In 2003, while my husband Gregg was in and out of consciousness, I leaned over and attempted CPR as best as I could while a stranger held onto our baby daughter, who was wailing and kicking her legs between us. Gregg had gotten up that day before dawn, ran 25 miles and a few hours later collapsed in front of me at a tiny parking lot nestled under a canopy of evergreens. I dialed 911, and an ambulance came to whisk him away. But as soon as I made it to the hospital and wheeled the stroller through the ER doors, a social worker took me to the “quiet room” where I was told that he was gone.
It had never occurred to me that my spouse could drop dead without warning. Up until that point, I’d approached most situations with an aura of entitled invincibility. Gregg was 39, fit and training for a marathon. I was 33 and had just started a new, high-profile job; our beautiful daughter was just 10 months old.
Gregg and I met at work; we were both workaholics who logged 60- to 80-hour weeks in dotcom jobs. I admired his quiet determination and ability to communicate complex tech-speak without sounding like a jerk; I think he appreciated my unconventional drive and new-media savvy. I leaned into my career well before “Lean In” became a thing. Cringe-inducing as it seems to me now, I remember waltzing up to my bosses much too early in my career, announcing: “I want my job title to be “producer,” or “managing director” or “vice president,” and they would simply blink at me a few times, and then agree.
There are more than 900,000 widows ages 25 to 54 in the United States, according to 2013 census data. And while everyone’s grief trajectory is different, what we “young widows” have in common is that we lose our husbands right when we’re starting to get the hang of the family-and-career juggling act. This is also the audience Sheryl Sandberg is speaking to with “Lean In.” Now, tragically, Sandberg is a young widow herself, an experience she has called the “darkest and saddest” moment of her life. I get it; I’ve been there.
Widowhood was not a job I’d ever aspired to, but I took it on with a sort of irrational ferocity. Gregg died on a Sunday and I was back at work a week later. At the office I was met with an odd mix of business-as-usual plus avoidance. Nobody knew what to say or do, which was fine: This gave me space to troll online dating sites less than five months after Gregg’s death, naively pretending my career was intact. I did not rise through the ranks. I did not pass go and collect $200,000. I didn’t care. I reduced my hours, shirked responsibilities, watched my salary and benefits shrink — all while courting as many potential future husbands as possible. Never mind the part about being a feminist and my I-can-do-it-all-by-myself attitude; I still craved a man by my side. It became an all-consuming project.
My timeline was totally unrealistic. I told myself I needed to be remarried within the year, or at least before my daughter could form complete sentences and understand what was going on. Every date was like a job interview: polished message points, a wrinkle-free outfit; the works. I got pretty good at it — until everything came crashing down like an overinflated tech bubble.
It wasn’t so much that the frenzied cycle of dating, working 9 to 5, and commuting an hour-and-a-half each way with a toddler in tow was exhausting. (It always is — any parent will tell you that.) The problem was that I found it all exhilarating. I was trying to fill an impossible void, fueled by nothing more than hope and delusional thinking.
At first, leaning in to this new assignment felt like the right thing to do. People kept telling me to stay busy, and oh, was I busy! After all, to move on from grief implies, well, movement. But there’s a point when busy veers into the pathological. I started missing deadlines. Daycare called to express their “concerns.” (Was everything okay at home? NO, EVERYTHING WAS NOT OKAY AT HOME, but thanks for asking!) And as for the new husband project, dating was disastrous. Even as I churned through 80 dates in less than four months, I could never get past the interview phase of intimacy. Yet at the same time, I wondered why I wasn’t planning my next wedding already.
From my young widow’s support group, I knew that my particular vices weren’t all that bad. There were widows who were having affairs with their best friends’ husbands (yes, plural); a scientist who slept in her office to avoid going home; a mother of teenagers who went months without using her kitchen or changing her sheets — every meal was takeout and they ate on top of her bed. And my favorite was the widow who rode Amtrak up and down the West Coast for a few days every month so she could lure men into her cabin and get things rolling. With two young boys at home, she vowed to never bring a man into her house, but when mommy was “away on business,” it was, er, business time.
I knew I’d hit rock bottom when one of the guys I’d been dating/not dating called to break up with me. “We should be making out by now,” he said. I started laughing maniacally (not understanding the joke was on me) and just then the glass of water I’d been holding slipped from my hands and sent shards of glass toward my daughter, who was then almost 2 years old. In picking up the pieces, I cut myself, and blood was everywhere. This is crazy, I thought. I’m a mess. I apologized to the man on the other line, stopped dating after that, and focused on getting my house in order instead.
What will leaning in look like for Sandberg now that she’s a widow? Will she remain in the No. 2 spot at Facebook? Will her definition of success and leadership evolve? This week, in a moving Facebook post, Sandberg wrote, “When the circumstances allow, I believe as much as ever in leaning in.” Most of what she had to say had nothing to do with success and leadership. Instead it was her heartfelt thoughts on what’s she’s learned in the 30 days since her husband’s death: gratitude, resilience and finding meaning in life.
In my first year of widowhood, I made many mistakes. And yet, it was precisely those experiences that allowed me to view failure, patience, abundance and loss in a new light. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care what anyone else thought. I was without shame. I’d already lost the most important thing in my life, so there was nothing left to lose.
After Gregg’s memorial service, a few of my friends came up to me and told me that they were going to quit their jobs: Life is too short, they said. I want to be there for my kids.
Not going back to work was not an option for me, and it still isn’t. I like working. I love my children. I’m remarried now — my daughter is 12 and her half-brother is 8. My priorities are clear: I’m leaning into my family first, career second.