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Rachel Thomas, President of LeanIn.Org and OptionB.Org, Discusses Sheryl Sandberg, Helping Grieving Friends During the Holidays, and #OptionBThere

What an honor it is for me to feature this conversation with Rachel Thomas, President of LeanIn.Org and OptionB.Org. Rachel works side by side with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on these two groundbreaking, sweeping initiatives. Ever since I heard about OptionB (the online community) and Option B (the book, co-written by Sandberg with bestselling author and psychologist Adam Grant), I’ve been awestruck by Sandberg’s indefatigable commitment to empower and lift individuals up. In particular, I’m deeply moved by her readiness to harness personal loss (her husband died suddenly while they were on vacation in 2015) into a global movement helping those who are grieving and suffering other forms of life-altering adversity. I’m proud to have written this piece for the launch of OptionB, as well as this post on my blog.

OptionB.org has just launched a new initiative, #OptionBThere. The program is the first of its kind. The goal of #OptionBThere is to help individuals be there for friends and family facing setbacks of any kind this holiday season. Rachel says the program has helped her personally.

“I’ve often worried about offering support in the wrong way,” she admits. “Getting this campaign off the ground has been a real eye opener for me. Even if my words are clumsy, I realize now I don’t have to be perfect. I feel freer to offer support because I don’t worry about getting it wrong. I just have to acknowledge what would otherwise be the elephant in the room.”

I’m so thrilled Rachel joined me for this Q & A on my grief & resilience blog. Oh, and did I mention we went to Georgetown University together?!

Allison: Your work as president of LeanIn.Org and OptionB.Org just expanded with another meaningful and empowering initiative. Tell me about the new campaign, #OptionBThere.
Rachel: What we’ve learned is that creating substantive opportunities for people to give and receive social support after a loss or during an illness is crucial. It makes the recipient of that compassion feel stronger and less alone, and it brings those who offer comfort an incredible sense of joy and purpose.

Allison: Why launch this campaign now?
Rachel: Holidays can be tough. They can be a particularly difficult time for anyone facing adversity of any kind. The most important action we can take is simply showing up for our friends and family who are suffering — to engage, to truly be there, front and center. It’s often hard to know what to do or say, so too often we don’t do or say anything. That silence can be painful.

Allison: You published a revealing post on your LinkedIn page, confessing to having frequently let those closest to you down. You wrote: “When bad things happen to people, even to people I love dearly, I realize I often say and do too little. I’ve always assumed people don’t want to be pushed to talk about what they’re feeling, as if somehow not mentioning it will make it go away.“ How can we do better?
Rachel: People who are suffering don’t forget something terrible has happened to them. When we ignore their pain, we just end up unintentionally dismissing the people we love. In Option B, the book Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote together, Sheryl discusses the isolation she felt after losing her husband Dave. Even those who work with her every day didn’t know how to respond. That sense of isolation only added to her grief. It turns out saying something, actually almost anything, is better than saying nothing at all.

Allison: So, what tools does #OptionBThere offer?
Rachel: The holidays can be hard to navigate in traditional ways for people facing adversity.  One of the things #OptionBThere offers is suggestions for what to say when the usual holiday greetings don’t feel quite right. We’ve also teamed up with artist Emily McDowell who designed very special, digital holiday greeting cards. These cards can be shared across social media and through email. Each one acknowledges how loved ones might really be feeling this time of year, instead of ignoring those emotions or pushing them aside. #OptionBThere also offer atypical, meaningful gift ideas. These presents are especially thoughtful and represent additional opportunities to show friends you care. (For even more suggestions, check out “5 Meaningful Gifts for $100 or Less” on my grief & resilience blog.)

 

Allison: I love what you’ve said, that helping others helps the givers not just the receivers. I agree! Can you explain this a little more?
Rachel: In my work with OptionB.Org, I’ve learned a lot by spending time with Joe Primo, who runs Good Grief, an organization offering free support to families after the death of a parent or sibling. In his view, grief is good for us because it allows us to feel joy more intensely. This kind of sadness, he says, also helps us evolve and grow.

In Option B (the book), Sheryl and Adam also talk about post-traumatic growth, the idea that we can bounce forward after devastating setbacks and find more meaning and happiness in our lives. I will go even further: I think supporting people who are suffering can help us actually find meaning and joy. It can lead to deeper relationships and help us see the good in our lives in higher relief.

Allison: Do you have any plans to create OptionB in person communities similar to Lean In Circles?
Rachel: No, the Option B community will remain a digital support platform.

Allison: In my book, Passed and Present and in an author talk I gave at Google, I reveal the most critical factors for moving forward after loss: It’s being proactive about remembering and taking concrete steps to keep our loved one’s memory alive. What do you consider the most important action individuals can take to help friends and family who are grieving this holiday season?
Rachel: Do something. Say something. The people we love need to hear from us. They benefit from the same type of proactivity you describe. We can make an enormous difference to our friends and family just by showing up.

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