Sheryl Sandberg's Advice for Grieving

The Facebook COO opens up about what she’s learned since the sudden death of her husband in 2015.

Gabriela Riccardi / The Atlantic

Sheryl Sandberg’s new book is not an easy read. Well, in a sense, it is: The pages fly by. But the book is tough, full of the raw, painful emotions that followed the sudden loss of her husband Dave Goldberg when he was just 47 years old. What followed was, for Sandberg, a process of figuring out what life could look like when it wasn’t at all the life she had planned.

The book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, is somewhat framed as advice for people who are grieving. Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the author of Lean In, recommends avoiding what the psychologist Martin Seligman termed the “three P’s”—personalization (“this was my fault”), pervasiveness (“this affects everything”), and permanence (“nothing will ever be the same again”)—and finding support in community.

But it’s also a book for the friends and families of the bereaved—which is to say, nearly everyone—people who may not know what to say or do in the wake of a tragedy. “I got it all wrong before,” Sandberg told me, referring to her earlier efforts to comfort those who were grieving. “I used to say, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ I used to say, ‘How are you?,’ or not say anything. Every mistake that someone else made with me, I’ve made.”

I sat down with Sandberg and her co-author (and friend) Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, at The Atlantic’s offices in Washington, D.C., to talk about death, grieving, and resilience. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Rebecca J. Rosen: This is a book about loss and grieving, the hardest times we face. But it’s also a deeply optimistic book, framed around the question, what’s next? How do you come to that forward-looking optimism after suffering a terrible loss?

Sheryl Sandberg: Well, I didn’t come to it naturally, and I still don’t come to it every day. It’s work. It’s work. One of my favorite quotes in the book is, “Joy is a discipline.” I thought I would feel the way I felt in the beginning forever. Every minute. I wrote in my 30-day Facebook post that I would never feel another moment of pure joy again.

Adam Grant: I hated that line.

Sandberg: He argued with me—

Grant: Take it out!

Sandberg: But I was like, nope, this is true; I’m publishing it. And, look, I don’t come to optimism every day. There are lots of hard days. Expected ones, like my anniversary last week, and unexpected ones. But I have to move forward.

Everyone asks, “How do you do it?” I’ve got two kids. I have to get out of bed. They have to go to school, and I want to go to work, because I still love my job. I just met another woman who’s an artist and a widow, just like me—well, I’m not an artist, but I’m a widow. And someone asked her how she kept doing her work, and she said, “Because the rest of the parts of me didn’t die.” She said, “I’m a widow, but I’m still a mother, and I’m still an artist.”

Grant: One of the things I learned from Sheryl is that we really become resilient for other people, not for ourselves. I think the moment she really started to see the possibilities for hope and joy was when she said, “Look, if I don’t find a way to move forward, then my kids are going to have a harder time recovering.”

Sandberg: Adam kept saying that to me. He kept telling me, “If you don’t stop apologizing, and personalizing this, your kids can’t recover. If you can’t find moments of joy and let yourself be happy, your kids can’t be happy.”

Rosen: You write about post- and pre-traumatic growth, ideas that are going to be new for a lot of readers. Can you talk about what they mean?

Grant: When psychologists started studying resilience, they thought there were two paths. One was to be broken by tragedy or hardship, to walk away with post-traumatic stress disorder, debilitating depression, and severe anxiety, and the other was to try and bounce back and return to the state you were at before the event.

They were really surprised to discover that many people end up with a third response, which is not just bouncing back but bouncing forward, and that’s about emerging with some positive change from a negative event. That’s not to say that the grief or sadness goes away, or that anyone is happy that it occurred. But alongside those negative emotions often come improvements in people’s lives, where they’re able to say, “I’m stronger. I lived through that, I can live through anything. I’m more grateful,” like Sheryl has talked about. “I have new relationships, or my relationships are deeper because people have helped me in ways that I never thought possible, and I’ve become closer to them because of that.”

For a lot of people, post-traumatic growth is about a stronger sense of meaning in life—having a purpose, which is often about helping people in the way that you suffered, which not only gives your life meaning but gives your suffering meaning.

When we talk about pre-traumatic growth, for us, that means, can you experience all those gains without the tragedy? Can you bring more gratitude into your life, more meaning into your life, a greater sense of perspective and personal strength, without having had to suffer? And what Sheryl’s really trying to figure out and help other people figure out is that it’s possible to learn these lessons without having someone that you love die.

Sandberg: Post-traumatic growth doesn’t mean that it’s overall more positive. I would trade all the growth to have Dave back. But I’m closer with my parents than I was. I’m closer with my closest friends than I was. I have more appreciation. I have more perspective.

My son’s team lost the basketball playoffs and a lot of the other boys were crying. I asked him, “Are you okay?,” and he said, “Mom, it’s sixth-grade basketball.” I wouldn’t wish that perspective on anyone. But actually having perspective on what’s important and what’s not is good.

Appreciation: I am having this conversation with you, and I am not wanting to lie on the floor. Two years ago, I would have been lying on the floor. I am appreciating that I’m here, that I live today. I remember the day that I lived longer than Dave did, which happened in March. I appreciate, my God, I’m alive; fingers crossed, I’m going to turn 48 in August and Dave never did.

I have appreciation and those things are deep. And there is pre-traumatic growth too—the growth without the trauma. I’ve said to people, you know those jokes we make about growing old? Stop making those jokes. Growing old is such a gift. What if people saw that as a gift? People can grow before the trauma and maybe in preparation for the trauma (but hopefully not).

Rosen: In your book you draw on social-science research, but you also draw from a variety of religious traditions. I’m wondering if you could talk a little about the different values you've found in these two different sources of comfort.

Sandberg: I mean, when you’re this down, you just look for comfort everywhere—as much as possible, as much wisdom and comfort as you can get. And I think, like everyone, I drew on everything I could find. And then there were moments where I couldn’t draw on anything at all, and I just had to lean into the suck and let it happen. But Judaism ... Judaism helped me know when to bury him and where to bury him and what prayers to say, and there is something comforting in that, and it was the same prayer that people have said over people who have died for thousands of years.

And Buddhism, which universalizes—I shouldn’t speak on Buddhism, I’m not an expert—but Buddhism makes us feel like our suffering is not unique. And social science, which told me that my kids and I needed to establish a new family unit. And other people’s experience, like Carole Geithner, a close friend and social worker, who told me that my kids were going to cycle in and out of  grief, and so I shouldn’t be shocked if they were hysterical on the floor one minute and playing the next—something that, had no one told me, I would have been like, “What’s going on here?,” and been so worried about them.

Grant: We’ve gotten a lot of emails from rabbis and reverends and monks, even—occasionally, they don’t send many emails—religious leaders from all different traditions. They’ve read what Sheryl wrote about the three P’s and said, “Oh, we can trace this back to ...,” and they give us a religious text that makes the same point. I think the most meaningful lessons were the ones that are reinforced by both ancient religion and social science.

Rosen: Both this book and Lean In are fundamentally intended to help people—help them move up at work or help them deal with the loss of a loved one. Is there a thread here for you?

Sandberg: I know that with Lean In, what I desperately wanted was a more equal world, and I still want it. I mean, I still believe so deeply that five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 20 percent, 21 percent of Congress and 11 countries is not enough. And I really believe that women can come together, support each other, and we can do a good job, maybe a better job, in some of those leadership circles.

With this—look, Dave was really giving. But now he’s not here to do good. But I think, if something good can happen in his name, I’m keeping Dave’s memory alive a little bit—extending it.

Without doing something like this, it’s just death and a father who died before his children graduated from elementary school. If I try to do something with it—and look, we have over 4,000 people in Option B groups. A mother whose son died by suicide three years ago got on the site earlier this week, and was in communication with someone who she thinks she might have helped. She said it’s the first positive thing to have come from her son’s death. And that makes a huge difference for people. It is so isolating. Nobody knows what to say. Kicking those elephants out of the room, bringing people together, is just huge.