Tears flow at Big Read Meet

Ms Penny Chan talked about how she coped with losing her mum.
Ms Penny Chan talked about how she coped with losing her mum.PHOTO: INDRA GURUNG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Readers reach out to those who cry while discussing Sheryl Sandberg's memoir on her grief after her husband died

Retiree Alice Tan, who volunteers at a private centre supporting stroke sufferers here, was stunned when she met a teacher there who was recovering from the condition about a year ago.

Ms Tan, 66, told 85 readers at last Wednesday's Big Read Meet: "She was in her 30s, teaching English in a secondary school. But after her stroke, she could speak only Mandarin. She couldn't speak a word of English."

Fortunately, Ms Tan was glad to add, with her encouragement, the teacher exercised her way back to health diligently - and is now back at work, teaching English like she used to.

The Meet, which turns four next month, is a popular monthly non-fiction book club which The Straits Times runs with the National Library Board (NLB) and which this writer moderates.

Ms Tan shared her story during a discussion of the new book Option B by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of global IT giant Facebook. She is also among the world's five most powerful businesswomen.

Option B is what Sandberg calls her less-than-ideal circumstance after her beloved second husband David Goldberg died suddenly on May 1, 2015, at age 47, when his irregular heartbeat led him to fall off a treadmill and hit his head on the floor. That left Sandberg, now 47, a single mother with two very young children.

Readers were clearly divided about her oft-raw account of struggling to live on.

Trainer and Meet regular Shamimah Mujtaba, 61, found Sandberg's personable and easy-to-read memoir "very insightful" and "enlightening".

What especially resonated with her were Sandberg's thoughts on how awkward others felt about responding to what the author called the "elephant in the room", or the subject of one's grief.

Others, such as Ms Chong Li Li, 62, who has retired from her job in international sales and marketing, thought the book merely reflected and reinforced what she saw as self-regarding American culture.

Ms Chong, who had worked in the United States, said: "I found this book a case of 'This is about I, me, my grief; it's starting to get a bit obnoxious. Whenever I have to travel from Seattle to Taipei, I have to do a head switch. In Seattle, it's all about me, my right to expression, my point of view and so on. In Taiwan, I have to remember that it's all about consensus and 'don't say too much, let's keep things private'."

The one thing that everyone agreed on was the importance of reaching out and being available to those in grief, by lending a listening ear, sharing coping strategies or just saying something consoling.

They did just that when three readers burst into tears while recalling their grief. Among the readers were a woman who had just lost her husband of 40 years; one who had just been told she had breast cancer; and many who had lost their parents.

Meet newcomer Penny Chan, 56, a senior manager at a support centre for diabetics here, told fellow readers that, in February, just after Chinese New Year, her mother Hoe Chee Kin, 83, was felled by a stroke. "The doctor told us that she had a 90 per cent chance of recovering," Ms Chan recalled. "But within two weeks, she was gone."

That lack of closure, she said, was hardest to take. "I keep thinking that I will never get the chance to talk to her again. I was sometimes a basket case - I would just stand there and cry suddenly."

Ms Chan, who is Catholic, added that the thought she dreaded most was that her late mother was all alone in the afterlife, with no one to help her. But, she said to readers' applause, prayers strengthened her and long walks at night helped her sleep better.

Meet regular Dion Lim, 21, who works part-time conducting surveys, liked that Sandberg had roped in her friend, the respected American psychologist and Originals (2016) author Adam Grant, to lend scientific ballast to the book.

"It backs up her many good anecdotes with research, including by psychologist Martin Seligman. What I found most useful was his framework for working through grief, which is that the grief is not about you, that it will not be permanent and that the sense that grief is pervasive will pass."

The next Big Read Meet will be on Jeffrey E. Garten's book From Silk To Silicon, on Wednesday, June 28, from 6.30pm in the Multi-Purpose Room, Central Public Library, Basement 1, NLB headquarters at 100 Victoria Street. Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk or try your luck at the door.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2017, with the headline 'Tears flow at Big Read Meet'. Print Edition | Subscribe