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April 27, 2017

How Sheryl Sandberg overcame adversity and found joy after her husband's death

Daily Briefing

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and author of "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead." Now, following the unexpected death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, she has written a new book on facing adversity.

A sudden loss

Two years ago, Sandberg's husband died suddenly from heart failure while the couple was on vacation. "Flying home to tell my 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son that their father had died was the worst experience of my life," Sandberg writes.

Facing her own grief, and fearing for her children's ability to cope and thrive after the tragedy, Sandberg said she turned to friends and professionals for help—including Adam Grant, a psychologist and professor who studies how people find motivation and meaning. With Grant, Sandberg wrote "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy."

Confronting silence with compassion

In a recent interview with NPR, Sandberg said after her husband's death, many of her day-to-day interactions with her friends and acquaintances "just stopped." Instead of greeting her at school when she was dropping off her children, or chit-chatting at work, she said people would just look at her as if she were a "ghost." As Sandberg put it, "They were so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they hardly said anything at all."

And it's not just death that spurs such a response, she added: "It's really all forms of adversity," such as cancer diagnoses, unemployment, or sexual assault. It's these uncomfortable things—and the uncomfortable silences they provoke—that spurred Sandberg to work with Grant on her book and its accompanying website, "The problem with that [silence] is that we then don't help each other when we most need that help, and I think that's when we can most come together," she said.

'Just show up'

Sandberg said that previously, when she wanted to help someone who was going through a difficult time, she would ask, "Is there anything I can do?" She explained, "And I meant it, I meant it kindly," but the problem with that approach is that it "kind of shifts the burden to the person you're offering the help to figure out what they need." And after her husband's death, when Sandberg was on the receiving end of such offers, she realized she "didn't know how to answer it."

Instead, she suggests that "rather than offer[ing] to do something, it's often better to do anything. Just do something specific." For instance, she shares the story of a friend who lost a child, and how he garnered comfort from friends who would call him and ask, "What do you not want on a burger?" instead of something more open-ended, such as, "Do you want dinner?"

"There's no one way to grieve, and not everyone will want the same thing," Sandberg said. "So the best approach is really ask people. Say, 'I know you're going through something terrible. I'm coming over with dinner tonight. Is that OK?'"

Building resilience

Recovering from a tragedy also involves fostering resiliency, Sandberg said, and crucial to that process is practicing gratitude. "It's completely counterintuitive," she acknowledged. "I lost my husband and I would have thought that what you want to do in that situation is try to come up with any positive thought you can."

But she explained that her co-author, Grant, one day challenged her to think about "'how things could be worse'"—such as imagining that her husband suffered a cardiac arrhythmia while driving her children. It was a startling thought, Sandberg said, adding that it had "never occurred to [her] that [she] could have lost all three. And the second you say that, you're [saying], 'I'm good. My kids are alive'" (Sandberg, New York Times, 4/24; Shapiro, NPR, 4/25).  

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