real life

Sheryl Sandberg on the best thing to say to someone who's grieving.

Three people. All of them high profile. All of them successful. All of them friends. Sitting on stage in front of a crowd at the venue 92Y in Manhattan.

There is Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and co-author of Option B. Adam Grant, organisational psychologist and also co-author of Option B. And Katie Couric, host of the event and the consequential podcast.

Grant and Couric were the people Sandberg called when she was told grieving her husband’s death “wouldn’t get easier”.

It was May, 2015 when 49-year-old Dave Goldberg, Sandberg’s husband of 11 years and the father of her two children then aged seven and 10, fell off a treadmill and died unexpectedly from cardiac arrhythmia while the pair were holidaying in Mexico.

A few months later, Sandberg received a letter from a woman who “had good intentions”, but who Grant describes as “evil”, and the letter said this:

“I wish I had something to say to you. But I don’t. It’s been ten years and it doesn’t get easier.”

Sandberg called Grant and Couric. They told her it wasn’t true. Surely things would get easier for Sandberg, a woman who at that time felt like she “wasn’t able to live through a minute, a day, a week”?

Surely, this wasn’t the way to speak to someone grieving?

Sheryl Sandberg and her husband David Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, on July 9, 2014 in Sun Valley, Idaho. (Photo by Getty Images)
ADVERTISEMENT

The two friends vowed to help Sandberg through it.

"There are these three traps we all run into when we're grieving. The first is personalisation, saying: 'this is all my fault'. The second is pervasiveness: 'this is going to ruin every part of my life'. And the third is permanence: 'I'm going to feel this way forever'," Grant told the audience.

"And when you get into those traps, it's really hard to recover. So we started talking about how to overcome those traps and move forward."

This lead to the book Option B. And to Sandberg - now 47 - sitting on stage at 92Y in Manhattan telling a crowd how to help grieving friends because "no one knows how to talk about it".

Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg on June 22, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Getty Images)

First off, acknowledge it.

"I used to think, if someone was going through something hard, the first time I saw them I would say 'I'm sorry' and then I would never bring it up again because I was afraid I would 'remind' them," Sandberg said.

"You can't 'remind' me Dave died. If you say 'I'm sorry for your loss' I'm not like 'oh Dave died, I forgot'. I didn't forget."

ADVERTISEMENT

"The much better thing to say is 'I know you're hurting, you may or may not want to talk, but I know you're hurting'," Sandberg told the audience. Grief, she says, can be isolating.

Your confidence also takes a hit. Sandberg was expecting anger and pain and denial. But she wasn't expecting her confidence to falter. There needs to be reassurance.

"I went back to work and I could barely get through a meeting without crying, so how could I do my job? What I needed to build up my confidence wasn't just permission to be a mess but reassurance that sometimes I wasn't," Sandberg said.

Our nature, she says, is to encourage people who are grieving to take time off, don't be hard on themselves, 'take as much time as you need'. This is important, but there is something more that's necessary. 

The seven stages of grief. Post continues below.

"I needed proof that absolutely I could do my job," Sandberg said.

"Mark [Zuckerberg - the founder of Facebook] would say 'you can take the time off, but I think you made a good point in that meeting'. There was no way that I made a good point in that meeting. But it was so kind of him and he did it over and over."

Finally, yes the casseroles and the support and the cuddles are important. They are all the friendship will be, for a time. But, slowly, the laughter must return. And it is a friend's job to make that happen.

"We forget the other side. It's important to give experiences and permission to be joyful. Because we all deserve that," Sandberg said.

"I realised watching TV, playing scrabble, these were things I did with Dave that brought me joy and I wasn't doing these things because they reminded me of Dave, so I took them back one by one," she said.

Tags: grief
FROM OUR NETWORK
00:00 / ???