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Exclusive: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg opens up about her husband’s death

“I cried to a friend after the death of my husband,” confesses Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “He simply told me: ‘That option is no longer available, so just kick the shit out of option B’”

brunch Updated: Jul 31, 2017 09:11 IST
Priya Bala
Priya Bala
Hindustan Times
Facebook,Mark Zuckerberg,Sheryl Sandberg
Sandberg’s journey from feeling she was in an abyss with no bottom to be able to love again is what has gone into Option B, which she has co-written with Grant(Charles Ommanney)

Sheryl Sandberg remembers clearly that night at the end of Sheloshim, the 30-day mourning period for loved ones in the Jewish tradition. She had just written the post that would go on to

Speaking to us from Facebook’s global headquarters in Menlo Park, Sandberg, the company’s COO, said she had composed that post to say what she would if she were being super honest about her feelings at the time.

“I had returned to work after Dave’s death and found myself completely isolated,” she recalls. “There was, for instance, none of the chit-chat I was used to in office.” After she completed the post, Sandberg says, she looked at it and said, ‘That’s too open, too raw, there’s no way I’m sharing this.’ The next morning she reread it and realised that what she was going through was simply too horrible. “And I hit post,” she says.

Sharing for caring

The post went viral and stories of loss and grief began to pour in from everywhere. The people in her circle she’d felt isolated from also began to reach out to her. “Perhaps it didn’t ease the grief, but it certainly tackled the isolation,” Sheryl remembers. Her act of sharing, which must have taken a lot of courage, had made a palpable impact.

In her post, she wrote: “I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. 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’.” That’s one place where Sandberg’s new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, emerged from.

Sandberg’s new book Option B has contributions from across the globe

The other inspiration came from a letter she received two weeks after Goldberg died. It was from a widow, and said, ‘Try as I might, I can’t come up with a single thing that I know will help you.’ Devastated that there was to be no light at the end of the tunnel she was trapped in, she called Adam Grant, psychologist and Wharton professor, who was also a family friend. He flew down to tell Sandberg that while grief was unavoidable,

there were things she could do to lessen the anguish for herself and her two children. He backed his assurances with data. Sandberg’s journey from feeling she was in an abyss with no bottom to be able to love again is what has gone into Option B, which she has co-written with Grant.

Let it out

Snapshots of Sandberg’s life with her late husband Dave Goldberg, who died in 2015 when they were on vacation in Punta Mita, Mexico. This incident initiated her to write the book Plan B, which contains stories from all over the world — including India — of women who’ve built resilience in the face of tragedy.

In the months that followed her husband’s death, Sandberg began to keep a journal. “I had never journalled before,” she says, “And I found it helped me immensely to cope with everything I was going through at the time.” Option B combines the personal insights Sandberg gathered during this time with Grant’s eye-opening research. Into the book are woven stories of people who’ve built resilience in the face of tragedy, many of who reached out to Sandberg in the wake of her own loss. The messages came from all over the world, including India. “Yes, there were notes I received from India, some of them too personal to share here,” Sandberg says.

She has, as she pointed out, spent a lot of time in India. Straight out of Harvard, she worked for the World Bank’s India health team on leprosy education. She writes in Option B, “I visited treatment centres and hospitals all over India and met hundreds of patients, many of whom had been kicked out of their villages and were living in abject poverty and isolation…I got through each day trying to be professional and then cried myself to sleep each night. It put all of my problems into perspective.”

Her most recent visit to has been in her capacity as Facebook COO. What has changed in in the intervening years? “There is a lot of work to be done in the realm of gender equality and there are very real challenges for women in ,” she says, adding that it is no different elsewhere in the world. It is with the mission to empower women to achieve their ambitions that, which grew out of Sandberg’s first book, 2013’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, was established by the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation. There are now over 33,000 Lean In Circles − small groups who meet regularly to learn and grow together − across the globe, including in , set up to achieve this end.

Company of friends

In Option B, Sandberg describes how trauma can lead to a loss of confidence and self-belief ( Getty Images )

Sandberg says with candour that had she known what she knows now after her loss, she would have written a different book. “I was telling women to bring their whole selves to work. After Dave’s death I took myself to work, but it wasn’t my whole self,” she says. In Option B, Sandberg describes how trauma can lead to a loss of confidence and self-belief. She speaks also of the support and understanding she received from her boss, Mark Zuckerberg.

“Mark’s compassion started me down the path of learning to have compassion for myself. I felt deep gratitude for having such a supportive boss, and I know not everyone does,” she writes.

Sandberg says that as a leader, her experience of dealing with grief and learning to build resilience has led to a whole different level of understanding. Known for her commitment to empowering people to achieve their best, she says she realised after her own loss what companies can do for their people when they face crisis.

“We need to understand how devastating it can be for someone who loses a spouse and is left with children or, worse, with nothing. I learned also that we can’t ignore what’s going on in people’s lives,” she says. She doesn’t advocate overdoing it, but believes we ignore too much. “People didn’t want to talk about my loss because they thought it reminded me of Dave’s death,” she says. “But when we don’t say anything we add to the pain and the isolation.”

“People didn’t want to talk to me about my loss because they thought it reminded me of Dave’s death. But when we don’t say anything, we add to the pain and isolation.”

In Option B, Sandberg emphasises repeatedly the role family and friends have in helping people deal with devastating losses. But in a world, where both joy and sorrow are frequently communicated via texts, ‘comments’ and ‘likes’, could social media be causing that very social fabric to fray? Sandberg doesn’t think so.

“Your close ties are with the people you are constantly in touch with,” she says, “And nothing alters that. How social media helps is by keeping you connected with your wider circle and to strengthen ties within that. For me, it has been a wonderful way to preserve memories. Soon after Dave died people whose lives he had touched were walking up to me and telling me stories about him. At that time I was in no condition to take in, leave alone remember those stories. I asked then that those memories be posted on Dave’s Facebook page. That’s where they are now and I get to go back and read those stories about Dave. I find comfort in that.” Comfort and strength is what she’s hoping the readers of Option B will find on its pages.

Priya Bala is a senior writer based in Bengaluru who specialises in food, travel and lifestyle writing and has edited several major mainstream publications in the past.

Follow@HTBrunch on TwitterFrom HT Brunch, July 30, 2017

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First Published: Jul 29, 2017 22:46 IST