Sheryl Sandberg’s new book isn’t just a memoir on grief, it’s a critical guide to reclaiming life

Finding joy after tragedy.
Finding joy after tragedy.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

On March 10, 2014, my mother, my sister-in-law, and I walked up the stairs to tell my brother’s four daughters that their father had died. Though he had been sick for two years, the news came as a total shock. We each went for one child, enveloping them completely in the hope that our embrace would shield them from the horror of what we were saying. It did not. Their primal screams remain etched on my brain.

We didn’t tell his youngest, who was four years old, that night. She was asleep. When she bounded down the stairs the following morning, asking for pancakes, I was writing Robbie’s obituary and sketching out a eulogy as her mother wept and planned the funeral. No one had a clue how to deal with the next 10 seconds, much less the next 10 years.

We were desperate for guidance but also paralyzed by intersecting layers of grief: anger over how much he had suffered; fear for the gaping, irreversible, hole he had left; and anxiety over how to move forward, even if just to get groceries.

What we needed, immediately, was assurance that my brother’s children would not drown in sadness and rage. He wanted to help his girls lead bright, purposeful lives. But now he was gone. How would we help them not just survive his death, but somehow emerge with hope, which was in such shockingly short supply at the time?

Sheryl Sandberg offers some good ideas in Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. Sandberg tragically lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, while they were celebrating a friend’s birthday at a resort in Mexico: he went to the gym, had a cardiac arrhythmia, and died. She found him on the floor, and in a flash her life became divided in two: before and after. Through the terror of it all, she was beset by fear for her kids. She called her best friend and screamed into the phone: “Tell me my kids will be ok!”

Option B is Sandberg’s journey through the fog of sadness and anger to her choice to find happiness again. It is a study of resilience and how we build it, for ourselves and for our kids, as well as what it is like to have it tested. “I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice,” she wrote in a beautiful Facebook post in June 2015. “You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.”

Sandberg chose meaning, and she also chose to pay it forward by sharing how she did it. There’s the book itself as well as the creation of a nonprofit, Option B, to offer support groups for those facing adversity (think Lean In circles, of which there are 30,000, to process the shit that life throws at you).

“Expressing emotion when you’ve gone through extreme pain is not weakness. It is humanity,” Adam Grant, Sandberg’s co-author and friend, told Time. Grief is hardly a novel topic, but few leaders of Sandberg’s stature are brave enough to remove the outer shell and reveal the vast vulnerability we feel in the face of it.

The book and nonprofit are gifts to anyone who will face tragedy, or adversity in any form (ie, everyone). Resilience is needed to cope with death; it is also needed to deal when your son gets rejected from the school he wanted, or your daughter doesn’t make the soccer team.

It is as much a guide for the bereaved as a handbook on how to be human. Death may be utterly predictable, but many struggle with it when it happens to someone they know or love. Some people say nothing, fearing they will say the wrong thing, or offer up statements like “I can’t imagine” (try) or “I don’t know how you do it” (as if we were given a choice).

It is packed with wisdom, from how to engage in double sorries (see below) and how to ask for help, to the fact that there is something real called post-traumatic growth, which is the possibility that people can actually grow in unexpected ways after trauma. When my brother died, we needed to hear that; everyone can benefit to hear that now.

Grief is paralyzing and personal—facts Sandberg acknowledges throughout the book—but it has the power to weave us into the tapestry of human experience, if we let it. “I felt connected to something much larger than myself—connected to a universal human experience,” she writes. It is a silver lining none of us would choose, but one that is an inevitable, and eventually empowering, consequence.

Sandberg could rely on the world’s best child psychologists, the most forgiving workplace possible, and friends like Grant, a professor of psychology and author of Originals. Her co-author arrived in California in the aftermath of Goldberg’s death to offer Sandberg and her kids love and support, but also, a welter of data. She had all the money in the world and a broken, angry heart she decided to try and heal.

Option B is her effort to share all of that with us.

Here’s what I wish I had known at the time my family faced great trauma, and what might help others facing tragedy, or adversity of any kind:

The three Ps

Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says there are three Ps that stunt recovery: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence. We tend to think everything is our fault. Sandberg blamed herself for not knowing about her husband’s heart condition, even though his doctors didn’t know about it either.

We also think the dread and gloom and rip-roaring anger we feel will last forever. My sister-in-law said the sound of the train in the evenings would break her heart every night; it was yet another reminder that Robbie would never be on that train, would never come home again to help his daughters do homework or read to them in bed, would never bound in the door for movie night or to share the funny little bits of life that Grace and he so loved to share. If he could never be on the train, how could the pain of loss ever ease? It simply did not compute.

Humans tend to overestimate how long negative events will last, Sandberg says, citing studies. Those who have experienced intense loss naturally feel they will never feel a drop of joy. Seligman suggests banishing words like “never” and “always” for “sometimes” and “lately.” So instead of “I will always feel this awful,” “I will sometimes feel this awful.”

Sandberg also says it was useful for her to ban “sorry.” If you are used to being positive, or helpful, it is taxing to always be angry and sad. So you apologize—all the time. Don’t. Grant explained to Sandberg that by blaming herself, she was delaying her own recovery and that of her children. It worked.

Post-traumatic growth

“There’s no one way to grieve and no one way to comfort,” Sandberg writes. Children, we learn, do it in short intense bursts, which can be disconcerting to adults who see them running and playing and wonder what is going on. (Chalk this up as one more lesson we can learn from our kids, among the bountiful many.)

Adults process loss a million ways—the four stages of grief, it turns out, are non-linear, and crisscross with exacting imprecision, which sucks. There’s anxiety and meta-anxiety, the fear of being anxious. “Part of every misery is misery’s shadow,” C.S. Lewis writes, summing up the reality that while suffering you also worry about the fact that you are suffering, which makes you suffer more. The vortex feels inescapable—permanent and pervasive.

There is no silver lining to losing a brother or a father or a husband, but there is the possibility of growth from it, Sandberg writes, citing research from Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. These people don’t bounce back, she writes, they “bounce forward.”

A student of Grant’s categorized five forms of post-traumatic growth: finding personal strength (realizing you are stronger than you ever expected); gaining appreciation (joy looks different after trauma—a non-traumatic day is a great day); forming deeper relationships (focusing on friends with substance); and discovering more meaning in life and seeing new possibilities.

Sandberg says when she first heard Grant talk about this, she thought it was hype. Then Grant replayed her own advice back to her. “You often argue that people can’t be what they can’t see,” Grant said to her. “If you don’t see that growth is possible, you’re not going to find it.”

She decided to look for it.

“Post-traumatic growth” makes it sound like something you might want; it’s not. It’s just making the best out of a bad situation, or as Sandberg says, kicking the shit out of option B. “Tragedy breaks down your door and take you prisoner. To escape takes effort and energy. Seeking joy after facing adversity is taking back what was stolen from you,” she writes. Getting it back can feel like a Herculean accomplishment.

Three years after my brother died, my four nieces floor me with who they have become: their resilience should be the study of another book. Post-traumatic growth is real, even if though there’s no way I would have believed it back in 2014.

How children build resilience

Sandberg outlines four things kids need to feel to build resilience: to feel they have some control over their lives; to understand they can learn from failure; to know they matter as human beings; and to realize they have real strengths to rely on and share.

These are all true, and the research that backs them up is some of the most compelling research in education about how to close achievement gaps created by poverty and trauma. Kids need to feel they belong in a classroom to be able to thrive; schools which pursue restorative justice are driving down suspension rates compared with those with more putative measures. Kids who learn that failure is growth, and the effort toward a goal—and not the achievement itself—is worthy of praise, will become more resilient (see Carol Dweck).

But Sandberg’s greatest gift on how to help children comes from the family rules she and her kids created. They are a profoundly powerful set of guidelines for children who are grieving, and also those who are not. The chart they wrote gives them permission to feel the sadness, anger, and loss permeating their lives. It encourages self-compassion and forgiveness, and allows them happiness when it appears. Perhaps most importantly, it insists they ask for help when they need it (she did not realize until later that “ask for help” appears in three of the four quadrants). What child, or adult, doesn’t need to be reminded of these things every day?

Sandberg teaches us the power of “double sorries”—quickly saying sorry when rage gets the best of you, and then “mirroring”, or summarizing how the other person is feeling to make sure they feel acknowledged. This is something she learned when she took her daughter to a leadership camp. “We take it back” was a mantra the three of them developed as a way to not give up things that reminded them of Dave, but incorporate them into the fabric of their lives. “Allowing ourselves to be happy—accepting that it is okay to push through the guilt and seek joy—is a triumph over permanence,” she says.

Advice from Sandberg can, of course, feel fraught: she is a billionaire, the chief operating officer of one of the world’s most powerful companies, and a best-selling author. But unlike in Lean In, where she was tone deaf about the reality of many women—there’s a chapter called “Make your partner a Perfect Partner” despite the fact that 10 million women are single mothers—Sandberg spends ample time on stories and statistics about how much worse most single women or children suffering trauma have it. She is careful to note her own unique good fortune, almost as apology, throughout, and to present plenty of public policy paths, from bereavement leave to paid parental leave, as ways to help those less fortunate (ie, everyone).

But here’s the thing about grief: money helps, hugely. Sandberg got off all the time she needed, the cost of therapy was probably not an issue, and her kids were in a school that cared for them and looked out for them, to name a few things. But money cannot bring husbands and fathers back. Grief is the ultimate equalizer.

And for all the friends who don’t know what the hell to say or do, this section is for you

If grief is intensely personal, the way others process it sometimes is not. There is the profound disappointment of those who do not know how to help (including the “non-questioning friends” as Sandberg calls them), or the many things that people say to help—“I cannot imagine”—which can be piercing to hear (try).

Grief shattered Sandberg’s confidence, as it does to many it hits. “I just kind of crumbled in every area,” Sandberg told Time. “I didn’t think I could be a good friend. I didn’t feel like I could do my job.” Friends and family need to be fiercely present. That does not mean always being around; it means deciding to be present. “Simply showing up for a friend can make a huge difference,” Sandberg writes.

She offers some useful phrases: “you are not alone” is better than “I cannot imagine”; “I will bring dinner” is better than “how can I help?” which puts the burden on the grieving one to come up with something to do (could you bring my husband back? is one my sister-in-law often thought of offering up).

And as for “how are you?”: It can be a punch in the gut to someone already in pain, since the answer is probably somewhere along the spectrum of awful to unbearable. A better alternative: “how are you today?”

Sandberg cites a series of famous experiments looking at stress. People were asked to perform tasks which require concentration while simultaneously being blasted with random bursts of loud noises. Naturally, the participants’ heart rates, blood pressure, and sweat increased. They started to make mistakes. But then, when some of those people were offered a button that would let them stop the noises, they relaxed. The amazing thing about the experiment? They didn’t actually press the button.

“When people are in pain, they need a button,” Sandberg says. Friends, families, communities, and workplaces have to step up and find a way to be that button.

No silver linings

I doubt I would have been able to read this book right after my brother died. We called therapists and talked to counselors and relied, incessantly, on a community that impressively stepped up to help. But most of what we did was muck through from one terrible experience to the next: the first child’s birthday (with four, they happen a lot);the painful dismantling of the architecture firm my brother had built; the grinding day-to-day pain of a mother who had lost her son and a wife her husband; and the kids’ bravery and pain so inexplicably apparent, and then not.

Author Anna Quindlen says that grief is discussed among “those of us who recognize in one another a kindred chasm deep in the center of who we are.” Just like there is a powerful bonding that comes from becoming a parent—and suddenly realizing you don’t, in fact, know much about the most important things in life—it can sometimes feel that those who know pain are best suited to help others in it.

But Sandberg’s guide for the grieving is also a guide to those fortunate enough not to be there yet. In the same way she implored graduates at Berkeley to “celebrate everything” in a speech not long after Dave’s death, Option B implores us to build wells of strength to cope with adversity, but also to find compassion for ourselves and those around us when it hits us, as it will. “This book gives you hope,” Grace, my sister-in-law, said. “In the midst of such grief, hope is all we can ask for.”

Joy can come after grief, Sandberg shows. But it looks different, at once more prosaic and more profound. “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” author Annie Dillard writes. Finding joy is about making the days matter again, which soon adds up to a life.