Sheryl Sandberg on Navigating Life After Loss
After the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, in 2015, Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg had to figure out what life would be like without him. The result is the new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (co-authored by University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant).
We spoke to Sandberg about her own journey through grief and trauma and how she's helped her children cope with loss.
SheKnows: At what point in the grieving process did you realize that you needed to write this book?
Sheryl Sandberg: After Dave died, I called my friend Adam, a psychologist who studies how people find meaning in our lives, and I asked him what, if anything, I could do to help myself and my kids get through this. We started talking about resilience, then reading about it, then talking to other people who had gotten through grief and other huge challenges. In time, those conversations and that research helped me heal. Eventually, we thought we should put it all in a book in case it would prove helpful to others. The other piece of the book grows out of the journal that I began just a few days after Dave died. It was something I felt compelled to do. If I didn’t write in my journal every couple of days, I felt like I was going to burst. Later I learned the research about how important journaling can be to recovering from trauma and grief. That was definitely true for me.
SK: How would your process have been different if you’d been able to read Option B soon after Dave’s death?
SS: There’s no easy path through grief and trauma. For me, working with Adam to understand how people build resilience was helpful. Learning from the experiences of people who’d been through similar losses was helpful. We put a lot of those insights into the book in the hopes that it would help others.
SK: You are forthcoming about many of the raw and devastating moments that followed and yet Option B is ultimately an uplifting read. How did you and Adam accomplish that?
SS: I’m glad you feel that way, because it’s exactly what we were hoping to achieve. One thing that I think makes this a fundamentally hopeful book is that it includes a lot of stories of extraordinary people. When you read about Tim Chambers, the painter who went legally blind but is still creating beautiful art, or Steven and Danny, who spent time in prison before attending UC Berkeley, becoming friends and forming a campus organization to support other formerly incarcerated students, it’s hard not to feel your heart lift a little.
SK: In one particular story you describe how, after returning to Facebook, part of your healing process was for you to challenge yourself to be honest about your own feelings and with co-workers. As a result, you began to encourage people to be more transparent about what they were dealing with in their personal lives and to explore ways to create an environment where people felt safe and supported. One employee was diagnosed with cancer and debated if she should take a global promotion. When she ultimately took it, she got up and told her 200-plus person team about her illness and challenges, largely due to your mentorship. What are three things business leaders can do to enforce a more empathetic culture at work?
SS: The woman you’re describing, Caryn Marooney, is one of the most inspirational people I work with, and that’s saying a lot. By sharing this huge challenge that she was going through, her team has actually become stronger. They’ve pulled together to help her, and they’ve started sharing more of their own personal and professional challenges. I have long believed that we need to bring our whole selves to work. We’re told to leave our private lives at home and just focus on work at work, but that’s not realistic. And as Caryn’s story proves, it can rob us of the opportunity to grow closer as a team. A manager encourages empathy at work by leading by example. That can mean sharing what they are going through, like Caryn did. It means creating an environment where employees feel secure coming to you and saying, "I want to let you know about this challenge I’m dealing with outside of work because it might affect me at work — I’m only human, after all." One of the main lessons I learned when I lost Dave is that trauma can lead to self-doubt in all areas of life, including the workplace. Encouragement is key. Now when someone at work is dealing with a tragedy, I start by offering them time off, just like I did before — but I also know how important it can be to treat them as a regular member of the team and praise them when they do good work. Many managers have the instinct to take things off an employee’s plate when they’re facing something difficult. That’s a good idea, but sometimes, it’s even better to offer them new opportunities if they feel up to it. It can be exactly what someone needs when another piece of their life is a source of worry or grief.
SK: How did the bereavement policy at Facebook change as a result of your experience? What advice do you have for other business leaders on how to change theirs?
SS: I was grateful that Facebook already had generous bereavement policies in place when Dave died, and I’m glad that we were able to further expand those policies. Now Facebook employees receive 20 days paid leave to grieve the loss of an immediate family member and 10 days for an extended family member. I’m proud that we’re able to do this and I hope more businesses do the same. Only 60 percent of private sector workers get paid time off after the death of a loved one, and then it’s usually just a few days. Workers and families deserve better than that. I’d urge businesses that have no paid leave policy or only a modest one to explore whether they can do better. There’s an economic case for this: grief affects job performance, so giving workers time off to grieve can lead to stronger outcomes at work. And when companies offer support and assistance for personal and family hardships, their employees become more loyal and more productive.