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Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg talks grief, resilience

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Journalist Michele Norris (right) interviews Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg about her new book, Option B, at Charleston Music Hall. (Photo/Liz Segrist)

“I wrote ‘I’m going to bury my husband today, and I have no idea why I want to write all this down,’” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said of her first journal entry following the death of her husband, Dave Goldberg.

Goldberg, the former CEO of SurveyMonkey, died from a coronary arrhythmia in 2015 while running on the treadmill during a vacation. Sandberg said his death sent her into a deep, sustained grief.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and psychologist Adam Grant co-wrote Option B. (Photo/Provided)

How to help

Sandberg also gave advice for helping someone dealing with grief.

“You want to totally silence a room? Say you have cancer. Someone in your family just went to jail. You just lost your job,” Sandberg said. “That means that when we need each other the most, we are silent. Acknowledge the elephant. Acknowledge the pain. Not everyone wants to talk all the time, but you can always say, ‘I know you’re suffering, and I am here.’”

She said that rather than simply offering to help, it is important to just show up and offer help or comfort — such as bringing food to someone’s home or visiting the hospital, without expectations of someone’s time.

“You don’t have to be someone’s best friends to show up. Just show up,” Sandberg said.

“He was my rock. He was the one that always told me everything would be OK. ... I woke up one day — on what should have been a normal day — and my life changed in an instant, and it is the unimaginable,” Sandberg said Wednesday night in Charleston.

Sandberg, who serves as second in command at Facebook, advocates for women excelling in the workplace while balancing family and other life responsibilities and goals.

She said her writing helped her begin the recovery process and led her to seek a better understanding of how to live with grief.

Her journaling; interviews about loss with people nationwide; and research performed with psychologist and friend Adam Grant, led Sandberg to co-write Option B with Grant. The book details ways people can work through loss and setbacks through perseverance and resilience. She has also launched an online community for people dealing with grief.

“I sit here knowing that I’m not the only one in this beautiful music hall to face trauma and face tragedy, because it is part of life. ... Grief is a very demanding companion,” Sandberg said to a packed house at Charleston Music Hall.

Sandberg said many people dealing with grief fall into three traps — personalization, pervasiveness and permanence — that make it more difficult to feel joy again.

Many often personalize the trauma, finding fault with themselves. She said she felt like it was her fault that her husband had died. She apologized to everyone in the aftermath who had to help her or her children.

“I blamed myself. Women do that a lot. ... We blame ourselves for things that are our fault and for things that aren’t. I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold ourselves and others responsible for what we do because there are consequences for our actions; but at some point, we’re human and we have to forgive,” she said.

She said grief also feels pervasive, as if everything in one’s life is falling apart; and it feels permanent, as though nothing will ever feel happy again.

Sandberg said focusing on the good things still happening in one’s life, and knowing that the pain will lessen over time, slowly diminishes the grief.

Now, as a practice to increase the gratitude and joy in her life, Sandberg said she writes down three things each night for which she is grateful.

“It doesn’t go away, not all stories have a happy ending; but the horror of the grief that comes in those early, early days does lift with time. ... We think happiness is the big things. ... but happiness is really about how we live our lives. It’s the small stuff. If you notice the small things, they add up to joy.”

Sandberg is also the author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which tackles complexities surrounding a comparative lack of women leading boards, companies and governments and offers some solutions to even out gender disparities in the workplace. She gave a TED Talk in 2010 on women in leadership that has garnered nearly 7 million views.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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