Good Grief
Fairlady|August 2017

In her new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, Sheryl Sandberg talks about becoming a widow at 45, facing a future she’d never imagined and ‘leaning into the suck’.

Liesl Robertson 
The name ‘Sheryl Sandberg’ might not immediately ring a bell, but her job title will:she is the COO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s right-hand woman. (He poached her from Google back in 2007.) In 2012, she was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine. And she’s been named one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business by Fortune magazine, moving steadily up the rankings from number 29 in 2007 to number six last year. Sheryl is also part of a small, elite group of women, rare as unicorns: the female billionaires.

But beyond that, she’s a feminist icon in a very male industry, and a fierce advocate for women finding their way in the workplace. In her 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, she wrote: ‘A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.’ In the book, Sheryl commended her husband, Dave, for his commitment to sharing childcare equally; it was because he was a hands-on dad to their two kids that she could put in the hours at work. In fact, an entire chapter in the book is dedicated to the topic of choosing the right partner, someone willing to share the workload at home. ‘The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry,’ she said in a 2011 speech.

Her new book, out this year, is more personal and centres on an event that changed her life. In 2015, while on holiday in Mexico, Dave suddenly passed away from cardiac arrhythmia (caused by coronary artery disease). She found him lying on the floor next to the elliptical machine in the hotel gym, a small pool of blood under his head. He was just 47. ‘Dave was my rock,’ she writes. ‘When I got upset, he stayed calm. When I was worried, he said that everything would be okay. When I wasn’t sure what to do, he helped me figure it out. Like all married couples, we had our ups and downs. Still, Dave gave me the experience of being deeply understood, supported and utterly loved. I thought I’d spend the rest of my life resting my head on his shoulder.’

At just 45, Sheryl was widowed; her children were just seven and 10. ‘And so began the rest of my life,’ she writes. ‘It was, and still is, a life I never would have chosen, a life I was completely unprepared for. The unimaginable. Sitting down with my son and daughter and telling them their father had died. Hearing their screams, joined by my own. The funeral. Speeches where people spoke of Dave in the past tense. My house filling up with familiar faces coming up to me again and again, delivering the perfunctory kiss on the cheek, followed by those same words: “I’m sorry for your loss.”’

Grief, says Sheryl, is a demanding companion. But it’s also inspired her to write about some of her experiences and how she’s learnt to work through the grief. ‘Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity – and we can build it,’ she writes. With the help of her friend and co-author Adam Grant, a psychologist and professor at Wharton business school, Sheryl started looking at what ‘Option B’ might look like – the life that wasn’t her first choice but her new reality. ‘I learnt that when life pulls you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface and breathe again.’

The 3 P’s

According to decades of research by psychologist Martin Seligman, there are three things that can delay recovery, which he refers to as the 3 P’s:

1. Personalisation: the notion that you’re somehow to blame.

2. Pervasiveness: the notion that your life will be irrevocably altered.

3. Permanence: the notion that the aftermath of the event will last forever.

Sheryl sums them up respectively as: ‘It’s my fault this is awful. My whole life is awful. And it’s always going to be awful.’

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