Life After Death
When she lost her husband, Sheryl Sandberg also lost her bearings. Now she wants to help others find a way through grief
By Belinda Luscombe
For Dave Goldberg, May 1, 2015, was the best day with the worst ending. The SurveyMonkey CEO was celebrating the 50th birthday of one of his closest buddies at a palm-fringed, $12,750-a-night, nine-bedroom villa in Punta Mita, a secluded Mexican resort favored by the Silicon Valley elite. The vacation had been full of what he loved: games with family and friends, walks and long talks by the pool. When he climbed on the fitness-center treadmill that Friday, nothing but blue sky appeared ahead: his company was doing well, his children were healthy, and he was as in love as ever with his superwoman wife Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and the author of Lean In. Then his heart gave out.
Goldberg—Goldie to his friends—was only 47 when his younger brother Rob, Rob’s wife and Sandberg found him lying in a halo of blood, his skin blue. “I started doing CPR,” says Rob. “I remember not being sure if I could feel a pulse or if it was really my own heart pounding.” Goldberg was rushed to San Javier Hospital, a dimly lit medical center. Sandberg and one of her best friends, Marne Levine, sat on the linoleum floor waiting for a doctor to give them the news they didn’t want.
In short order—though she says it felt agonizingly slow—Sandberg, the complex-problem solver, the micromanager, the person with an almost freakish understanding of how to arrive at the best possible results, was thrust against something unfamiliar: an outcome she couldn’t change. “The wails of her crying in that hospital were unlike anything that I’d ever heard in my life,” says Phil Deutch, Levine’s husband and the person whose birthday they were celebrating. “It was an awful, awful scene.”
As they were leaving Goldberg’s body for the last time, Sandberg ran back to give him one more hug. “I think for Sheryl, letting go of him physically meant letting go of the moment that this could somehow not be real,” says Rob. “I had to gently pull her off of him. She just wanted to hug him and wanted him to be there and wanted him to come back.”
Dying is not a technical glitch of the human operating system; it’s a feature. It’s the only prediction we can make at birth that we can bank on. Everyone will die, and it’s very likely somebody we love will die before we do. And yet the bereaved are often treated like those to whom something unnatural or disgraceful has happened. People avoid them, don’t invite them out, fall silent when they enter the room. The grieving are often isolated when they most need community.
That’s a problem that Sandberg, now 47, can work with. The woman who urged the world to lean in is now undertaking a campaign to help people push on, to bounce back from horrible misfortune. Her newest book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, is a primer for those who are bereaved, to help them recover and find happiness. But it’s also a guide for the unscathed on how to help people “lean in to the suck,” as Sandberg’s rabbi puts it.
She wrote the book with her friend and collaborator Adam Grant, a psychologist and the author of the best sellers Originals and Give and Take. Like Lean In, Option B comes with a nonprofit launched by the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation. The organization aims to “change the conversation around adversity,” Sandberg’s representatives say. If that seems vague, recall that nobody really knew what the Lean In Circles were supposed to do either—but there are now 30,000 of them in 150 countries.
Some might argue that Sandberg is the wrong teacher for a course in hard knocks. After all, her life, from the outside, seems a mind-bogglingly privileged existence among brainiac titans. She’s a billionaire in no danger of losing her job, no matter how much time she takes off. She can afford round-the-clock therapy, and her network can put her in touch with anyone.
Sandberg is well aware of her advantages. (And in case she needed a reminder, just last month, author Camille Paglia called her “insufferably smug and entitled.”) But she has deployed a disadvantage as her ultimate asset: vulnerability. In June 2015, a month into her widowhood, after a particularly lousy day, Sandberg posted on Facebook the social-media equivalent of Edvard Munch’s Scream. “I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice,” she wrote. “You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past 30 days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void.” Suddenly, Superwoman became very human.
Except because she is the kind of person who always has at hand a Ziploc bag filled with exactly the right number of macadamia nuts, Sandberg’s howl into the void came with helpful tips. Don’t avoid the heartbroken (except when they obviously want to be avoided). Don’t tell them that everything will be O.K. because, well, how would you know? And don’t ask the bereaved how they are. Instead ask them how they are that day.
None of the advice in the post or in the book is particularly new. Grief is not a novel problem. But not very many folks with Sandberg’s platform and pain have talked about it, with the intent of starting a movement. “She was able to find some gratitude,” says Grant, “and really think about how she could share the experience she had in a way that would help other people.”
Sandberg’s 2015 post has now drawn almost 75,000 comments, including ones from Facebook employees who didn’t know how to react to their famous boss, who occasionally broke down in tears in a meeting—which, as Sandberg writes, is not the kind of disruption Silicon Valley is looking for.
“I think a lot of people wanted to reach out to her, but they didn’t know how,” says Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “You know, there’s this whole question of, Are you reopening a wound or something? And of course, what she would say is ‘You’re not reopening the wound. I mean, it’s, like, open and gaping.’”
A month before Goldberg died, Tracy Zamot, a music publicist in New York, also lost her husband suddenly, of a pulmonary embolism. She says Sandberg’s post had a real effect on the way people talked to her. “The minute she wrote, ‘How are you today?’ people started asking me that,” she says, which made answering the question much easier. “I didn’t feel like I was going to explode into a ball of flames every time I had to answer.”
Sandberg claims that she shared her feelings on impulse, but the response pushed her to action. “I got so much of this wrong, so much of this wrong,” she says in her glass-walled conference room, which is identified by a small plaque near the door that reads, ONLY GOOD NEWS.
To Grant, a Wharton School professor, Sandberg has made a contribution not just to self-help but also to leadership. “I would like more leaders to realize what Sheryl did through living it,” he says. “Expressing emotion when you’ve gone through extreme pain is not weakness. It is humanity.”
In the weeks after Goldberg died, even before she posted on Facebook, Sandberg had been codifying her agony in a journal and sharing it with a few close confidantes. “I wrote and I wrote and I wrote,” she says. Keeping a journal is one of the activities she recommends to ease the grieving process. “Literally all I did was my kids, come to work and write.” The 100,000-plus words she eventually wrote were a big part of her recovery and became the spine of her book.
What Sandberg learned, with the help of Grant, was that there are three myths people cling to that make it harder to spring back from adversity. The first is that they’re somehow responsible for what happened to them. The second is that sadness must carpet their lives from wall to wall. And the third is that they will never feel any better. Ever the communicator, Sandberg calls these mistakes the three p’s: thinking about adversity as personal, pervasive and permanent.
The lessons, which she says she wishes she knew when her first marriage ended in divorce, didn’t come easily. Grant told Sandberg she had to ban the word sorry. “Sheryl likes to ban things that are not productive, like #banbossy,” he says, citing Sandberg’s campaign to stop using a word about girls that is never used to describe boys. “There’s no more effective way to argue with someone who’s strong-willed than to turn their own words around on them.”
Her tendency to apologize was the result of an unexpected symptom of her grief: Sandberg completely lost her self-confidence. “It just kind of crumbled in every area,” she says. “I didn’t think I could be a good friend. I didn’t feel like I could do my job.” She wasn’t even sure she could look after her grieving kids. This surprised Sandberg as much as anyone: “It reminded me of how one day in my neighborhood I watched a house that had taken years to build get torn down in a matter of minutes,” she writes in Option B. “Boom. Flattened.”
On her first day back at work, she says, she fell asleep in a meeting, rambled and misidentified a colleague, then left at 2 p.m. to pick up her kids from school. That evening she called Zuckerberg to see if she should even be there. “Mark said, ‘Take the time off you need,’” says Sandberg. “And that’s what I would have said to someone in the same situation. But then he said, ‘Actually I’m really glad you were here today. You made two really good points—here’s what they were.’”
That small vote of confidence led to one of the biggest changes Sandberg made in her management style: she no longer automatically diverts work from people facing personal adversity. Now she asks if they want to do it because, counterintuitively, relieving people of some of their responsibilities could mean denying them a way of finding their bearings.
When Caryn Marooney was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after she was asked to head up global communications at Facebook, Sandberg encouraged her to take the promotion. “Sheryl had been a vulnerable leader that I had gotten to see close up,” says Marooney. She took the job, and in one of her first meetings with her team members she let them know she was undergoing treatment. “It helped people share things with me in a way that helped me understand how to do the job better and faster,” Marooney says.
Silicon Valley wasn’t all so gentle and touchy-feely. Another friend, venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, told Sandberg to remember her ambition and “get back on the motherf-cking path.” He also gave her a chain to wear Goldberg’s wedding band around her neck. (Zuckerberg had also given her a chain, so Sandberg—half empath, half Spock—had them welded together at the ends and wears both.)
Over time, Sandberg began to emerge from the fog. Her mom didn’t have to lie beside her every night as she cried herself to sleep. She danced at a party and felt momentarily happy. She didn’t travel as much or have as many work dinners, but she got out. She started playing the piano again after 30 years and created new rituals with her kids: they started biking and have weekly “family awesome fun,” where one child chooses an activity. She also lets the kids have sleepovers, which Goldberg, who thought his kids, now 9 and 12, needed sleep, had not allowed.
Encouraged by her in-laws, Sandberg eventually started dating too. Her current beau is Bobby Kotick, who runs the gaming company Activision Blizzard and comes from the same brand of mensch as Goldberg. She has replaced the photo of a beach at dusk in her bedroom with one of a beach during the day. She’s even taken back birthdays. First she started celebrating her own, which she used to do only every five years.
“She embraces joy in a different way than she has before,” says friend Levine. “She tries to make her birthdays as joyful as possible.” On Goldberg’s birthday, the kids play poker, his favorite game, in which they are being coached by Palihapitiya, who has competed in the World Series of Poker championships.
She even had a party for Deutch, whose birthday will forever be associated with Goldberg’s death. “You know, it’s never going to be the same,” Deutch says, “but she really went to great efforts to help take a day that’s pretty dark and change it.”
Sandberg, too, is changed. “I think she just has more perspective,” says Zuckerberg. When he first got the message from her on that Friday night that said “Urgent, please call,” he thought it was probably a work issue, even though she was on vacation. “A lot of things used to be ‘Urgent, please call,’” he says. “These days they’re not. But I think that that’s made her a better leader.” For her part, Sandberg says, “Mark’s one of the people who really carried me. I believe even more I work with the greatest person in the world.”
Sandberg has faced adversity, developed resilience and found some joy. But what she can’t do anything about—what still makes her lower the remote-controlled blinds in her meeting room at work and weep every time she talks about it—is the fact that she cannot give her kids their father back.
Telling them he was gone was the hardest thing she has ever done. She avoids talking about it, but in Option B she writes that “nothing has come close to the pain of this moment. Even now when my mind wanders back, I shake and my throat constricts.”
The difficulties of being a single mother, even a highly resourced one, came as a shock to Sandberg. They made her rethink some of Lean In. “When I look back at the chapter called ‘Make Your Partner a Real Partner,’ it has, like, a big old assumption that you have a partner,” she says. “I got that wrong.”
Almost 10 million women are single mothers in the U.S., and about one-third of those households live in poverty—something that enrages Sandberg. “I think it’s part of why I have become so outspoken on public policy now,” she says. “I’m in a different place.”
On Father’s Day, she and her children went to a camp for kids whose dads are incarcerated. And in April, she promoted a campaign to draw attention to the gender pay gap by persuading businesses to charge 20% less for a day.
She wants to see changes in maternity leave, paternity leave and living-wage laws. But she’s even less inclined than she was before Goldberg died to enter public office—partly because her focus is on her kids and partly because she feels she can move the needle more effectively from where she is. “My loyalty to Mark was deep before and is deeper now,” she says. Facebook recently implemented a slew of new bereavement and family-illness leave policies, which she hopes will pressure other tech companies to follow suit.
But the more mundane stuff breaks her heart too. “Does there have to be a father-daughter dance?” she asks. “My kids will say things like ‘You’re the only parent I have left.’ Or my daughter has been talking about how she doesn’t remember her father, his voice. She said, ‘I’m glad I have video, because I didn’t think his voice sounded like that.’” The remote-controlled blinds come down. “I feel it every day. Every day. I go to my son’s basketball game, and there are a lot of fathers there. My daughter is going to be in the school play next week, and Dave is not here to go to any of that.”
A few weeks after Goldberg died, there was a father-child event at the kids’ school, and Deutch proposed designating a stand-in dad. Sandberg protested that it wasn’t the same as having Goldberg there. Deutch put his arm around her. “Option A is not available,” he said. “So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”