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Sheryl Sandberg and Cheryl Strayed: A Conversation on Healing

In a conversation with Cheryl Strayed, Sheryl Sandberg and the bestselling author talk about finding resilience in shared experiences and the enduring power of a mother’s love.

[0:00-0:30] Sheryl: Hi everyone, we are at the Moore Theater in Seattle, and I’m with Cheryl Strayed!

Cheryl: And I’m with Sheryl Sandberg!

Sheryl: And it’s not just her name, even though she spells it the right way and I spell it the wrong way. It’s that I’ve admired you for so long, I read “Wild”, I think 4.5 years ago, and for the last 1.5 years, this book has been the only book by my bedside – non-fiction, and fiction come and goes, but your book of quotations has meant so much to me.

[0:31-0:49] Cheryl: Thank you, that means so much to me. You know, this is the very first thing I did in 2017? I spent January 1st reading this book in manuscript, and was absolutely blown away. I mean, I was so touched by your story and all of the amazing work that you did in your own life and also helping others.

[0:50-1:00] Sheryl: Well, I don’t think I ever could have taken on the physical challenge you did, I do very little hiking.

Cheryl: We’ll we’re going to change that!

[1:01-1:23] Sheryl: We’re going to do it together. But your story, your vulnerability, your path has meant so much to me. So I thought I was going to read you some of the quotes – I already showed you all my pages that are turned over, but these are the quotes that have meant the most to me, so we’re going to read them. “When you recognize that you will thrive, –” actually, I don’t know why I’m reading your lines. You read them.

[1:24-1:46] Cheryl: When you recognize that you will strive – not in spite of your losses and sorrows but because of them – that you would not have chosen the things that have happened in your life, but you are grateful for them; that you will hold the empty bowls eternally in your hands, but you also have the capacity to fill them so. The word for that, is healing.

[1:47-2:14] Sheryl: So when I lost Dave, I can’t be grateful for that. But I can be grateful for what it’s taught me. Adam and I have gone around asking audiences, “Who’s heard of post-traumatic stress?” Every hand goes up. “Who’s heard of post-traumatic growing?” Growing from the pain. No one. And so, I’d love to hear from you, how did you come to that realization? Those are beautiful, brilliant words to write.

[2:15-2:39] Cheryl: Thank you. I think it took me many years to understand that. So my belief happened many years ago, my mother died at the age of 45 very suddenly of cancer. She only knew she had cancer for 7 weeks and she died. And I felt like my life was over. I did not know how to live without my mother, and so I I fought against that.

[2:40-3:08]: And those words were born out of that place when I finally came to accept my mother’s death, by knowing that I would have to live, or carry my grief for the rest of my life. It wasn’t that I was going to get over my mother’s death, but I had to accept it; I think it’s a really American idea that we will get over our deepest losses, that suffering is, we do this, we do that and then that loss vanishes.

[3:09-3:25]: When I realized that was never going to be true, not only that my mother was dead, but that I would be sad about it. You know, it been 20 some years and I’m still really sad about my mom; it was just Mother’s Day, I missed my mother on Mother’s Day.

[3:26-3:57]: That sorrow has changed, it’s shifted over time, it’s gotten easier over time, I’ve learned how to manage it but not because it’s gone, it’s because I learned how to carry it. And so much of what I mean when I when I write those words, are really about that. Those are things I learned a lot in my book, Wild. Honestly, I had to carry that really heavy backpack and in so many ways, that physical experience was teaching me what I needed to do on the inside with my grief.

[3:58-4:21] Sheryl: So I obviously read about it and you talk about the reasons you took that humongous trek, but I just have to ask you in person: how did you have the strength, the wherewithal, to start that journey and finish it? By yourself! Which is scary! And you talk about being frightened about the weather, and the animals, and the unknown, and even silence.

[4:22-4:37] Cheryl: My mother’s love, that’s how. And that’s the gift that your kids have to. I know that it is so sad and so hard that they don’t have their father, but their father lives in every cell in their bodies, and they always will, no matter what happens.

[4:38-5:10]: And what I know, looking back, when I was writing Wild, I had to really think about who was that young woman who decided to do that thing? It was the woman my mother had raised me to be. And that decision to take that trip could not have been made had I not been loved by my mother the way that I was, for the years that I was. And I will always have that. She’s a presence in my life, every day of my life.

[5:11-5:28] Sheryl: One of the things, and moments, about getting to be around Option B, is I get to meet Elizabeth Alexander, Obama’s poet laureate. She lost her husband when she was 50, almost the same way I lost mine – I mean the parallels are just striking. And she wrote a beautiful book, and it starts with: this is a love story.

[5:29-5:49]: And one of the things you’re saying, and what I learned most from my experience is that love doesn’t end with the person. It’s so interesting, you said my mother’s love is the reason for your strength. Which means that your mother was still loving you, you were still loving her. There’s a present; it wasn’t my mother’s love I used to have; it was a present tense to my mother’s love.

[5:50-6:16] Cheryl: Yeah, the relationship continues. I think, too, when we think about grief, it’s so often thought about as a journey. And it is, a never-ending journey, that’s always revealing to us something new. And one of the most beautiful things, for me, about having a mother that’s been dead 26 years, she’s now been dead longer in my life than she was alive in it. I passed that mark years ago.

[6:17-6:38]: But more beauty will be revealed over time. In the first years after she died, a lot of ugliness was revealed. A lot of things that were hard and that I felt I couldn’t do without her, but now, more often, I feel lucky that I ever had her at all.

[6:39-6:49] Sheryl: Okay you have an unbelievable quote on grief in here, I want to make sure I get the right page.

Cheryl: But you read it this time.

[6:50-7:18] Sheryl: This is it. “If as a culture we don’t bear witness to grief, the burden of loss is placed entirely on the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. If they don’t – if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking they cannot continue to live, well, then we’ve pathologize their pain, we call their suffering a disease, we do not help them, and tell them that they need to get help.”

[7:19-7:48]: I mean, for me, the averting our eyes, the elephant in the room, the lack of support that we have around grief, and I understand it. Before I lost Dave, if someone lost someone, I would say something once. I’m so sorry. But then I wouldn’t bring it up again, 26 years later, you know. You know, you can’t remind me that Dave died. You can’t remind them they have cancer, or that their father just went to jail.

[7:49-8:07] Cheryl: But you know what their silence does remind you of? That you’re alone.

Sheryl: Yes, that is exactly it.

Cheryl: This is a universal thing, I mean through my work I have had access to so many people who shared their stories with me about grief. And pretty much universally they all say, “you are the first person who ever said what I felt.”

[8:08-8:27]: And what I think about that is, first of all thank you, but that is wrong! That should not be the case. One of the few things we all have in common is that we’re all going to die, so why is grief this strange, sort of, secret thing that we don’t discuss in the open, we don’t know how to talk to people who are grieving.

[8:28-8:58]: I had a similar experience to you, I couldn’t really be mad at the people who hadn’t acknowledged my grief, I couldn’t do it before before it was mine. But then you suddenly enter into this universe – the universe without Dave, or the universe without Bobby – that is different from the one you occupied before, and when you look around, what you see is you’re there was a lot of other people who are also feeling alone.

[8:59-9:40]: So I wrote about this, we used to not do grief this way. We used to have rituals, you’d wear black for a year or get a tattoo, we had these rituals culturally that were rules around how to bring grief, personal grief, into the community. The purpose was to help somebody heal and I think that we’ve lost that. And I think now, through books like yours and Adam’s, we’re saying no we’ll bring it right into the community square. We’re going to talk about, what does it mean? How do you go to work after somebody died? What do you say to your kids?How do you go on, like how do you actually go on when you believe you can’t?

[9:41-9:55] Sheryl: And helping each other. One of the best things Adam pointed out is he said, you know there’s a huge self-help book section of each store, but there’s no help others. We want our book to be in help others.

Cheryl: Yeah we don’t help people we tell them they need to get help.

[9:56-10:24] Sheryl: That’s right, go to your room until your cheerful enough to be around. But the help others, what do we say, saying you may or may not want to talk, but I know that you’re suffering. I think it’s about remembering that it is lifelong. I know that more people reach out to people in those very early days, but 26 years in, do your friends remember Mother’s Day is still so hard?

[10:25-10:44] Cheryl: Some of them do, and you know, the ones who do, I’m so grateful to them. And what’s so beautiful and I think you’ve done this through your work, is that I needed comfort and a community, and I brought it to me by writing the truth about my grief.

[10:45-11:09]: So strangers, on my Facebook page, I made a few Facebook posts near Mother’s Day, and I said I see you, people without mothers, I witness your loss, and so many thousands of people gave that right back to me. And my way of seeing them, brought them to me. And I think that’s a really powerful, have you consoled your grief in others?

[11:10-11:29] Sheryl: Yeah, when we launched the book, we formed OptionB.org and we have a Coping With Grief Facebook group that has over 5000 members now. I posted in that group 2 weeks ago on the anniversary of Dave’s death, and I posted on Mother’s Day. And the most incredible thing happened. This guy Eric Hodgdon – he told me I could share this outside the group – he made a video.

[11:30-12:10]: He said, I want everyone in this group to know I’m thinking of you, if you’ve lost a mother or a child, and that it is hard. And these days were super hard for him. He lost his daughter by suicide 3 years ago, and he said, at first he couldn’t get out of bed, and then he realized that he was going to get out of bed in his daughter’s honor, and he was going to try to create new memories. So he said, for those of you who are grieving, I just want to say I’m sorry and I want to offer an idea. Here’s one of the ways I got out of bed. I spent the rest of the day recommending that people watch this video. I’ve never met him, and he helped me get through Mother’s Day this year.

[12:11-12:32] Cheryl: Yes, the kindness of strangers, right? The small acts of kindness makes a world of difference.

[Sheryl]: Yes, the world of a difference. Alright, I’m going to read another quote. If it is impossible for you to go on as you were before. Sorry, I’m not reading it well, you read it.

[12:33-12:41] Cheryl: If it is impossible for you to go on as you were before, you must go on as you never have.

Sheryl: Yes, that’s a great way to end. What does that mean?

[12:42- 13:11] Cheryl: You know, the reason that spoke to you, sadly, is that you were forced to know what it means. And I know one thing that people say to somebody who has lost somebody is they’re like, “I couldn’t do it.” But I didn’t choose this, I can’t do it either. And so this is what this quote is about. When you when you actually find it impossible to go on, and find that in fact you have to go on. And you have to put one foot in front of the other.

[13:12-13:32] Sheryl: Which is the opening line of Wild.

Cheryl: And the whole point of the book: to keep going even when it hurts – physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, all of that. You have to keep going, and that is the way you heal yourself, by putting one foot in front of the other. And you have done that so beautifully.

[13:33-13:49] Sheryl: No Cheryl Strayed, you took all of us on your journey, you took all of us through our healing process and I am so grateful for this book that sits on my bedside and helped me get through it. Thank you.

Cheryl: No, thank you.

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