For many people coping with the diagnosis of a serious illness or the loss or separation of a loved one, facing the holiday season will be challenging—and they’ll need support from friends and family to help find joy in between their moments of grief.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer and author of the popular book Lean In, knows this struggle all too well: Sandberg lost her husband and father to her two children, Dave Goldberg, in May 2015 after he died suddenly at age 47 while on vacation in Mexico. After experiencing the pain that comes from loss and learning of ways to respond to it, Sandberg teamed with psychologist Adam Grant to publish the book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy and its accompanying website to help those facing adversity in relation to a loved one. This is something especially important during the holiday season, Sandberg says.
“The holidays are reminders, and you really feel the absence of the person,” Sandberg, 48, tells PEOPLE. “Particularly if there’s a loss, the holidays are times when whatever challenges we face, our absences are felt so deeply, whether it’s been a week or decades.”
This magnification of grief is something that will be experienced by many households who will have empty seats at the dinner table or unopened gifts under the Christmas tree this year.
To help family and friends of the bereaved who may be unsure how to best lend their support during the holidays, Sandberg is launching the #OptionBThere initiative, where visitors can find a collection of advice and tips organized by themes including “just be there,” “say something,” “lend a hand” and “celebrate the good.” OptionB.Org community members have also submitted their own real-life experiences and detailed what worked for them during difficult holiday seasons.
“The number one thing I’ve learned, which is why we’re doing this, is that so often, we don’t address the hard things because we don’t know what to say,” Sandberg says, “so you don’t say anything.”
To relieve these often difficult and painful situations, #OptionBThere provides conversation starters to help friends and family feel comfortable sharing their feelings, and suggestions for feel-good games, “all feelings welcome” dinners, meaningful gift ideas and holiday cards to remind them that they’re loved.
For those experiencing grief who are unsure of how to interact with other during family engagements and celebrations, #OptionBThere also has tips on how to ask loved ones for help, and a seven-step guide to creating a “holiday bill of rights” to allow themselves to approach the holidays under their own terms. These suggestions may help them to find a bit of happiness during difficult times.
“Let yourself feel what you feel. Try to think of moments of joy. Little things,” Sandberg says. “Sometimes we’re looking for happiness in big ways, and I think, if you’re facing a holiday, or even a regular day through your illness or pain, you can’t be happy all the time—don’t put that pressure on yourself.”
In the years after Goldberg’s passing, Sandberg took up the habit of writing down three moments of joy at the end of her day, which have helped her to appreciate everyday moments.
“It is a great irony of my life that I lost my husband, and I am more grateful,” she says. “I’m grateful that I was alive for Thanksgiving. I’m 48. That never would have occurred to me before.”
Sandberg stresses that one of the most important actions that friends and family of the bereaved can do is simply show up.
“Just do something. That’s really what #OptionBThere is all about,” she says. “When you show up with a meal, when you show up with a hug, when you show up with the funny story, or just the willingness to sit there and cry with the person, that’s incredibly powerful—helping ourselves see what is still good in our lives is a super important part of recovery, and when you show up for someone, you are creating a good moment.”