Sheryl Sandberg on husband's sudden death: 'I couldn't breathe'

Nearly two years ago, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg received a new role -- one no one would sign up for: widow.

Now she's trying to help people who have experienced a loss around the grieving with her new book "Option B."
"Going through this ... it's the unimaginable. Those early days ... months, weeks, I felt like there was this void closing in on me. The grief. I couldn't breathe. And I didn't know what to do. I turned to my friend Adam and I said, 'How do I get my kids through this?' Because I was so worried their childhoods were going to be wiped away," Sandberg told CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper" on Tuesday.

Sandberg said if her book can help anyone who is also facing a hardship, "It honors the life [Dave] led. And like so many people who have lost someone, I want his memory to stay alive."

Dave Goldberg was just 47 when he passed away while the couple was on vacation in Mexico. The tech entrepreneur had been exercising when he fell. An autopsy later revealed the cause of his death was a coronary arrhythmia, a symptom of his undiagnosed coronary artery disease.

Tapper choked up as he read a passage Sandberg wrote about telling her children they had lost their father: "The screaming and crying that followed haunt me to this day -- primal screams and cries that echoed the ones in my heart. Nothing has come close to the pain of this moment."

Sandberg said the loss has given her children perspective. After her son's team lost a recent basketball game, many children were crying. Her son told her he would be fine.

"Kids are resilient. My kids are resilient. My kids have faced horrible trauma. There are so many kids in this country growing up in poverty, facing very, very hard challenges. ... We need resilience for all of them."

Sandberg recounted an especially hard day for her as she was attending her son's music concert and saw all the other fathers watching their children play. It was a cold reminder that Dave wasn't coming back. The day wasn't over, as Sandberg was expected to host an important dinner for Facebook at her home later that night. She was upstairs hysterically crying as her son came in and said, "Mommy, they're here." She told him she couldn't go downstairs, and couldn't stop crying. She recounted her son saying, "Mom, you should just go downstairs. They all know what happened to us. It's OK. And I bet they have things that they cry about, too."

Sandberg and her husband Dave Goldberg, then-CEO of SurveyMonkey, attend a 2014 conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. Scott Olson/Getty Images

'Just Show Up': Sheryl Sandberg On How To Help Someone Who's Grieving

Two years ago, life was good for Sheryl Sandberg. The Facebook senior executive and mother of two had a best-selling book (Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead) and she and her husband, Dave Goldberg, decided to take a vacation. But on that vacation, Goldberg collapsed at the gym from heart failure and died. He was 47 years old.

Sandberg went through a period of darkness after her husband's death. She turned to professionals and friends for help getting through it, and now she's written a book with one of those professionals, psychologist Adam Grant. It's called Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.

Sandberg spoke to NPR about finding her way back to normal and the best way to be there for someone who's going through a hard time.

My interactions before — I would drop my kids off at school and, you know, the parents and I would all wave to each other; show up at work and everyone would chit chat. A lot of that just stopped and people kind of looked at me like I was a ghost. And I think they were so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they hardly said anything at all.

And it's not just death which does this, it's really all forms of adversity. You want to silence a room? Get diagnosed with cancer. You know, have someone in your family go to prison. Lose a job. Sexual assault. These things are uncomfortable, and because they're uncomfortable people are often afraid of saying the wrong thing and often say nothing at all, and then we have this huge elephant in a room following us around. And one of the reasons I wrote the book and am launching is that the problem with that is that we then don't help each other when we most need that help, and I think that's when we can most come together.

I used to say, when someone was going through something hard, "Is there anything I can do?" And I meant it, I meant it kindly. But the problem is ... that kind of shifts the burden to the person you're offering the help to to figure out what they need. And when I was on the other side of that question, I didn't know how to answer it. Is there anything you can do? Well, can you make Father's Day go away so I don't have to live through it every year? No.

Rather than offer to do something, it's often better to do anything. Just do something specific. My wonderful friends ... tragically lost a son and they spent many months in a hospital before that. And one of his friends texted him and said, "What do you not want on a burger?" Not, "Do you want dinner?" Another friend texted and said, "I'm in the lobby of your hospital for an hour for a hug whether you come down or not." Just show up.

Now, there's no one way to grieve and not everyone will want the same thing. So the best approach is really ask people. Say, "I know you're going through something terrible. I'm coming over with dinner tonight. Is that OK?"

The most important thing you can do to build resilience is find gratitude. And it's completely counter intuitive, right? I lost my husband and I would have thought that what you want to do in that situation is try to come up with any positive thought you can. But one day [Option B co-author Adam Grant] said to me, "You should think about how things could be worse." And I looked at him like he was crazy. I'm like, "Worse? Well? Are you kidding?" And he said, "Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia driving your children." Right? I mean sock it to the gut. Never occurred to me I could have lost all three. And the second you say that, you're "I'm good. My kids are alive."

I think in some ways I didn't get it. When I wrote Lean In, I certainly thought about single mothers and single parents, and I wrote about that in the book. But I also titled a whole chapter "Make Your Partner a Real Partner." And it wasn't until I lost Dave that I really understood how hard that could be for someone who didn't have one, the same way Father's Day is so hard for us now. ...

And I posted this last Mother's Day and said I don't think I understood this deeply enough. And I really believe we need to do better. ... Resilience is needed by everyone and hardship is not evenly distributed. People who are living with disadvantage and living in poverty face more to overcome and have fewer resources with which to overcome and we need to change both of those.

About four months after Dave died, I went to a friend's child's bar mitzvah and I got on the dance floor with an old high school friend and danced to a song I love. And then a minute in, I just started crying. A lot. On the dance floor. He had to kind of take me outside. And I didn't really know what was wrong, and then I realized I felt OK. For one minute. I danced and felt happy for a minute, and then immediately the guilt just flooded into my body. How can I feel OK when Dave is gone? And what I realized is that it's not just overcoming the grief and it's not just overcoming the isolation; it's giving ourselves permission to feel happy.

My brother-in-law, Dave's only sibling, did this for me in such a beautiful way. He called me one day and he was crying, I could hear it in his voice. And he said, "All Dave ever wanted was for you and your children to be happy. Don't take that away from him in death." And it still was hard to let myself laugh, to let myself find joy, but I realized I had to work at it. I had to give myself permission. And I knew I needed to do it because everyone said if I didn't find a way to be happy my kids could never be happy. ...

One of the suggestions Adam made to me is write down three moments of joy before you go to bed. And it's the New Year's resolution I've kept by far the longest. ... The thing about happiness is I think sometimes we're waiting for the big stuff to be happy. ... But happiness isn't always the big things. Happiness is actually the little things, the little moments that make up our day. And in the face of Dave's death, the big thing was not getting better, and it's still not better. So if I wait for that to get better to feel any happiness I'm never gonna feel it.

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