the cob reminds her that her husband died before shopping at farmers markets was all the rage.
Bruce’s family was “very involved” with her and the kids as they were growing up. Her friends became her confidants, therapists, rocks.
“I really don’t know how I would have survived without them,” she said.
Three years after he died, she took off her wedding band. She keeps it with his.
She did date a man for a long stretch, after being fixed up by friends. “It was nice, but he always knew that he was with Mrs. Bruce Douglas,” she said. She never remarried.
Douglas remembers many of the early challenges that are still raw in Sandberg’s writing. The worry that she’d never again feel joy, then the guilt when she did experience joy, as if it were somehow a betrayal.
The frustrating inability to focus and remember details. Someone recalled their trip to Aruba, and Douglas was stunned to hear that she had traveled there.
“Write things down and take a lot of pictures,” Douglas advised. “Take pictures of your kids growing up, your family and friends, and activities, because you don’t remember.”
Likewise Sandberg, always the doer and planner, writes about suddenly missing appointments, breaking down in tears, apologizing constantly.
And both women were pained by the elephant in the room when friends stopped talking about their husbands.
“They thought it would upset me,” Douglas said. So she’d bring up Bruce when she was with friends. “Remember when this happened?”
Sandberg, 47, writes about a dinner party where small talk prevailed shortly after Dave died. As she secretly boiled, she thought about blurting out, “Yes! The weather has been weird with all this rain and death.”
Grief, Sandberg writes, “still hits me like a wave, crashing into my consciousness until I can feel nothing else. It strikes at predictable big events, like our anniversary, and at the smallest of moments, like when junk mail comes to the house addressed to Dave.”
She wrote the book, she said, “trying to find meaning.”
If Douglas were to talk with Sandberg, she would assure her that she already has. And that life moves forward and joy returns, deserving of her embrace.
Douglas is thrilled with the fine young adults her children have become. She enjoys her work and getting together with friends to hear live music, many of them from her original young widows group.
“I look back and wonder, ‘Man, how did you do that?’ You do it because you have to,” Douglas said.
“It doesn’t kill you. You will live through it. You will.”