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Post-Traumatic Gratitude and Growth: An Interview with Sheryl Sandberg

Post-Traumatic Gratitude and Growth: An Interview with Sheryl Sandberg

Dandelion plant held up to a blue sky with some of its seeds blowing into the wind

Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer of Facebook and bestselling author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Her new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy, co-authored with psychologist Adam Grant, describes what she learned about planting deep resilience in ourselves and our children, and even reclaiming joy after the sudden death of her 47-year-old husband Dave in May 2015.

Sandberg described her experience in a recent interview on my radio show, On Being; that interview is adapted here.

Krista Tippett: How did your Jewish background help you in the aftermath of your husband’s sudden death?

Sheryl Sandberg: Without the traditions of my religion, I wouldn’t have known what to do, because death ushers in such nothingness, a void sucking you in. Religion was something to hang on to in that void.

Judaism tells us that we were supposed to sit shiva, meaning people came over to the house, and it tells us how to perform the burial. Observing shloshim, the 30-day period of mourning for Dave, led to the Facebook post that was a very important part of my recovery.

What made you decide to share what you were feeling at the end of those 30 days?

After Dave died, people were afraid to say the wrong thing to me, so they often said nothing at all. I was feeling increasingly isolated. And so at the end of 30-day period, I wrote how I felt and went to sleep thinking, “There’s no way I’m posting this thing. It is too raw, too revealing.”

In the morning, I thought, “My religion told me this is supposed to be the end of mourning, but it’s not. I feel overwhelmingly awful. I might as well post it because things can’t get worse.”

It really made a difference. A friend, who’d been driving by my house, started coming in. People at work admitted they were terrified of saying the wrong thing. Strangers posted about their experiences. I felt less alone.

How did you react upon learning of your husband’s sudden death?

I blamed myself. The early reports were that he died falling off an exercise machine, so I thought if I only found him sooner, he would be alive. When we got the autopsy report, I thought, “OK, it’s not my fault that his doctors didn’t diagnose his heart condition.” But I blamed myself for disrupting my mom’s life and Facebook client meetings. And Adam, my psychologist friend, said to me, “If you don’t get over the personalization, you are not going to recover – and if you don’t recover, your kids can’t recover.” I thought, “If you tell me that, I’m willing to do anything.”

Adam also counseled you to focus on worst-case scenarios. Did that surprise you?

Yes. I said to him, “Dave just died. How can things be worse?” And he said, “He could’ve had that cardiac arrhythmia driving your children.” That really did work, because the minute I thought about how lucky I am to still have my children alive, I found gratitude. I thought, “Thank God my children are alive and I can raise them to know who their father was and would have wanted them to be.”

How did you and your children get back on track?

One day, I took a game off the shelf that the four of us played all the time. When I asked, “Who wants to play?” my kids said, “We do. We haven’t played in so long.” Then, my daughter went for gray, and my son said, “You can’t be gray. That was Daddy’s color.” And she said, “But I want to be gray,” and I said, “Yes, you can because we’re going to take it back. You’re going to play gray in Daddy’s honor.”

We took back Scrabble. We took back cheering for the sports teams Dave loved. Those little things added up, not just to moments of happiness, but to moments of strength.

At the heart of this book is post-traumatic growth. I’d much rather have Dave and give back all the growth, but because that’s not an option, we grow by strengthening. I know I’m stronger now because I’ve lived through this, and my kids are, too. We grow because we have deeper relationships. We grow by finding more gratitude.

With all the sadness that still lingers, gratitude makes my life richer, and in a different kind of way, more meaningful and joyful.

Krista Tippett will broadcast an edition of her radio show On Being on-site from the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2017 URJ Biennial, Dec. 6-10th in Boston.

Published: 5/16/2017

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