“This book has been so helpful,” my friend Laura said when she visited for a few days recently. She's been struggling with grief over the death of her beloved husband after caring for him during a long, intense illness, and I wanted to know which caregiving and grief resources she found useful. Laura held up Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy".
At first glance, this isn’t a book you’d expect from the renowned business leader and Facebook chief operating officer whose “lean in” mantra for working women has gained steam in boardrooms and break rooms around the globe. It wasn’t a book she expected to write, either.
Sandberg with her husband, Dave Goldberg
After her husband Dave Goldberg died suddenly in 2015 at 47, Sandberg was in mourning and at a loss for how to move forward. Shortly after his death, she wrote a Facebook post that became a viral sensation by resonating with so many of us who’ve experienced loss and are also at a loss for how to move forward.
She started her post, “Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse. A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: ‘Let me not die while I am still alive.’ I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.”
She has lived up to that prayer by publishing her new book and launching OptionB.Org. Both projects are meant to help people share stories and build community to help one another through their grief and live more fully. Recently, Sandberg shared with Caring.com the goals she has for her new foundation, as well as what she’s learned about resilience, especially as it relates to family caregivers.
What spurred you to start the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation and what are your goals for it?
Right now, the foundation is home to two initiatives: LeanIn.Org, which aims to empower women to achieve their ambitions, and OptionB.Org, which aims to help people build resilience in the face of adversity.
These initiatives were created at very different times in my life. LeanIn.Org was the result of years of thinking about gender stereotypes and all the obstacles that stand in the way of women’s achievement – some external, some self-imposed. It’s a topic I felt passionately about for a long time.
OptionB.Org was born out of the worst experience of my life so far – the loss of my husband, Dave. I wanted to create a resource for other people going through adversity or people who want to know how to support loved ones going through it – not just grief but also illness and injury, trauma, dealing with incarceration, and so much more.
What personal challenges inspired you to write your book “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy"?
I wrote “Option B” after my husband passed away. He died suddenly, leaving my kids and me completely devastated. I felt like I was in a void – a black hole that filled my heart and lungs, making it difficult to think or even breathe.
Much of the personal material in the book comes from the journal I kept at that time. In the six months after Dave’s funeral, I wrote over 100,000 words. They poured out of me. Only later did I learn the research about how important journaling can be to recovering from trauma and grief.
The rest of the book is research about resilience and other people’s stories. Both were important to my process of healing. I thought we were born with a fixed amount of resilience, but we’re not. My friend Adam Grant, a psychologist, taught me that resilience is like a muscle we can build.
We can develop resilience in ourselves, our friends, our children and our communities. To understand this better, Adam and I sought out people who have persevered through adversity of all kinds. Their stories changed my view of resilience, and gave me hope that my children and I could find strength.
Sandberg and Goldberg at their 2004 wedding
If ever a group of people need help with resilience in the face of adversity, it's caregivers. How do you see your book “Option B,” and your foundation, playing a supportive role for caregivers?
You’re so right – many caregivers face a great deal of adversity. Caregiving can be physically and emotionally grueling. It can also be lonely and isolating. A supportive community can make all the difference. I urge anyone who feels like they’re battling adversity on their own to visit OptionB.Org – you are exactly why we created it. We offer a variety of tips on how to build your individual resilience. You read stories about people who have been through adversity of all kinds and connect with other people going through what you’re going through.
Many of our readers are actively looking for how best to manage caregiving for their loved ones. What are your 3-4 best tips for caregivers looking to stay positive and focused during difficult times?
There’s no one right strategy for everyone. The last thing anyone who is struggling needs to hear is that they’re “doing it wrong.” That said, there are things that anyone can try and that research proves work. Ideas include keeping a journal, joining a group, reading other people’s stories, and sharing your own story with others. All these strategies helped me a great deal.
There are two other practices I’d suggest. In those early weeks and months after Dave died, when I felt most lost, Adam suggested that I write down three things that I’d done well each day. I was skeptical, because at the time, I was barely functioning. What moments of success could I find? But there’s evidence that these lists help, because they focus us on what psychologists call small wins.
For six months, before I went to bed, I made my list. I realized that for my entire life, I went to bed thinking about what I had done wrong that day. Now I was reminding myself of anything that went well. Slowly, the confidence I had lost when Dave died returned.
Then Adam suggested a new idea: write down three moments of joy every day. This became my New Year’s resolution for 2016, and of all the New Year’s resolutions I’ve ever made, this is the one I’ve kept the longest. Now nearly every night before I go to sleep, I write down three happy moments. This makes me notice and appreciate these flashes of joy when they occur. It brightens the whole day.
How important is community in fighting any sort of adversity and recovering from grief?
There are aspects of grief or any adversity that are very private. But for many of us, our community – our friends, family, co-workers, neighbors – help us heal. After Dave died, I leaned on the people in my life more than I ever had before. For a month, my mother literally held me as I cried myself to sleep for a month.
In writing Option B, I learned that resilience is not just built in individuals. It is also built among individuals -- in our neighborhoods, schools, towns and governments. That’s called collective resilience. When we build resilience together, we become stronger as individuals and we form stronger communities that are better able to overcome obstacles.
Your foundation's website has a section on grief and loss, in addition to several other sections on challenges. What has surprised you the most as you've gathered stories and information around this topic? And do you think there's any way to really prepare for the grief a caregiver may eventually face?
The simple fact that we can build resilience was a revelation to me. Knowing that there were steps I could take to help my kids and myself become more resilient gave me hope at a very difficult time. Part of the reason I wrote "Option B" is to pass that hope on to others.
I know now that it’s possible to experience post-traumatic growth. We can do more than bounce back; we can also bounce forward. Adam and I were surprised to learn how many people came out of tragedy with greater personal strength and having a deeper sense of gratitude and meaning in life. While post-traumatic growth doesn’t replace sadness, it goes hand-in-hand with it.
I also believe it is possible to experience pre-traumatic growth. You don’t have to experience tragedy to build your resilience for what lies ahead. Everything I did after Dave died, I could have done before, and I believe it would have helped me build strength and meaning that would have helped me once the unthinkable happened.
What do you hope for the future of caregiving, in terms of national awareness, government support and/or community resources?
We need to do better as a country when it comes to supporting families, especially caregivers. I feel lucky that Facebook had generous policies in place when I lost Dave, and based on what I learned, I worked with our teams to extend them even further. We believe giving our employees the time they need to care for themselves and their families is the right thing to do. We don’t want employees to have to choose between being there for their families and taking the time they need, and doing their jobs or even keeping their jobs. People shouldn’t have to make that choice.
It’s also the smart thing to do. Research backs that up. When companies offer support and assistance for personal and family hardships, their employees become more loyal and more productive.
But whether or not you can take time off to care for your loved ones or grieve for them shouldn’t depend on your employer. Every worker deserves this support. The only way we achieve that is by making progress as a country. Paid family leave would be a great place to start.
Based on your experience and what you're focusing on these days, what is one thing you want to say about caregiving that we touched on?
The main thing I’d say is that people facing adversity – including caregivers – should be gentle with themselves.
Recovery does not start from the same place for everyone. Some people have more to overcome and grieve. I know how fortunate I am to have financial security and supportive family, friends and coworkers.
At the same time, I’d urge everyone to believe that growth is possible. The people whose stories we share in “Option B” prove that. And part of the message of this book is that we all have a responsibility to help others overcome adversity and to work to prevent the hardship that can worsen adversity in the first place.