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Sheryl Sandberg's Healing Advice

Facebook COO offers hard-won wisdom on how to recover

spinner image Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

Why did you want to write Option B ?

I was really struggling. The impetus for the book was trying to figure out how to get through that acute phase of grief. But even more, to live with it and try to find some meaning, some growth. Certainly as we get older, loss is a part of our lives.

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You write about fear. How does one begin moving beyond that?

After Dave died, I worried about things I had never worried about before: Would my kids get hit by a car riding their bikes in our neighborhood? Would my son die under general anesthesia during an operation? I think I was much more nervous about things going wrong because I had lived through the experience of things going completely wrong. But I think the fear is also really rooted in isolation.

So, don't isolate yourself after a trauma?

You have to find ways to break the isolation. I found it very hard to tell people that I wanted to talk. It felt like I was imposing my sadness on them. When someone asked, "How are you?" I kept saying "I'm fine," and then people wouldn't ask me any questions. But I learned to say, "I'm actually not doing that well." One of the most common things about grief, about loss, about adversity, is silence. So what happens is, you go through this adversity or trauma, and then what piles on top of that is the isolation of no one talking about it.

You write about the "three P's" that stunt recovery. The first one is personalization: the belief that we are at fault for our losses.

Yes, these are processing traps that were identified by the psychologist Martin Seligman. With personalization, we all blame ourselves. I blamed myself for Dave's death initially because I thought he had died of trauma. He didn't die of trauma. He died of coronary artery disease. And when I found that out, I blamed myself that I hadn't diagnosed coronary artery disease. You have to let that go.

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The second "P" is pervasiveness: the belief that an event will affect all areas of our lives. Can you talk about that?

Even though there's so much that's gone wrong, there are things that are still positive. You have to give yourself permission to notice and appreciate what's good.

And the third "P," permanence — that's the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever, right?

Yes, you have to really believe that it won't feel like this forever. People who had been through trauma and grief and loss told me it would subside, but I did not believe them, because it was so overwhelming.

You also believe that resilience is a muscle that everyone can build.

Yes. I'm not happier than I was before Dave died. Not close. But there are ways in which I've grown. I have closer, deeper relationships and more meaning in my life. These things are real growth. And it's by knowing they're possible that they become possible. When we look for happiness, we often look for the big event — the birth of a grandchild, getting a job, getting married. But, really, psychologists show us that happiness is found in the small things we do. It is by hanging on to those small moments of joy that they start to add up in our minds.

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Even if your spouse has died and your children, if you have them, live far away?

It's never too late to make new friends. Building those bridges and finding the ways to talk about those things really help. And a hugely important lesson is self-compassion, treating yourself with the kindness you would a friend. And journaling is incredibly powerful. Even writing a few minutes for a few times helps us process emotions. And remember that death ushers in all kinds of guilt. But guilt is a theft of joy. You have to find your own voice — and listen to your own voice.

The book talks about dating again. Have you found new love?

I am very happily dating, and I feel lucky. I'm hoping Option B gives people permission to laugh, permission to feel joy and permission to date if they want to. Because death robs us of so much — our sense of security, our sense of justice, and happiness. Whatever we can take back, we should take back. We need to acknowledge the capacity of the human spirit to persevere. —Interview by Alanna Nash

Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook. Adam Grant is a psychology professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.


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