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Being there, present in endless grief

12 June 2015

Sally Hitchiner reflects on Sheryl Sandberg's experience of grief

THEY say that these things come in threes. The BBC mistakenly announced that the Queen had died. Charles Kennedy, sadly, did die, and Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and the author of Lean In (W. H. Allen, 2013: the current go-to self-help book for ambitious women) posted a very public, very personal statement about coming to the end of her sheloshim, the Jewish period of grief after the death of a husband.

The statement she posted is remarkable in its honesty. "Let me not die while I am still alive," she quotes a friend, sounding not unlike the Psalmist. Expanding this, she laments: "You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning."

What meaning has she found? The importance of family and celebration; how trite well-meant words can sound: practical insights, but not what most of us would call "meaning" in the suffering. She seems caught between our achievement-focused world - grasping for something she could present as an accomplishment of this voyage into a wasteland - and the ancient Jewish wisdom that she took the hand of and let lead her. This is wisdom that cares little for roadmaps.

What is it about these rituals that speak through the white noise? One of the most powerful women in the world observed shiva, sitting with grief for seven days. Orthodox Jewish tradition dictates that, when faced with grief, close relatives tear garments.

It is customary for Orthodox Jewish mourners to sit on low stools, or even on the floor, which is symbolic of the emotional reality of being "brought low" by the grief. For the week after the funeral, the mourners refrain from bathing, or wearing leather shoes or jewellery. And mourners are encouraged not to work.

When faced with death, the only healthy response is to let go of the things that have made us powerful: to spend time sitting, and doing nothing but sitting; not to have words that can help, not to find meaning, but to be present. It is interesting that in John 14, the passage that is so often read at funerals about Jesus's preparing a place for his loved ones, Jesus turns to his confused disciples and says: "I am the way." There is no list of directions, no road map, only a person holding out a hand.

Sandberg ends with a quotation from that great Irish psalmist Bono: "There is no end to grief . . . as there is no end to love."


The Revd Sally Hitchiner is Chaplain to Brunel University, London.

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