Sheryl Sandberg and I video-chatted about grief during a time when the whole world is experiencing it. Here's her personal advice for persevering.


Sheryl Sandberg

  • I recently spoke with Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and coauthor of “Option B,” on video chat about grief and loss during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • She talked about the 2015 death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, and revealed she recently lost a family member because of complications from the novel coronavirus. I talked about losing my brother, Matthew Ward, because of an accidental drug overdose in 2019.
  • Sandberg said the pandemic is causing mass grief but it is also presenting an opportunity for collective resilience and courage.
  • She and the psychologist Adam Grant recently released an excerpt from their book, “Option B,” along with a new foreword about grief during the coronavirus pandemic to help people cope.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For the past 11 months, I’ve been grieving the death of my younger brother, Matthew Ward, who died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 21. I’ve been living what Facebook COO and author Sheryl Sandberg calls “Option B.”

It’s the state where, after experiencing something earth-shattering, a person tries to find the next best option in life. It’s where you learn to climb mountains, one step at a time.

Sandberg started living “Option B” in 2015 after her husband, the SurveyMonkey CEO David Goldberg, died at age 47 that same year. Two years later, she coauthored a book with the same name along with the Wharton psychologist Adam Grant. Since then, she’s become a public advocate for addressing grief, building personal strength, and for bereavement leave.

On Thursday, I interviewed the Facebook COO on a Zoom call for a story on grief.

I decided to go with my gut and lead with why I was passionate about covering the topic — because of my own journey. When I told her what happened to my brother, she stopped me mid-sentence.

“So sorry. Like, so sorry,” she said, putting up her hands. “‘Cause the death, it’s an avoidable — that — like so sorry.”

There was a pause. She knew there were no other words. And I knew too.

After a moment, I began the interview, asking her about what the world is experiencing right now. We began the conversation with how not only we were personally grieving but the world is grieving because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“You didn’t want your brother to die. I didn’t want my husband to die. The entire world is living ‘Option B’ right now. Everyone,” Sandberg said.

In the US alone, more than 28,000 people have died because of the coronavirus. Some 22 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past month. Millions of others have lost their sense of normality, with social distancing and self-isolation affecting households everywhere.

As I was speaking with Sandberg, I realized that the pandemic has given me, and everyone else on the planet, a unique opportunity. It’s given us the chance to talk freely and openly about an extremely difficult, and often personal, subject most keep quiet — grief.

Sandberg revealed she lost a family member because of complications from the coronavirus.

“Now some people are suffering much more than others,” she said. “We lost my fiancé’s first cousin, so we’ve had direct death in our family. Some people have health things, some people are much more worried about the economic situation. But I honestly think there’s not a single person who’s not living some form of Option B right now.”

The collective psyche is changed, she says. The pandemic presents an opportunity for collective resilience.

“I think this is going to change us and I hope and want it to change us for the better so that we do more. We give more to strangers, we give more to the people in our lives, and I think we are seeing that, and that is collective resilience,” she said.

Recently, Sandberg said that the coronavirus is exacerbating inequality in the US and called on individuals, government, and business leaders to help address it. She and several high-profile business leaders, for example, raised more than $8 million to fund local food banks.

Now Sandberg, along with coauthor Grant, is helping out in a different way. She released an excerpt from the book “Option B,” with a new foreword responding to the crisis, available online free. The excerpt includes several tips for coping with anxiety and loss.

“The question is when life throws the unexpected challenge our way, death for you and me, everything we’re going through, now what do we do? And the answer is we try to build resilience,” Sandberg said.

Here are five important things to remember if you’re experiencing anxiety or grief right now, according to Sandberg.

SEE ALSO: Sheryl Sandberg: Coronavirus is exacerbating inequality in the US. Millionaires and billionaires need to take responsibility and do more than they’ve ever done before.

Know that it’s OK to not feel OK.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, irritable, anxious, stressed, or sad right now, know that these may be signs of grief over losing our sense of regular life.

“The pandemic has shattered our illusion of invulnerability. It has reminded us of the fragility of both our lives and of life as we know it,” Sandberg writes in the excerpt. “It is understandable that so many people are feeling deeply down.”

Understand what can prevent you from being resilient.

In dealing with her own grief, Sandberg studied what psychologist Martin Seligman called “the three P’s” that hold someone back from recovering from a traumatic event.

They are:

The first thing that can make moving forward more difficult is personalization, or the belief that we are at fault.

“I had a lot of ‘Could I have saved Dave’s life?’ ‘Why didn’t I know he had cardiovascular disease?’ Like really beating myself up until like I learned that personalization wasn’t going to help me. I had to say ‘I’m not a doctor, you know, of course if I couldn’t have known,'” Sandberg said.

I chimed in, saying that I blamed myself too for my brother’s death. What if I had come home that night? What if I had called him later than I had? Could I have caught it?

“So many people are finding ways to blame themselves,” Sandberg said.

The second thing that will keep us stuck is permanence, or the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever.

Feeling like everything is crashing down on you is a valid emotion, but it’s important to know that it won’t last forever, and that there are still resources available to help out.

“I know you probably still feel terrible about your brother’s death. I still miss my husband, but I don’t feel the way I felt on week one. Do you?” Sandberg asked me.

“No,” I replied.

It’s true. While recently, I have been struggling with my grief. Nothing will ever compare to those first few days and weeks.

Another notion that can hold people grieving back is pervasiveness, or the idea that an event will affect all areas of our life.

“During a tragedy, when things are so much worse than usual, it’s easy to get caught up in the feeling that everything is awful. But in reality, not everything is,” Sandberg writes in the excerpt. “Utilities are still operating. We still have books and board games and movies to enjoy at home. We can still reach out to loved ones by phone or through the internet.”

Try to talk about what you’re going through.

Not everyone wants to talk about their feelings. But it can help to open up.

“There’s powerful evidence that opening up about traumatic events can improve mental and physical health. Speaking to a friend or family member often helps people understand their own emotions and feel understood,” Sandberg and Grant write.

Begin to practice self-compassion.

“Self-compassion comes from recognizing that our imperfections are part of being human,” the coauthors write.

Caring for yourself as you would a loved one or friend is a great way to practice self-compassion. For example, would you judge your friend for struggling to get out of bed amid grief? Probably not. You’d do your best to help care for them, and you’d treat them with kindness.

If you apply that same mentality to yourself, the coauthors write, you can start to heal.

Sandberg and Grant also recommend journaling.

“Writing about traumatic events can decrease anxiety and anger, boost grades, reduce absences from work, and lessen the emotional impact of job loss,” they write.

Take steps to be more grateful.

“It’s the great irony to go through tragedy or hardship and come out more grateful, but that is the post-traumatic growth,” she said, referencing a theory in psychology that says that people can transform in positive ways after trauma.

The growth “can’t bring your brother back,” she added, “We can’t bring Dave back.” But it adds more depth and richness to life.

Just the same, our personal challenges can speak to the loss and instability, as well as community and positive action, that the world contending with right now.

“We can’t change what the world is going through, but we can learn the lesson of gratitude and appreciation, right?” she said.

I agreed — grateful, once again, for what my brother continues to teach me.