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From loss to seemingly impossible triumph

NONFICTION

"Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy," by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant; Knopf, 226 pages, ($25.95)

"The Outrun: A Memoir" by Amy Liptrot;  Norton, 280 pages ($25.95)

Perspective comes at a steep price in two new chronicles of profound loss – one, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s searing account of life after the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg.

This is “Option B,” co-written with Wharton psychologist Adam Grant, and saddled with the long (and rather off-putting) subtitle, “Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.” Yet there is nothing off-putting about its content which is, at once, affecting, straightforward, revealing and useful, the latter perhaps for generations to come.

Sandberg, as the first-person voice of the book, is also the author of the 2013 runaway best-seller, “Lean In,” which encouraged working women to “sit at the table” and aspire to the top. She was still basking in its success when, at a luxury resort in Mexico two years later, Dave died suddenly, of cardiac arrhythmia, after collapsing on a treadmill in the resort’s gym. He was 47. They had been married 11 years, and had two children, 7 and 10.

“Grief is a demanding companion,” Sandberg notes in the introduction to “Option B” as she describes “a life I never would have chosen, a life I was completely unprepared for. The unimaginable. Sitting down with my son and daughter and telling them their father had died. Hearing their screams joined by my own. The funeral. Speeches where people spoke of Dave in the past tense…”

All of the personal and professional confidence Sandberg had exhibited in “Lean In” was gone. “Lean in?” she asked. “I could barely stand up.” Plus, she had her children to think of: “My greatest fear was that my kids would never be happy again.”

Yet Sandberg found herself frozen in place, her answer to everything, “But I want Dave,” till a family friend put his arm around her and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the s--- out of Option B.”

After turning to psychologist Adam Grant, who “studies how people find motivation and meaning,” a new life began to emerge, for Sandberg and her children – and, with it, the book she would call “Option B.”

Written with Grant, but keeping his contributions to the third person, it is  valuable on several levels, offering us, beyond Sandberg’s moving story, a panoply of ways to go through (rather than around, or stuck within) the many losses, great and small, that come to all of us.

Her own grief, Sandberg acknowledges, brought her to the realization that “humans had faced love and loss for centuries…I felt connected to something much larger than myself – connected to a universal human experience.”

The rabbi who led Dave’s funeral suggested (in the vernacular) that Sandberg “lean in to the suck – to expect it to be awful,” and, in “Option B,” she does that. She also considers C. S. Lewis’ “Part of every misery is misery’s shadow…the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer” -- and Viktor Frankl’s “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Sandberg does this in big ways, and small:

“I had to change never and always to sometimes and lately,” she tells us. She also stepped up a journaling habit (to reduce stress, and with “Option B” in mind). She paid attention to her anguish, and anger – looking instead toward resilience and “self-compassion,”
keeping not only a gratitude list but also a list of what she had done well each day.

“Grief has to unfold,” she notes, telling us how she realized she couldn’t do everything at once but that “one turn at a time” would still get her where she was going. She began to see, she says,   “post-traumatic growth.” She and her son and daughter went to a grief support center; the children also attended Experience Camps (where they found they were not alone, as children, in loss).

Of course, not everyone has the bonuses of having Mark Zuckerberg as one’s understanding boss; of finances not being a concern; of sharing a meal with Malala Yousafzai, or taking her children to a rocket launch at the invitation of Elon Musk. But Sandberg is humbled by her loss – and speaks often of lessons learned “only in death.” She also includes, in “Option B,” many examples – and statistics -- of others finding resilience in the face of crisis, and, toward the book’s end, even offers tips for young widows on dating again…

“I would never wish for anyone to gain this perspective,” she says, “but perspective it is.”

*******

Amy Liptrot’s startlingly beautiful “The Outrun” deals with grave loss of another kind. Hers is a loss of self, of soul – and, as her memoir opens, it is unclear whether she can, or even wants to regain them.

Alcohol is her downfall, with a bit of cocaine thrown in. Home is the “rough and windy and tangled” Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. And London, England, is where Liptrot, in her 20s, has gone to find her fortune but has succumbed to drink instead, often partying ‘round the clock.

“A visitor from Scandinavia wondered just where he had found himself, and why the hell everyone was drinking so much,” she writes:  “‘You can’t be dancing all the time,’ he said, and I didn’t understand…”

Liptrot remains in this “unsustainable enchanted lifestyle” until, she tells us, “I was out of control…adrift, helpless to the irrational need, the desire. I was falling, swirling, trying to find a point to hold on to, but as I grasped, any target moved further away.”

All the while Orkney – the island life she had forsaken for the “hot pulse of the city” – was calling her back, as if to say the answers she sought would best be heard in the place where she had begun.

Liptrot shares some of her experience in a rehab, at the age of 30, but the greater gift here is the many awakenings she will find in the very space she left – an archipelago of such raw, untamed beauty that only a writer of her lyric ability could capture it.

Here she takes us to the Outrun, the largest field on her family’s land, “a stretch of coastland at the top of the farm where the grass is always short, pummeled by wind and sea spray year-round,” the wind in Orkney “almost constant. At the farm, the westerly gales are the worst, bringing the sea with them, and tonnes of rock can be moved overnight, the map altered in the morning…”s

Liptrot goes beyond the farm, to tiny Papay, a community of 70, where she lives in Rose Cottage – “like a perfectly designed halfway house.” Even on Papay, there is a fellow member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Liptrot fills her days helping with the monthly survey of the birds of Papay: “I am not tracking a mysterious or endangered species. I am carrying out semi-scientific studies into myself, performing bathymetry of the soul.”

Hers, in sum, is an extraordinary memoir – meshing her early sobriety with the secrets of her homeland: “I feel,” she tells us, “as if I’ve opened a door that has always been in my house but I had never noticed.”

Karen Brady is a former News columnist and frequent News book reviewer

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