The last words Sheryl Sandberg said to her husband Dave Goldberg were, “I’m falling asleep.”
The two were on holiday in Mexico in 2015. While Sandberg napped, Goldberg’s heart gave out in the fitness centre. She went away a happily married wife, and returned home to her two children a widow.
Now the 47-year-old Facebook COO who urged women to lean in at work is trying to help people move on after grief. Sandberg’s Lean In, launched a movement to change the culture of women in the workplace.
She hopes the new book she co-wrote with friend and psychologist Adam Grant, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (Knopf), can do the same to change how our culture treats grief.
Q: You’re doing a tonne of promotion right now for this book and presumably you’re being asked a lot of personal and possibly painful questions about Dave, your kids and yourself. How are you doing?
A: My husband — you didn’t know him — but he was a really unbelievable man. To this day, I meet people who don’t just say to me “I knew him,” but say “he changed my life and here’s why.” (Goldberg was CEO of SurveyMonkey, an online survey software company.) And this is the unimaginable, right? The pain feels like you’re never ever ever going to get through it, and in the early days I didn’t believe I was. … I miss him. I miss him all the time.
It would have been our 13th wedding anniversary on (April 17), but when I get to think about Option B and the ways in which we can come together and help each other — missing him happens anyway. People think that talking about this book is bringing it up for me, and it’s not. So for me this part is honouring his life, and it’s much more positive than the other part, which is just death and grief.
Q: You wrote an emotional post on Facebook about Dave a month after he died, which now has nearly 75,000 comments. What did it feel like to share that?
A: After Dave died it wasn’t just the overwhelming grief, which I wrote about, it was this real feeling of isolation. I used to drop my kids at school and everyone waves walking to work, and everyone chit-chats. And there was just a lot of silence. I felt like a big elephant was following me around. I felt like a ghost. People would look at me and they were so afraid to say anything wrong, that they wouldn’t say much at all.
And I understood that because I used to do the same thing. I used to think if I brought up something hard I was reminding the person. You can’t remind me Dave died. I know Dave died. And so the isolation was building … I wrote that post really for myself, kind of a “here’s what I would say if I was going to say something.”
Q: Why do you think we find it so hard to talk about death?
A: There is this deep irony to the fact that it’s the most basic human experience, right? There’s life and there’s death. Yet it’s so uncomfortable. I think one of the reasons is we’re afraid of bringing up something bad. I used to think that if someone was going through something hard, whether it was death or cancer, if I brought it up I was reminding them in that moment.
Q: When you look at your kids, and what they’ve been through, what are you most proud of?
A: I’m proud of them for having empathy for others. You know, from the beginning they cared about other people. My daughter went to bed the night she learned her father died saying, “I feel bad for Grandma Paula and Uncle Rob.” She was 7. Just unbelievable.
I’m proud of the perspective they have. My son’s basketball team — they lost the playoffs a little bit ago — and a lot of the other kids were pretty broken up. And so I looked at my son and said, “Are you OK?” He goes, “Mum, this is 6th grade basketball. I’m fine.” That’s perspective, and I wouldn’t wish it on him in a million years, but he has it.
Q: What are things we can do to help people who are grieving?
A: There’s no one way. My answer isn’t the answer for everyone … For me, one that is always a great thing is sharing stories of Dave. There is nothing that I’m happier to do than share stories about Dave. I treasure those memories. And I don’t know anyone who has lost someone who doesn’t love hearing a positive or any story about the life of the person, because we want them to be remembered. … (Give) permission to laugh and find joy. Rob, Dave’s only brother, called me and said, “All Dave wanted was for you and your children to be happy. Don’t take that away from him in death.”
Adam (Grant) said to me if I cannot let myself find some happiness, even in the very, very small ways, my kids were not going to recover. Because if I did not recover they were not going to recover. And I think we often think of happiness as the big stuff. Get a promotion. Get a new job. Get married. Have a baby. But happiness is the small stuff. It’s how we spend our days. –