By Wendy Lee
San Francisco Chronicle
Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, has long said that ideal partners will share housework and child care, which allows women to rise in the workplace.
But in 2015, Sandberg’s ideal partner, 47-year-old husband Dave Goldberg, died on their vacation. Overnight, she became a single mom with two young children while dealing with overwhelming grief.
Sandberg details what she learned over the last two years in a new book she wrote with psychology Professor Adam Grant, called “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.” Option A was Goldberg, and he was gone. So she had to make the most of Option B.
“I am not living the life I planned and the life I expected,” Sandberg said in an interview at a conference room at Facebook’s office in Menlo Park, where her first book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” sat on a shelf. “I am living a different life. It’s option B. … How do I make the most of it? And how do we help other people try to make the most of it?”
In “Option B,” she writes that some colleagues at Facebook — a company that tries to connect the world — initially didn’t know what to say after her husband’s death, and “most of my interactions felt cold, distant and stilted.” Her daughter asked if Sandberg would die, too.
Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, died from a heart problem that had been previously undiagnosed after collapsing at a gym.
Sandberg spent time questioning whether there was anything she could have done to save him.
In her book, Sandberg says that grief will ebb and flow, and people who have lost loved ones shouldn’t blame themselves. She tells the stories of people who have dealt with tragedy and struggle: people who have had family members murdered, cancer patients and rape victims.
Sandberg was criticized for catering “Lean In” to wealthier women and largely ignoring the struggles of single moms, women who are poor and lesbian couples. Sandberg said she wished that she could rework one part of it.
“I didn’t get it,” Sandberg said, referring the struggles of single moms. “I’m sure there are still lots of things I don’t fully understand, but I want to help.”
In “Option B,” Sandberg and Grant look at how to deal with unexpected loss. The first-person story, in Sandberg’s voice, begins with how her husband died. She and Goldberg were vacationing in Mexico to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Sandberg took a nap, and her husband went to the gym. Later in the day, they began to worry when Goldberg did not return and found him on the gym floor, his face “slightly blue.” He was taken to a hospital, and later pronounced dead.
An initial medical report said his death appeared to be due to head trauma, Sandberg writes. But a subsequent report found that Goldberg died from cardiac arrhythmia, a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat in which the heart may not be able to pump enough blood to the body. It was caused by coronary artery disease that had not been diagnosed, Sandberg writes.
When she returned to California, she broke the news to her children, ages 7 and 10. “I have terrible news. Terrible. Daddy died,” Sandberg recalled in her book. Their screams still haunt her.
Before she met with her kids, Sandberg sought advice from a friend who counsels children and was told to answer her kids’ questions honestly, and to tell them she loved them and that they would get through this together.
“We get our kids through things by teaching them they are not alone,” Sandberg said. When her 7-year-old daughter asked whether she would die, she said she replied, “‘It’s very unusual what happened to Daddy, and I plan on living a very long life.'”
Sandberg writes that immediately after her husband died, she often blamed herself and believed the sadness would be permanent.
But Grant told Sandberg to write three things she did well each day. For Sandberg, sometimes that meant small events like making herself a cup of tea or staying focused at a meeting. The list later evolved to moments that brought her joy.
She’s also learned to use humor to lighten conversations. Now when her kids ask if she’s going to die, Sandberg said she responds, “I’m going to live until I’m in my 90s or 100, and you have to change my diapers the way I changed yours.”
Sandberg hopes that talking about her struggles will help others. Her nonprofit, the Sheryl Sandberg and Dave Goldberg Family Foundation, has started an Option B website to connect people with support groups, some of which will be on Facebook. Sales of the book will go toward the Option B initiative.
Experts hope the book will open more discussions about how loss of a loved one and other personal struggles are handled inside and outside the workplace.
“You want to silence a room? Get diagnosed with cancer,” Sandberg said.”People don’t say anything. It’s not just the hardship and the grief, it’s that isolation. We are not for each other and with each other when we could help each other. I really want to try to help change that.”
Talking about death is uncommon in American culture because we value excitement, thrill and enthusiasm, said Emma Seppälä, science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.
A study that compared sympathy cards between the U.S. and Germany suggested a stark contrast in how people provide comfort to one another. The German cards expressed sentiments like “I feel your pain” or “This is a very difficult time,” acknowledging negative emotions that come from grief, while American ones said things like “feel better soon.”
Kellie McElhaney, an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said Sandberg should be commended for talking openly about these issues — one of few executives to do so.
“Sheryl has shown bravery and courage that very few women at her level has brought,” McElhaney said.
While some people have urged Sandberg to run for public office, she said she has no plans to do so, saying her priority is her children. She said she sees herself at Facebook for the foreseeable future. “Since Dave died, no one has done more for anyone than Mark has done for me,” Sandberg said, referring to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
While she has written a book on her husband’s death, there are still things Sandberg — who has begun dating again — does not want to discuss. A passage in the book talks about Sandberg and her family sending up balloons with letters to Goldberg on what would have been his 48th birthday.
“I wrote what I would have wanted him to know,” she said without offering specifics.
The perspective of losing their father at a young age has helped her children deal with life, Sandberg said. She was checking up on her son after his team lost a basketball playoff game. Some of the other kids were upset, but her son didn’t seem fazed by it. “Are you OK?” Sandberg asked.
“Mom, it’s sixth-grade basketball,” her son replied. “I’m fine.”