TOPICS > Nation > NewsHour Bookshelf

After life-shattering loss, Sheryl Sandberg reaches out to others in grief

April 24, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
As one of the best known female executives in the world, Sheryl Sandberg had resources and support when her husband died at 47, but that didn't stop grief from engulfing her and their children. In her new book "Option B," Sandberg writes about grief and resilience in the face of adversity, and offers advice for others experiencing personal tragedy. Sandberg sits down with Judy Woodruff.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a conversation with Sheryl Sandberg about coping with grief and resilience in the face of adversity.

That’s the subject of a new book in which she writes candidly about a personal tragedy, the loss of her husband, Dave Goldberg.

I visited her at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Our interview took place nearly two years after Sandberg and her husband went on vacation in Mexico with friends. Sandberg woke up from a poolside nap, saw that Dave wasn’t there, and soon went looking for him.

She found him lying on the floor of the hotel gym next to the treadmill. As they later learned, he had suffered a cardiac arrhythmia. He was just 47 years old.

As the chief operating officer of Facebook, and one of the best known female executives in the business world, Sandberg had all the resources and support one could imagine. But none of that would lessen the grief that engulfed her and their two young children.

SHERYL SANDBERG, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook: In those early days and weeks, it feels like you’re not going to get through a minute, let alone a day.

My biggest fear was that my kids would never be happy again, that their happiness would have been wiped away in that same instant we lost Dave.

There are people who had been through loss and been through real adversity who told me it gets better. And I didn’t believe them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ten days later, when she returned to work, it was hard to focus on running a social media giant, with 17,000 employees and more than a billion daily users.

Suddenly, one of the most successful women in business was struggling to hold it together at the office.

SHERYL SANDBERG: When Dave first died, I felt like I was in a void, like I couldn’t breathe, or catch my breath.

I thought at first — I just thought, I’m never going to get through this. I can’t contribute. I can’t even get through a meeting without crying.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A month after his death, she posted a tribute to Dave on Facebook. She wrote about mistakes she had made in the past when friends lost loved ones.

She included advice from a close friend about how to handle a father-son event. Option A, Dave, wasn’t available. Instead, the friend said it was time to grab onto option B. But he used stronger language than that. It became Sandberg’s mantra, and it’s the name of her new book.

SHERYL SANDBERG: There are things you can do, steps you can take to help yourself and your kids recover.

And I learned that resilience, it’s not something we have one set amount of. It’s a muscle, and we build it. And if this helps anyone, even just a little bit, themselves or a friend, then I think I will have found some meaning in this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is the book also about helping you get through it?

SHERYL SANDBERG: The book is trying to help other people hear what I couldn’t hear at the beginning.

It does get better. I will always miss Dave. I miss Dave every day. But that feeling of not being able to breathe has passed. I can breathe now. And, sometimes, I think of him and cry, but, sometimes, I think of him and smile. And my children can think of their father and smile. And I want other people going through this to know it’s possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: “Option B” is not just about Sandberg’s personal journey and loss. It offers ideas and advice for people who’ve experienced their own trauma.

Co-written with psychologist and bestselling author Adam Grant, the book puts a big emphasis on what Sandberg calls the elephant in the room.

SHERYL SANDBERG: It’s not just the loss, or the cancer, or losing a job, or someone in your family going to jail. It’s the silence that surrounds that.

And so, when I lost Dave, I had this overwhelming grief, but also just this isolation I had never felt in my life. I had always felt really connected to my friends, neighbors and family, people I work with.

But when I came back to work, people barely spoke to me. They looked at me like I was a deer in the headlights. And I know they meant well. They were afraid to say the wrong thing, so they said nothing at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s just one of the ways that people should be able to take away from your experience about how to reach out to someone who’s going through something like this, something traumatic like this, and for those who are going through it themselves, who aren’t accustomed maybe to reaching out, or who aren’t comfortable, for whatever reason?

SHERYL SANDBERG: If you’re trying to help someone who’s facing adversity, the first and most important thing is to acknowledge the pain.

Before, if I had a colleague or a friend who had lost someone, who was going through cancer treatment, I thought bringing it up to them was reminding them. So, I was silent.

Losing Dave taught me how absurd that was. You can’t remind me I lost my husband. I know that every minute of every day. And so, when people said nothing, particularly in the beginning, how are you felt like, how are — how am I? I just lost my husband.

And they were asking. I took that as the standard American I’m supposed to — greeting. I’m supposed to say fine and move on. But they meant it. And when I learned to say, I’m not great, or I’m really sad today, or thanks for asking, I don’t want to talk about it right now, I was letting them acknowledge.

And so it’s really on both sides to acknowledge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sandberg also writes about how important it is not to blame yourself.

SHERYL SANDBERG: When Dave first died, I thought it was my fault.

The initial report said he’d died of head trauma from falling off an exercise machine. My brother’s a neurosurgeon, and he told me that wasn’t true.

When we got the autopsy, we realized he had died of a cardiac arrhythmia. But I still blamed myself, and I blamed myself for a long time. But when Adam told me that, because I was blaming myself, I was going to keep my kids from recovering, because I was going to keep myself from recovering, that really helped.

We have to show ourselves compassion, the same compassion we would show a friend.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sandberg said that, ultimately, family, friends and co-workers, including her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, made a huge difference.

Not everybody may go back to a supportive environment, making it even harder for them. So, what do you say to people who are thinking, how am I going to face co-workers, what if my employer doesn’t give me the time or the space or the understanding that I need?

SHERYL SANDBERG: Yes, we have so much to do to make it easier for people at work.

I’m really lucky. Facebook has great policies. We offer a lot of bereavement leave, a lot of leave of all kinds. And we have done even more since Dave died for people. But we need our workplaces and then our public policy to give people the paid, paid time off they need, because, for a lot of people, if the time is unpaid, they can’t take it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sandberg has become increasingly outspoken about the workplace, family life and women’s equality.

Her 2012 book, “Lean In,” served as a call to many women to become more assertive. But, to some, Sandberg’s tone smacked of wealthy white privilege. She was criticized in some quarters for failing to appreciate what single parents and non-traditional families go through.

Now she’s expanded the message to stress the role of government and society in the lives of women.

SHERYL SANDBERG: We are the only developed country in the world, the only one, without paid maternity leave. And we need that, and paid paternity leave, so men and women are equal.

We’re one of the only developed countries without paid family leave. I think a lot about going through everything I went through, and also worrying about paying a basic health care bill, about single mothers who wake up every day in this country and worry about whether they can take care of a sick child, or lose their job that they need, about the minimum wage we have.

Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. Minimum wage hasn’t been raised at the federal level in forever. That’s unacceptable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Unexpectedly, joy is also an essential message in the book. It’s something Sandberg feared she would never feel again.

SHERYL SANDBERG: I thought it would always feel that way. And the sadness is still here, but it doesn’t feel like I’m trapped in a void anymore.

And I have joy, and I have laughter, and I have moments with my kids where we remember their daddy with real joy, and we look at pictures and videos. And I want anyone going through hardship to know that it does get better.

We all have things we can appreciate. We all have moments that we can notice the joy. We all can find gratitude for being alive. And that doesn’t mean that every story has a happy ending, because it doesn’t. But there are things we can do to build resilience in ourselves and each other that make us stronger.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sheryl Sandberg has not only written this book, “Option B,” about her experience. She’s encouraging people going through tragedy to form support groups to be there for each other.

SHARE VIA TEXT