Faced with the sudden loss of her beloved husband, Facebook’s million-dollar COO Sheryl Sandberg shares how grief has shaped the person she is now
When you are one of the world’s 20 most powerful women in business, it might beggar belief that most of your colleagues treat you as if you were invisible.
That was, however, what Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg confronted when she returned to work 10 days after her husband, David Goldberg, chief of web-based survey company SurveyMonkey, died suddenly on May 1, 2015, while they were on a couples-only holiday in Mexico.
As the 48-year-old writes in her second book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, which was launched last April: “Walking around the Facebook campus, I started to feel like a ghost, somehow frightening and invisible at the same time.” Her description of appearing to be an apparition to her workmates is spot-on, as any survivor of, say, cancer, who returns to work could tell you.
It got so bad, she adds, that she “sought refuge” with her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, in his conference room. There, he explained to her that their colleagues “wanted to stay close” to her but “did not know what to say”, which was why they were seemingly cold, distant and stilted, when previously they had been almost like family to her.
Sheryl’s husband had been running on a treadmill in the hotel’s gym when his heart gave out. He fell off the exercise machine, hit his head and was lying in a pool of blood when Sheryl found him. The couple were attending a friend’s 50th birthday celebration in Mexico.
Sheryl’s husband Dave died while they were on a holiday.
A frantic dash to the hospital only resulted in the worst news. Her husband had died of an undiagnosed medical condition. Sheryl was then faced with the horrific task of telling their young children that their father was dead.
“I mean, in a million years you never would have expected what was a special and celebratory day for a close friend to turn into what is one of the worst moments of my life,” she says. “Option B is for anyone who’s facing hardship, might face hardship or knows anyone who’s faced hardship. I think this is pretty universal.”
At times, Sheryl’s writing brings you to tears. She captures the rawness of grief, describing it as her “demanding companion” with a “vast emptiness that fills your heart and lungs and restricts your ability to think or even take a breath”.
Thankfully, while her sadness is often overwhelming, Sheryl’s sense of humour also comes through. She recounts complaining to her father that all the books about grief had dreadful titles like, Death Is of Vital Importance and Moving to the Centre of the Bed.
Not surprisingly, Sheryl’s own book was carefully considered. Sheryl and a friend were discussing who could fill in for her husband for a father-child activity. While she lamented that she wanted Dave, her friend comforted her, saying, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the s**t out of option B.”
Sheryl’s inspiration for the book came exactly 30 days after Dave’s death. “At that point it wasn’t just grief I was facing, but real isolation,” she says. “When I came back to work I felt like people weren’t looking at me – like I was a ghost. No one was talking to me. When I went to drop my kids at school, it felt awkward.”
Sheryl treasures the moments of joy she gets from her children – using these to “bounce forward”.
Out of real desperation, Sheryl made a decision to write about how she was feeling on Facebook. “It helped me a tonne, and I think it helped other people,” she says. “A friend told me she’d been driving past my house but not coming in because she didn’t know if I needed her support.”
The overwhelming response that Sheryl received made her believe in the power of sharing. She reveals, “The grief wasn’t gone but the isolation was. People stopped asking me, ‘How are you?’ and started saying, ‘How are you today?’”
Sheryl hopes that by reaching out, it’s been useful to those who have suffered tragedy. “Resources do help – we need to do better,” she says. “How do you help a friend? How do you help build resilience in your children? How do you build it in your companies? How do you build it in your communities?”
A creature of Silicon Valley, it’s not surprising that she’s set up a website to encourage a sharing community. She launched OptionB.org “to help people build resilience in the face of adversity, because no one’s life is perfect”.
Instead, Sheryl argues the case for post-traumatic growth. “It’s not a question of bouncing back, because there is no bounce-back. We bounce forward in that we grow,” she explains. “Psychologists have studied that people can have, along with lingering sadness, post-traumatic growth – deeper relationships, more meaning and greater gratitude in their lives.”
For Sheryl, it’s about rediscovering joy. “Even in the midst of great trauma, there’s usually – even if it’s for a second – one moment of joy: The way your coffee tastes, a smile from my daughter, a hug from my son,” she ponders. “I know that by paying attention to those moments of joy, we give ourselves what we need to recover.”
Sheryl “sought refuge” with her boss, Mark Zuckerberg.
"He would have been very proud of how far I’ve come…"
Closer to home, The Weekly speaks with a woman who lost her husband and daughter tragically in the AirAsia crash in 2014. She shares how she is overcoming her grief BY NATALYA MOLOK
Mei Yi holds on to a family portrait taken shortly before the fatal accident.
It was supposed to have been a happy reunion in Singapore for Wee Mei Yi and her family on the morning of December 28, 2014. But her British husband, Choi Chi-man, and their two-year-old daughter, Zoe, never arrived on their scheduled AirAsia flight QZ8501.
Mei Yi, who was the former deputy director of philanthropy and marketing at the Asian Civilisations Museum, knew something was amiss the moment she didn’t hear from him. “I hadn’t received a text from Chi-man, so even before news broke of the plane, I sort of guessed that something had gone horribly wrong, because in all the years that Chi-man and I had been together, we would always communicate and he never once left me wondering where he was or what he was up to,” explains the 46-year-old.
Hours later, her worst fears were confirmed: Her husband and daughter were gone. They were among the 162 passengers and crew on board the plane en route from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore when it crashed into the Java Sea.
“Chi-man and Zoe were seated in the front row of the Airbus A320-200. I thought the chances of retrieving their bodies would be highly likely because their seats, 1A and 1C, would be sheltered from the currents in the water. But then I heard that the cockpit had separated from the main fuselage, and my heart sank to the bottom of my stomach,” Mei Yi recalls.
While Chi-man’s body was recovered after the accident, Zoe’s body was never found.
PICKING UP THE PIECES
Three years later, Mei Yi still feels the pangs of grief caused by the sudden loss, but she is slowly picking up the pieces for the sake of her surviving son, Luca, now aged nine.
“From the day of the crash, I was determined to make a life for Luca and myself. I’ve been dealt with lemons but I’m determined to make mojitos out of these lemons by setting a vision for what’s ahead and working very, very hard to achieve that positivity,” she shares adamantly.
“There were days when I was just crying in bed. Time has helped, as has my psychiatrist, whom I started seeing about three weeks after the accident. Now the pain comes and goes but I’ve learnt to deal with these grieving episodes, each time a little better, each time a little faster,” she says, adding that Luca, too, sees a counsellor.
THE BATTLE FOR CLOSURE
Despite the progress the family has made, there are hurdles that have impeded their recovery process.
“No amount of compensation will bring Chi-man and Zoe back: It really just is about getting on and moving on with our lives,” Mei Yi shares.
Legal proceedings are ongoing between Mei Yi and AirAsia on the matter of compensation.
While the dark cloud hanging over them persists, Mei Yi is optimistic about the future. “If he were here and he could speak, he would probably be congratulating me. In all our years of marriage, we often spoke about who was going to be the first to die, but in a joking manner,” she reveals.
“I would say ‘Of course, I’m going to die first. I’m not going to go after you and have to clean up the mess’, and he would say ‘No, no Mei, I am going to go first and I’ll tell you why, because you will just pick up the pieces and move on, I would have no idea what to do’. I know, as a matter of fact, that Chi-man would have been incredibly proud of Luca and I, and how far we’ve come.”
TEXT: CELINAEDMONDS/BAUERSYNDICATION.COM.AU / ADDITIONAL REPORTING: NATALYA MOLOK / PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES, SPLASH, @ SHERYLSANDBERG, TAN GIN YEE/SPHM