Open Letter to Sheryl Sandberg
Dear Sheryl, I didn’t write to you after your precious husband, Dave passed away because I didn’t know you then. But now that I’ve read your new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, I feel as if I do know you and want to tell you how deeply sorry I am for your loss.
You bared your soul so deeply and bravely that I wept as I read the pain you’ve endured since his passing. I remember the shock and grief I felt two years ago when I read the news of Dave’s sudden death while you were on a family vacation in Mexico. In your book, you vividly describe that moment you found Dave on the floor beside the elliptical machine and it’s still hard to imagine the horror you must have felt.
I’m truly inspired by your book and the grace you’ve shown in surviving the trauma of that life changing event. Thank you for your willingness to describe the raw emotions you experienced. You’ve inspired thousands of readers by giving them hope that they too can overcome tragedy and live again. The poignant stories in your book and on your website OptionB.org are helping people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity. Please know that you have my deepest sympathy for your loss, Donne Davis
What I love about Option B
Sheryl took a devastating personal tragedy and shared it as a way to give hope to others who have suffered a loss. She has spent the last two years studying resilience because what she learned since losing Dave has fundamentally changed how she views this world and how she lives in it. She wanted to share it because she thinks it’s going to help people lead happier, healthier, and more joyful lives. People’s challenges, disappointments, heartaches, losses and illnesses are personal when they strike and at the same time, they’re universal. And because they are, we can all benefit from the lessons that are learned.
The most important thing she learned is that we’re not born with a certain amount of resilience. It’s a muscle and that means we can build it. We build resilience into ourselves and into the people we love.
Sheryl started journaling four days after her husband’s death and that helped her process her overwhelming feelings and all-too-many regrets. As she wrote out those moments, her anger and regret began to lessen. Journaling helped her make sense of the past and rebuild her self-confidence to navigate the present and future.
Her co-author, Adam Grant, a psychologist and Wharton professor, suggested she also write down three things she’d done well each day. At first, she was skeptical. She was barely functioning and wondered what moments of success she could find. But there is evidence that these lists help by focusing people on what psychologists call “small wins.” And just the act of reminding herself of anything that had gone well was a welcome shift.
As people saw her stumble at work, some of them tried by reducing the pressure. When she messed up or was unable to contribute, they waved it off, saying “How could you keep anything straight with all you’re going through?” But what she felt was that their expression of sympathy diminished her self-confidence even more. What did help was hearing, “Really? I thought you made a good point in that meeting and helped us make a better decision.” Empathy was nice but encouragement was better.
Sheryl wrote her last journal entry on the day after what would have been Dave’s 48th birthday. She dreaded that day and knew it would be a marker—the birthday that did not happen. She and her parents and siblings went to his grave. Towards the end of their time there, she sat down in front of the grave by herself. She spoke to him out loud and told him that she loved him and missed him every minute of every day. She told him how empty the world seemed without him in it and then cried, as it was so painfully clear that he could not hear her.
Then her brother and sister did something so comforting that I cried as I read it. They sat down on either side of her and talked about how if they were lucky, the three of them would live long enough to bury their parents and they would do it there together.
Raising Resilient Kids
An important chapter in Option B is on “Raising Resilient Kids.” She explains that resilience is not a fixed personality trait. It’s a lifelong project and it depends on the opportunities children have and the relationships they form with parents, caregivers, teachers, and friends. We can start by helping children develop four core beliefs:
- Children have some control over their lives.
- Children can learn from failure.
- Children matter as human beings.
- Children have real strengths to rely on and share.
Sheryl shares many stories of the impact Dave’s death had on their two young children who were as heartbroken as she was. And she was heartbroken that they were heartbroken. She and her son and daughter sat down with a big piece of paper and colored markers and wrote down their “family rules.” They included four categories: respect for each others’ feelings, sleep, forgiveness, and teamwork. She realized some time later that each category listed “ask for help.”
Of all the messages in Sheryl’s book, two of the most important and often the hardest to do are to ask for help and nurture self-compassion. One way she modeled this for her children and at the same time provided them with a lifelong gift, was to ask Dave’s closest family members, friends and colleagues to capture their memories of him on video. She writes that her son and daughter will never have another conversation with their father, but one day when they are ready they will learn about him from those who loved him.