What We Can Learn About Overcoming Loss From Sheryl Sandberg

Updated on December 10, 2018

Life After Devastation

Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg had become a very vocal advocate for women in the workforce with the release of her book Lean In, which soared to the top of bestseller lists upon its release in 2013 and sparked something of a revolution. There were Lean In circles popping up in every corner of the globe, and the book flew off the shelves - I myself have one and even though I'm a teacher who's never had to worry about negotiating a salary, I thought the book was amazing and had a lot to say about women finding their courage to be their authentic selves, both in and out of the office. The Lean In Foundation has been renamed the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation.

But on May 1, 2015 - actually, 30 days after that - Sandberg's role quickly and cataclysmically shifted, and women everywhere found themselves connecting with the Facebook COO in ways they couldn't have possibly imagined. May 1, 2015 was the day that Sandberg's beloved, Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, died suddenly while vacationing with his family. The couple shared two young children, and Sandberg suddenly found herself unable to breathe.

"Going through this ... it's the unimaginable. Those early days ... months, weeks, I felt like there was this void closing in on me. The grief. I couldn't breathe. And I didn't know what to do. I turned to my friend Adam and I said, 'How do I get my kids through this?' Because I was so worried their childhoods were going to be wiped away," Sandberg told CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper."

Goldberg passed away as a result of coronary arrhythmia, caused by the undiagnosed coronary artery disease he didn't know he had. Sandberg had to tell their kids that their father had died, and she said she will never forget their primal reactions to the news - ones that echoed her own devastation in her heart.

I'd always admired how Sandberg seemed to operate; she reminded me of everyone's sister or mom, depending on age, and just seemed so warm that I couldn't connect that she was also the COO of one of the biggest tech resources on the planet. I still don't know why I couldn't make that connection, and really, it doesn't matter.

It was when Sandberg first posted her breathtaking essay about the loss of her husband that I really learned about the grace with which this woman operated. She wrote the essay at the end of Sheloshim, the period of 30 days that occurs immediately following the loss of a loved one, and it was filled with warmth, and resolve, and good humor, and gratitude that blew me - and so many, many others - away. The line that perhaps stuck with me the most is when she's writing about a school even which, like for many others that followed, her husband should have attended but could not because of his sudden loss of life. Sandberg said that she and her friend came up with a plan, but it was one that she felt she didn't want.

She writes, "I cried to him, “But I want Dave. I want option A.” He put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”"

Philip Deutch was the friend of Sandberg's who talked about Option B, and it was probably one of the most poignant moments in the essay. With news that Sandberg was writing a book about her own experiences with grief, Option B, I knew that I would be picking the book and learning more about grief in addition to what my own experiences have taught me.

The immediate aftermath of any loss can be the most devastating period of anyone's life, and as Sandberg so rightfully points out, grieving is a highly individualized experience. My mother passed away six days after my oldest daughter was born, nearly 13 years ago now, and there have been times over the years - when milestones occur, when I have questions about things my kids are going through - that I wish mightily that I could simply pick up the phone and call and talk to her, but I can't. I had to find an Option B and embrace it, as so many others who have experienced loss have done as well.

What's your Option B?

Sandberg On 'Ellen' And 'Option B'

Can You Rebuild?

The simple answer is yes. Rebuilding after devastating loss, whether that's of a spouse, a family member, a child...it's all possible.

But as with any significant change, you, too, have changed significantly, and it takes time to adapt to the changes within yourself as well. Sandberg noted that following her husband's death, her self-confidence took a beating, and while work seemed the best place for her following her loss, she was starting to wonder, for a time, whether or not she'd ever be able to do her job again. As someone who's both gone through loss and been around people who've been dealing with their own losses, I'll admit I do and say things that I later wince at - things that at first glance seemed OK and yet may have been perceived as distance or somewhat removed as the person is dealing with their own loss.

Experiencing loss and grief can be one of the scariest experiences you could ever go through when you're in it; as an outsider trying to help, it can be one of the most paralyzing. While some may look at Sandberg's book Option B as irrelevant to them, it's important to look at it as a useful resource - one that can only prove to be more helpful as time marches on.

Sandberg And Goldberg


Sandberg's Commencement Speech 2016

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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