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Lessons From My Own “Year of Magical Thinking”

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I was sitting down to write today, and the story that came over the news was the headline that Dave Goldberg, the husband of Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, just died from a senseless treadmill accident while on vacation in Puerto Vallarta. At age 47. Suddenly this husband and father of two young children is gone, and nothing will ever be the same for them.

Of course, Ms. Sandberg is financially secure. Her career is the one that has made headlines, and her husband was probably well insured. But as a widow, her life has changed in an instant. Coping with such a loss can be devastating—and even more so if plans aren’t in place to help manage the unexpected.

If you know me at all, you know that I speak from experience.

When I was in my late 40s, my husband, Ed, suffered a debilitating stroke and became permanently disabled. Our children were almost adults at the time, so I had no children to support on my own, but Ed and I had not planned for disability. Why would we? He was a healthy, young guy. But what a difference it would have made if we had. Without the insurance we needed, we instantly went from a comfortable income to relying solely on my earnings, and our cost of living increased considerably to cover Ed’s new care needs. If we’d planned properly, I could have focused more on the emotional healing for all of us—Ed, myself, and our children Jamie and Adam.

Luckily for us, it wasn’t all bleak; although Ed had no disability income insurance at the time, as an Air Force retiree he did have a lifetime pension, and after 18 months he became eligible for additional disability income from Social Security. Still, times were tough for us for the next decade, and when he did pass away 11 years later, he had no life insurance. In an instant—“an ordinary instant”—my life changed completely.

Joan Didion, one of my favorite authors, wrote a beautiful book, The Year of Magical Thinking, in the year following the death of her own husband of 40 years, writer John Gregory Dunne. In a similar life-changing instant, Dunne suffered a massive heart attack and died immediately. His death propelled Didion into a year of, as she calls it, “magical thinking.”

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”

I love Didion’s re-labeling of this time of mourning as “magical thinking.”

If you’ve experienced it yourself, as I have, you already know precisely what she means. Your perspectives change radically, and you speak words and take actions that, before now, would have been unthinkable. Interestingly, I read The Year of Magical Thinking before and after losing Ed. Experiencing that loss changed my thinking entirely, and words I thought I’d understood initially took on a whole new meaning as I was living it myself. I realized then that you can never really understand such a loss until you’ve been there yourself.

Sheryl Sandberg will find her own way to cope with the unexpected loss of her husband. I hope she has the support she needs in all areas of her life. I hope her own “year of magical thinking” can help her make sense of her loss. For me, my husband’s disability and death taught me valuable life lessons. The experience taught me how strong I could be (stronger than I may have ever thought possible), the power of what Didion describes as “magical thinking,” and the importance of planning for a loss that, for most, is fully unimaginable until it happens.

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