Why Sheryl Sandberg Decided To Speak Openly About Losing Her Husband

25 Apr 2017
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Nearly two years ago, Sheryl Sandberg poured 1,743 words of raw emotion into a Facebook post that essentially made everyone on the internet cry.

Her husband, Dave Goldberg, had died suddenly at the age of 47, not even 30 days earlier. The calendar marked the end of the traditional Jewish mourning period for spouses, but she hardly felt done with grief. Sandberg wasn’t even sure she would hit publish, the Facebook executive told HuffPost last week. She wrote feverishly, put it aside and went to bed.

The post was her desperate attempt to connect with friends and coworkers from whom she felt increasingly isolated in her mourning. “I woke up and thought, this is so bad. And I hit post,” she said.

The writing is pure heartbreak. Sandberg writes over and over about her sadness. About mothering her children while they screamed and cried in pain. “I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser,” she writes. “When tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.”

Though she didn’t realize it at the time, Sandberg’s essay marked a clear tipping point in her journey back from the hell of a shocking loss. By opening up about her feelings, Sandberg was inviting others to support her ― including colleagues and friends who’d been unsure of what to say. The post offered guidance.

And that guidance formed the basis for Sandberg’s next project. Her latest book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, out Monday, tackles a universal yet enduringly under-discussed subject: grief.

While her Silicon Valley peers have worked for years on technologies that would extend life, Sandberg’s project offers up a path to happiness based not on fantasies of immortality but on the reality of the sorrow of life itself.

At the time she first posted about Goldberg’s death, Sandberg had already returned to work at Facebook, where she’d been chief operating officer for nearly a decade. She was feeling increasingly lonely.

A notoriously outgoing and collaborative manager, she was surrounded by familiar colleagues and friendly faces. Yet, with the exception of her boss, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, no one at the office seemed to know what to say to her. 

“When I came back to work there was a real feeling of isolation,” she said. “It felt like no one was talking to me…. The chitchat ground to a halt. People looked at me like I was a ghost.”

Just a few years ago, Sandberg wrote Lean In, exhorting women to be ambitious, to ask for what they want, to be their full selves at work.  

“Losing Dave brought that home for me,” she said. “My whole self was so sad.”

She found herself increasingly holed up in a conference room with Zuckerberg, hiding from the awkwardness of the office. “Mark was the person I turned to,” Sandberg said. 

Sandberg, who first met Zuckerberg when he was a 23-year-old CEO struggling with his role, has long been credited with guiding him to maturity. But this time he was helping her.

“Mark is one of the first people I called when I lost Dave,” she said. “Mark planned the funeral.” He and his wife, Priscilla, were frequent visitors to Sandberg’s house in Menlo Park during the days and weeks after Goldberg’s death. They played with Sandberg’s kids. Zuckerberg helped her son with his math homework, she said.

At work, Zuckerberg was supportive in a very traditional way, telling Sandberg to take as much time as she needed. But, crucially, he also encouraged her actual work. In one of her first meetings after she returned, Sandberg was a bit out of it, she writes. She even misidentified a colleague, and instead of criticizing her or saying something about how he understands she’s still adjusting, Zuckerberg insisted she would’ve made the mistake before Goldberg died. And, even better, also told her she made a great point in the meeting. In short, he made her feel valued.

Sometimes people just need someone to tell them they’re doing OK, and that is key to helping a colleague in grief, Sandberg said. She wanted to feel like she was still a productive worker. “I had no idea how he knew ― I am older and I didn’t know how to do these things. I don’t think this is me teaching him, it’s him teaching me,” she said.

Typically, no one knows what to say to someone who is suffering a loss or an illness or a trauma, Sandberg said. “You want to silence a room? Get cancer. Have a friend or a family member who goes to prison. Lose a job,” she said. “We isolate ourselves.” 

In her post, Sandberg offered guidance on what to say.

“When people say to me, ‘You and your children will find happiness again,’ my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, ‘You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good’ comfort me more because they know and speak the truth,’” she wrote in her post.

“Even a simple ‘How are you?’—almost always asked with the best of intentions— is better replaced with ‘How are you today?’ When I am asked ‘How are you?’ I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear ‘How are you today?’ I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”

Sandberg was opening up about death in a real way. For many who’ve struggled with grief, to read an honest piece from the accomplished executive, about a subject so taboo and painful, was a revelation. The post today has more than 400,000 shares, close to 1 million likes and tens of thousands of comments.

The effect for Sandberg was immediate, she said. “Everyone started saying, ‘How are you today?’” Sandberg said. People started telling her about their own experiences with loss.

“I felt connected to a larger experience of life. There’s so much hardship out there,” she said. “The grief didn’t change, but the isolation did. I felt so much less alone.”

When I hear ‘How are you today?’ I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.
Sheryl Sandberg

Like Lean In, the new book is part memoir. She writes of the agony of telling her two young children, just 7 and 10 years old, that their father was dead. “I have terrible news. Terrible,” she told them. “Daddy died.”

“The screaming and crying that followed haunt me to this day,” she writes.

The book is also a practical guide for handling grief and adversity. With her coauthor, and friend, psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant, Sandberg lays out anecdotes ― she’s spoken with rape survivors, people who’ve gone to prison, refugees ―  and research on perseverance and resilience.

Acutely aware that she’s a billionaire privileged beyond all imagining, Sandberg is extremely careful to write about the suffering of others. In conversation, she acknowledges her privilege repeatedly. When asked about her struggles to parent as a single mother, she demurred. “So many people have immense hardship.” 

In Sandbergian fashion she has also launched a website, OptionB.org, where people can turn for support and guidance in the face of loss.

Surely, an unintentional side benefit to Sandberg’s latest project is that she’s essentially made the case for Facebook ― it offers human connection ― at a time when the social network is under criticism for increasing political polarization.

The new book and website is an attempt to open up conversations about difficult subjects on a mass scale, furthering Facebook’s ostensible mission.

Sandberg found her husband, already dead, on the floor in a hotel gym in Mexico where the two were celebrating a friend’s birthday. Sandberg had unwittingly spoken her last words to him, “I’m falling asleep,” while laying poolside earlier that day, ending a game of Settlers of Catan they were playing on their iPads. That afternoon she had told her son she’d have to talk to his dad before they could make a decision about buying new sneakers.

An autopsy would later confirm that Goldberg, who was CEO of Survey Monkey and a well-known Silicon Valley figure, had a fatal cardiac arrhythmia, caused by coronary artery disease, while running on the treadmill.

They were married for 11 years; friends for longer than that.  

Now she’s dating again. “I never wanted to,” she said. “I wanted to spend my life with Dave. That’s a choice I don’t get to make.”

Sandberg, who is 47-years-old, used to joke about getting older. No more. “There’s only two choices we grow older or we don’t,” she said. “I took it for granted I would grow old and Dave would grow old. It never occurred to me we wouldn’t,” she said.

Finding growth and ultimately joy is the project of Option B. Sandberg makes a point of emphasizing this aspect. The title echoes something a friend told her after Goldberg’s passing. 

When Sandberg was sad she couldn’t bring Goldberg to a school event and had to find someone else to fill in. “But I want Dave,” she said to her friend, as she recounted in her post and again in the book. “He put his arm around me and said, ‘Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.’ “

A chronic over-achiever, Sandberg has definitely lived up to that plan. After Goldberg’s death, she was just struggling to make it through the day she said. But with this book it’s clear that the Harvard MBA, former Google executive is just as ambitious as ever.

Still, things have changed. Sandberg said she travels much less than she used to. Long gone are the days of hosting women’s dinners at her house, she said. “Dave covered when I would have a women’s dinner,” she said. “I don’t do those things anymore.” But she quickly added: “So many people have so much hardship. That’s not what I mourn for. Of course, I had to make big changes.”

And when asked her about her career goals, she pivoted, saying it’s important to live your dreams and find things you want to do. “Even small silly things,” she said. “I’m a really bad piano player and I sing worse, but in those moments I can’t think about anything else. I won’t pretend the grief doesn’t still hit.”

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© 2017