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Turning their mess into a message: Robin Roberts, Sheryl Sandberg on trauma and loss

ABC News
ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Success and fame do not make you invincible.

Trauma and loss don’t care how perfect your life looks from the outside, and reclaiming your life is a challenge for everyone. But a journey of deep introspection and healing can get you there.

That’s the message in this week’s episode of “Life After Suicide,” as Dr. Jennifer Ashton sat down with two of the most successful and powerful women in America, ABC News’ Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, both of whom have found the grit to get through unimaginable pain. They shared the knowledge and resilience born out of two forms of loss, while warning that there is no magic bullet.

“Everybody’s got something” according to Roberts. “There’s no handbook that’s given to us to tell us how to get through a suicide, how to get through a bone marrow transplant, how to get through divorce, how to get through unemployment … You just try and figure out what’s best for you.”

Sandberg famously urged women to “lean in.” After the sudden loss of her husband, Dave Sandberg, while on vacation at the age of 47, Sandberg learned that she had to lean on others for support and to acknowledge that grief is a necessary step in healing.

Visiting Sandberg’s office in Menlo Park, California, Dr. Ashton and Sandberg talked about their shared experience of suddenly losing their spouses and the fathers of their children.

As public figures, both initially felt hesitant about sharing their story with the public. Dr. Ashton, who reaches millions each week as the chief medical correspondent for ABC News, was rocked when her ex-husband died by suicide. She says that her kids gave her the courage to use her public platform to discuss her family’s story. Connecting with other suicide survivors helped reframe her deep grief as an expression of love, rather than of suffering, and to recognize that it’s normal for the devastation not to reach all aspects of life. Joy, she said, can happen at the same time as grief.

Sandberg, who co-authored a book, Option B, about facing adversity and building resilience, agreed that “after these tragedies you have to give yourself moments of joy.”

For Roberts, who also sat down with Dr. Ashton on this week’s episode, turning her “mess” into her “message” has been her focus in recent years. Roberts was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, and then, after her recovery, was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome in 2012. Both were potentially fatal. Fortunate to find a perfect bone marrow transplant match in her older sister, Roberts shared the ways in which she rechanneled her anger into action.

“I didn’t want just to survive,” Roberts said, “I wanted to thrive.”

For Roberts, that meant recognizing the therapeutic qualities of sharing her vulnerabilities, and embracing the support and prayers of others. Roberts and Dr. Ashton both recalled how small acts of kindness from friends, family, and colleagues allowed them to reclaim a sense of normalcy and feel comfortable discussing their loss.

“When people go through a trauma, we all instantly have a connection,” Roberts said.

Being part of millions of Americans’ morning routine on Good Morning America, Roberts explained that “I want to always feel I’m a reflection for people.” By sharing our “valleys as well as our peaks,” Roberts hopes she inspires viewers to recognize their own resilience.

Now strong and healthy, Roberts says, “I don’t feel there’s anything I cannot weather. … I have this inner strength I didn’t know existed. … It’s just freeing to feel that way.”

The newest episode of “Life After Suicide” is available for free here.

You are not alone. If you want to talk to someone, trained counselors are available for free, 24 hours a day, at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255.

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