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Sheryl Sandberg shares

Facebook executive speaks from her heart to her hometown community

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spoke at Hillview Middle School on topics ranging from how to raise resilient children to the side effects of the "Me too" movement as part of the district's parent education program. (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac)

Not long after Sheryl Sandberg's husband, Dave Goldberg, died unexpectedly at the age of 47 in March 2015, a friend had to help Ms. Sandberg figure out how to help her child participate in a father-child event without a father.

"But I want Dave. I want option A," Ms. Sandberg wrote in a post on Facebook, where she is chief operating officer. The friend, she wrote, "put his arm around me and said, 'Option A is not available. So let's just kick the ($#!+) out of option B.' "

Ms. Sandberg, who lives in Menlo Park, co-wrote a book that was published last year about some of the lessons she learned after her husband's premature death, "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy." On Jan. 17, she shared some of those lessons with her hometown community as part of the Menlo Park City School District's speaker series.

"This is my community and my home and I'm glad to be with so many friends," she told the crowd, which filled every available seat in Hillview Middle School's Performing Arts Center.

"This community played such a big role in my recovery," she said.

"This book and this journey was trying to take what I learned and share it," she said.

Sharing the pain

Ms. Sandberg was very public with her feelings after her husband's death, posting on Facebook only four days after she found him unresponsive on the floor in the gym of a Mexican resort, dead from a heart arrhythmia caused by coronary artery disease.

"If the day I walked down that aisle with Dave someone had told me that this would happen -- that he would be taken from us all in just 11 years -- I would still have walked down that aisle," Ms. Sandberg wrote. "Because 11 years of being Dave Goldberg's wife, and 10 years of being a parent with him, is perhaps more luck and more happiness than I ever could have imagined. I am grateful for every minute we had," she wrote.

She told the audience at Hillview that her public posts actually made things easier for her. "It wasn't just the loss of Dave that was overwhelming," she said. "It was actually the basic silence that was everywhere," she said. "People were almost frozen. They didn't know what to say."

Another heartfelt post she made 30 days after Mr. Goldberg's death, she said, was meant for co-workers and friends. "It was kind of a plea: Start talking to me again. Ask me how I am today," she said.

"The post did not take away the loss, but it took away the isolation because everyone started talking to me." People all over the world began sharing their own stories of loss, she said.

'How are you today?'

Many people have no idea how to talk to someone who has suffered a personal trauma, she said, including herself before losing her husband. "If someone walks up to you and says, 'How are you?' ... there's just no answer to that question," she said.

"How are you, in our society, is not a real question," she said, or at least a question anyone expects an honest answer to.

But asking "How are you today?" lets the person know you realize he or she is struggling to get through the day, she said.

Another thing she learned after her loss, Ms. Sandberg said, is that resilience -- the ability to recover from adversity -- is not something innate. Resilience can be built up, like a muscle, she said.

In the early days after Ms. Sandberg lost her husband, Adam Grant, the co-author of her book, told Ms. Sandberg: "You build resilience ... by understanding what it is, and how we support each other."

Post-traumatic growth

Ms. Sandberg said she learned that it is possible to grow from trauma, and the result is the opposite of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- it is post-traumatic growth.

"Early on, Adam said to me, you should think about what could be worse," Ms. Sandberg said. "My husband's dead. I walked into the gym and found him on the floor. What could be worse?" she recalled thinking. But Mr. Grant told her it would have been worse, for example, if Mr. Goldberg had suffered the cardiac emergency while driving their kids.

He was right, I could have lost all three of them," Ms. Sandberg said. "Resilience is found by being grateful for what we have."

One thing she's grateful for is just being alive. "I woke up the day I turned 48 with this overwhelming gratitude that I had made it. In the early days my kids didn't think I would," because their dad hadn't reached that birthday, she said.

"I made it," she said. "It turns out there's only two options: We either grow old or we don't."

"Every day, every birthday, those are gifts that not everyone gets," she said.

While she has learned so much after losing her husband, "I would trade all the growth, for sure, to get Dave back," she said. "I can't have that, but what I do have is that resilience and that growth."

Raising resilient kids

Answering a question on how to raise resilient kids, Ms. Sandberg said: "First is mattering. Kids need to know they matter to you." They need to know they have a voice, and they need independence, she said.

"I think our generation controls so much for our kids. Kids need to make more decisions on their own," do projects on their own, and should be allowed to fail, she said.

Ms. Sandberg said she realized her son had built some of his own resilience when his middle school basketball team lost a championship game. Seeing all the other boys crying, she moved to comfort her son. "I said: 'Are you OK?' He said: 'Mom, this is sixth-grade basketball!' And then he looked at me, and he said: 'They don't know.' "

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See related stories:

Facebook executive shares hard won lessons learned from loss

Sheryl Sandberg on girls, parenting and 'me too'

Ways to get involved: OptionB.org and LeanIn.org

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