I remember being on vacation with my family when I heard the news that Sheryl Sandberg’s husband had died suddenly while visiting Mexico in 2015. Even though I didn’t personally know Sheryl, I was shocked and saddened. After reading Lean In, Sheryl was someone I liked and admired and hearing the news pinched my heart.
In her new book, Option B (out now), Sheryl writes intimately about Dave’s death, and the struggle to find joy and meaning again for herself and her two young kids. I had the chance to speak with Sheryl and read Option B — here are a few poignant takeaways from our convo and her honest and heartwrenching book.
1. It Helps to Share Your Story
Sheryl says that in the first 30 days after her husband’s death, she felt deep grief, but also a profound isolation from even her close friends and family because even though most people wanted to help, they couldn’t fully understand her pain. Needing to express herself, she wrote a Facebook post that received almost one million likes and over 400,00 shares. “It broke open a dam,” she said. “People who lost spouses and children recounted their stories, and everyone was saying the same thing, which is ‘we’re all in this together.’ The grief was still there, but sharing my experience made me feel connected to people I knew, and to people, I didn’t know.”
Talking about your tragedy can make you feel better and inspire someone to share their experience, too.
2. Don’t Ignore the Elephant In the Room
When my father died in high school, I remember the first day going back to school after the funeral and having everyone just stare at me silently not knowing what to say, not even my teachers or boyfriend at the time. Sheryl writes about how important it is to acknowledge someone’s pain — the elephant in the room. “When someone didn’t say something to me about Dave passing, I felt alone,” she said. “They didn’t give me the opportunity to talk about Dave and our life together, and I wanted to talk about him. It helps keep his memory alive.” Even though my dad died years ago, I relish getting to share memories of him with my aunts and mom, and I look forward to sharing stories of him with my children. In this way, he does live on.
3. Joy is Discipline
In Option B Sheryl recounts a time she attended a wedding a few months after her husband had passed. An old friend asked her to dance, and for a second she was happy, before bursting into tears because she felt guilty about being happy. This struck me, as I believe that most people do this in our normal, everyday lives. We have a hard time sitting with our happiness. We tend to default to feeling worried or scared. Somehow we know how to feel bad, but it’s more difficult to sit with feeling good. “Joy is discipline,” she writes. To help cultivate joy, she started writing down three moments of happiness a day. “A lot of them are pretty small,” she said, “like how my coffee tastes. But those moments are so important, and because I’m going to write them down at the end of the night, I notice them during the day. Otherwise, they just pass, like when my daughter smiles or my son gives me a hug. We have to give ourselves permission to feel joy.”
4. Be Kind to Yourself
Whether you lose a job, love, or a dream, it’s important to be compassionate to yourself.
In her book, Sheryl recounts how after she had returned to Facebook following her husband’s untimely death, she would space out in meetings or say the wrong thing, which caused her to lose confidence at work. Luckily, Mark Zuckerberg and her co-workers were sympathetic, and she eventually found her footing. But when we lose or fail at things big or small, we can start to doubt ourselves and our abilities. To combat these feelings of inadequacy, Sheryl started writing three things she had done well that day. Some were basic like “made tea; got through all my work emails.” She began to notice a shift in how she felt when she focused on what was working in her life, instead of what wasn’t.
5. “Celebrate Your Birthday, Goddammit. You are Lucky to Have Each One.”
Like many women, I tend not to relish getting older. In Option B, Sheryl recounts a time when a friend was telling her that he hates birthdays, so he wasn’t going to celebrate his. “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one,” she told him. I was once complaining to my friend Laura, a breast cancer survivor, about getting old and she looked at me and said, “I love getting old, it means I get to live.” She and Sheryl are right. Learning to live another year is a gift for all of us, so we should all celebrate the shit out of it!