Sheryl Sandberg Plans To Change The Conversation Around Grief — & Also The World

In May 2015, David Goldberg, Sheryl Sandberg’s late husband, died from cardiac arrhythmia during their Mexico vacation. Nearly a month later, the Facebook COO and author of New York Times bestseller Lean In wrote a candid and devastating Facebook post — an essay really — about how grief had affected her life and the lives of her children, and how she planned to move forward. "I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser," she wrote.

A few months before Sandberg's loss, I lost my grandmother, my second parent, to cancer. It was my first experience with grief of that magnitude. Since then, I have become a voracious reader of essays, novels, poems, and even screenplays wrestling with what life looks like after the death of a loved one. When I heard Sandberg would be writing a book on her experience, I knew it would be something I wanted to read. As soon as it became available to me, I did.

Two years post-tragedy, Sandberg is launching two projects inspired by the grief she experienced after Goldberg’s death: A book, Option B, co-authored with friend and Wharton professor, Adam Grant; and the new Option B Foundation. The book is part memoir, and part manual. It's a look into the life of one of the most powerful women in the world, at her most vulnerable. It is also a gentle guide for anyone still in the process of grief. I spoke to Sandberg about both projects, her hopes for the future, and how reality is permanently altered by death.

Ashley C. Ford: "When you say the Option B Foundation’s goal is to change the conversation around adversity, I was wondering: does that mean dealing with all manners of grief and not just grief tied to death?"

Sheryl Sandberg: "Absolutely, and if you go onto OptionB.org you'll see there are different groups. We're trying to help people come together and kick the elephant out of the room around all forms of loss. Losing a grandparent or a child or a spouse, but also hate, violence, sexual assault, discrimination, illness. Health challenges. Raising resilient children. Every situation is different; no two people go through the same things the same way or in the same time. But you want to silence a room? Lose a husband, lose a child, get cancer, have your father go to prison."

AF: "That's very interesting that you mentioned having a dad in prison. My father just got out of prison this past November after 30 years. It's been a very, very interesting terrain to walk because what I've found is that there aren't many resources to help someone like me or my brother or my mom or anybody else in my father's family. This person has essentially missed the past 30 years, and there's nothing there to help someone like me figure out what to do with him, what to do with my feelings surrounding him being in my life again. I think it would be really interesting for you guys to do some work around that, especially right now when issues of incarceration are so heavily featured in the public discourse."

SS: "The massive over-incarceration of our population is something I care deeply about. People come out of prison and then they can't get jobs, and they wind up committing crimes again, partially because they don't have other options. Last Father's Day my children and I went to Project Avary, which is a camp for children of parents who are incarcerated. What my kids and I talked about was, going to jail is another way of losing a parent and it places very unique and real challenges [on kids]. They don't want to talk about it. They don't know what to do."

I used to make jokes all the time about, 'Oh my god, I'm getting old.' Never again will I make that joke because I know there are only two options: We grow old or we die.

AF: "Do you think the primary reason many people don't seek out help for grief is a lack of interest, a lack of resources, or a lack of information?"

SS: "All of the above. People don't talk because they don't know what to say and they don't want to upset people. It's not possible to remind me I lost Dave. To this day if you say, 'I'm sorry for your loss,' I do not think, 'Oh, I forgot. You reminded me.' That's ridiculous. I know I lost Dave, and so we don't talk because we're afraid we're going to remind people of things that are hard. We don't know what to do, and so what OptionB.org is trying to do is bring people together to share experiences and feel less alone, and really learn from each other."

AF: "When my grandmother died, it warped my perception of reality. I worried about being cold in the ground, even though I knew that couldn’t be possible. Do you think that we ever make it all the way back to reality after something like that, or do you think it follows us a little bit and maybe it permanently alters our perception of reality?"

SS: "I do not believe I am the same person I was. I do not believe my children are the same people they were before they lost their father. I don't believe you are the same person you were before your father went to prison, nor before your father came out of prison. Those are two very unique situations. It changes who we are, and then the question is how. I'm only part way through this. This is going to be with me for the rest of my life, and I'm a different person than I was two years ago. I am sadder. There is no doubt. On a daily basis I can cry easily. I have this reservoir of sadness. I'm also more grateful.

"There's such irony to that. How do you lose your husband and become more grateful? But it never occurred to me Dave wouldn't grow old, and then it never occurred to me I wouldn't grow old. I used to make jokes all the time about, 'Oh my god, I'm getting old.' Never again will I make that joke because I know there are only two options: We grow old or we die. My cousin Laura turned 50 on Valentine's Day. I called her and I said, 'In case you're having that moment of, 'Oh my god, I'm 50,' I want you to know how lucky you are to turn 50 because Dave won't turn 50 this year.'

"I am different. We all are different. I am more grateful and sadder. I find more meaning in my life."

AF: "Has it changed your priorities at all?"

SS: "I really handle the small stuff way better. So do my kids. My son's basketball team lost the playoffs a couple weeks ago and a lot of the other little boys were really upset, and I looked at my son and I said, 'Are you okay?' And he looks at me goes, 'Mom, it's sixth grade basketball. I'm fine.' They have perspective that they didn't have before. Now, I would give anything to go back and share the gratitude, the perspective with Dave, but I can't and I think that's part of why I wrote Option B because I can share it with other people."

AF: "Grief is this crash course in perspective and it absolutely does force you to really just be present in certain moments, because there's no other way to go. It's painful to go forward and it's painful to go back, so you just have to be present and be appreciative of the present. Do you also think grief causes a crash course in empathy?"

SS: "There's no easy answer because it's so different for different people, but I think it can. It sounds like it did for you, and certainly there are things I have a lot more empathy for. I'm a single mother. I wrote a book where I have a whole chapter called Make Your Partner a Real Partner. In Lean In, I tried to talk about different forms of family, but I don't think I got it."

AF: "How do you mean?"

SS: "It never occurred to me how painful Father's Day was for so many families. When there was a father/daughter dance, my daughter and Dave happily went. It never occurred to me that there's a probably a girl in her Girl Scout troop without a father. Now I think about that all the time and I don't have the challenges most single mothers have. The poverty levels for single mothers are absolutely outrageous. I can't imagine going through what we went through but also worrying about making a healthcare bill or getting evicted. I do think it gives us more empathy and I think we need more empathy and we need to do more."

We have to give ourselves permission. Permission to forgive ourselves if we've made mistakes. Permission to feel joy.

AF: "I was reading how maternal deaths in the country right now are at an all-time high. I was thinking about the concept of collective grief, and how sometimes we make big policy changes in this country, and really in places all over the world, due to a collective grief. Do you think collective grief, or talking about it in a way that Option B is giving us right now, could have the power to actually change things in the country and change things in the world and not just on an individual basis?"

SS: "I so believe this. The flip side of collective grief is collective resilience, and they're deeply connected. We build resilience not just in ourselves but in each other, and one of the main points of Option B is no one goes through or should go through any of this alone, and we can build resilience into our community.

"I'm giving the Virginia Tech commencement speech this year. It's 10 years after the shooting, and this is what I'm going to talk about. Virginia Tech is an excellent example. This is a community that faced unbelievable tragedy and came out the other side because they had a strong community and they built resilience into each other.

"You think about communities that had to come together after Katrina, going to New Orleans. Charleston, South Carolina after the Mother Emanuel shooting. They build resilience together, and we build it into our communities. We build it into our companies, into our nonprofits, and it's something that I believe so deeply, not just we can do but we have to do. If we don't do it, we're leaving people on their own, and no one deserves to go through these things alone."

AF: "I just have one more question. Can you tell me about the first time you laughed without feeling guilty in the midst of your grief?"

SS: "I don't know if I laughed, but the first time I felt joy was about four months after Dave died. I went to a bar mitzvah, and my friend Brooke pulled me on the dance floor, and we were dancing to a song I love, and I just burst into tears. I didn't even know what happened. It's like oh, I'm grieving again. I'm like no, this is different. That felt different. [My co-author Adam Grant] really helped explain it to me. He goes, 'You had one moment of happiness because you don't do anything that would make anyone happy. You go to work. You cry. You write in your journal. You take care of your kids.' All of that's important stuff, but it's also important to let ourselves feel happy, and there is so much guilt.

"I think when things go wrong around us, there's so much guilt, and one of the best lessons I learned is self-compassion. We do not show the same compassion to ourselves we would show to a friend, and we need that compassion. Particularly women don't show that to themselves. We have to give ourselves permission: permission to forgive ourselves if we've made mistakes. Permission to feel joy. My brother-in-law gave this to me. My brother-in-law of all people said, 'All Dave wanted was you and your children to be happy. Don't take that away from him in death,' and if Option B can help anyone find pleasure and joy and give themselves the permission to feel joy, then I think it honors the life Dave lived, because he brought so much joy to people."

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.