By Charlotte Alter
May 14, 2016

Sheryl Sandberg gave the commencement speech at UC Berkeley on Saturday, one year and thirteen days after her husband Dave Goldberg died suddenly last year. Speaking to a crowd of students through occasional tears, she told the graduates how much that tragedy had taught her about the importance of resilience.

Sandberg, the bestselling author of Lean In and COO of Facebook, has written Facebook posts about the loss of her husband, but has not yet spoken publicly about his death. Here’s how she described that day:

“His death was sudden and unexpected. We were at a friend’s fiftieth birthday party in Mexico. I took a nap. Dave went to work out. What followed was the unthinkable—walking into a gym to find him lying on the floor. Flying home to tell my children that their father was gone. Watching his casket being lowered into the ground.”

His death, she said, plunged her into a “deep fog of grief—what I think of as the void—an emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even to breathe.”

But that wasn’t the only thing that happened after Dave’s death. “I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again,” she continued.

Sandberg went on to describe the three “P”s of bouncing back from setbacks, according to psychologist Martin Seligman: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. Once you understand the three Ps, Sandberg said, it’s much easier to fight back against the negative thinking that can make it difficult to stay resilient.

The first “P” is personalization, the belief that we’re at fault for whatever setback we’ve experienced. She describes blaming herself for not catching his condition sooner, even though there was no way she possibly could have known:

“When Dave died, I had a very common reaction, which was to blame myself. He died in seconds from a cardiac arrhythmia. I poured over his medical records asking what I could have—or should have—done… His doctors had not identified his coronary artery disease. I was an economics major; how could I have?”

The second “P” is pervasiveness, the belief that any tragedy will affect everything in our lives. Sandberg recalls being unable to imagine to see through her grief when she first came back to work.

“I remember sitting in my first Facebook meeting in a deep, deep haze. All I could think was, “What is everyone talking about and how could this possibly matter?” But then I got drawn into the discussion and for a second—a brief split second—I forgot about death.”

She also acknowledged that for less fortunate women, the loss of a partner can have even more devastating consequences that often affect the finances of the family.

The third “P” is permanence, the sense that any hardship will last forever, and that sadness multiplies into itself.

“We often project our current feelings out indefinitely—and experience what I think of as the second derivative of those feelings. We feel anxious—and then we feel anxious that we’re anxious. We feel sad—and then we feel sad that we’re sad. Instead, we should accept our feelings—but recognize that they will not last forever.”

Ultimately, she says, the death of her husband taught her the importance of gratitude for what she does have. “It is the greatest irony of my life that losing my husband helped me find deeper gratitude—gratitude for the kindness of my friends, the love of my family, the laughter of my children,” she says. “My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude—not just on the good days, like today, but on the hard ones, when you will really need it.”

And that, she says, is her message to the UC Berkeley Class of 2016. Career accomplishment is all well and good, but gratitude and resilience are the most valuable lessons that can be learned. Here’s how she ended the speech:

“I hope that you live your life—each precious day of it—with joy and meaning. I hope that you walk without pain—and that you are grateful for each step. And when the challenges come, I hope you remember that anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”

 

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