On Feb. 7, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg received a particularly satisfying email. She had just announced that Facebook was increasing its bereavement leave from 10 to 20 days for the passing of immediate family members, nearly two years after her husband Dave Goldberg died unexpectedly while the couple was on vacation.
Later that day, Facebook’s head of HR sent an email with a subject line that said something like, “What do these four big tech companies have in common?” Sandberg opened the email and got her answer.
“They all called me today to learn about our new policies.”
The moment was a profound victory for Sandberg, who has made a long career of leading by example. Her first book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead is all about empowering women to achieve their career ambitions. That book spawned Lean In Circles, collectives of women around the world who support one another in their careers.
Sandberg shared the story about extending Facebook’s bereavement policy during an event in Seattle to promote her second book: Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.
“Before Dave died, we made Facebook policy changes, I just did it quietly at Facebook,” she said during the event Tuesday. “But once Dave died, I realized and I heard how many people needed more help and that’s why I started doing this stuff publicly.”
Sandberg was responding to a question from an audience member who said she was working for a big Seattle tech company when her 20-year-old daughter died. She said her employer didn’t provide the kind of support she needed.
“We need to do much better in the workplace,” Sandberg told her.
Sandberg co-wrote Option B with her friend Adam Grant, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The book combines Sandberg’s personal experience with grief with Grant’s research and other stories from people who have experienced loss and crisis.
During the event, Sandberg said one of the biggest challenges in the wake of her husband’s death was the feeling of isolation. People didn’t know how to talk to her about what had happened and colleagues were afraid to engage her at work because they didn’t want to overload her. During that time, she said, she was particularly grateful for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“Mark, my amazing boss who’s 15 years younger than I am, both said, ‘take time if you want,’ but he also said ‘I thought you made a good point today,'” Sandberg said. “Or when I fell asleep in a meeting, he said, ‘people fall asleep in meetings all the time.’ Some of the great people from the Facebook office are here. Don’t sleep in meetings! We don’t do that, right? But he was so kind and I think as a policy, from corporations to the public … we need more involvement.”
Sandberg and Grant were interviewed on stage by another best-selling author who has experienced deep grief. Cheryl Strayed, who wrote Wild about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother’s death, moderated the discussion.
It was the second speaking engagement of the day for Sandberg. Earlier that day, she spoke at a private event at The Riveter, a new co-working space for women in Seattle.
Option B began as a series of Facebook posts and journal entries that Sandberg wrote to process her husband’s death. She said during those first few months, she didn’t think she would ever experience “pure joy” again. One of the coping strategies that Grant taught Sandberg was to write down three instances of joy per day.
“I realized before this I went to bed every night worried about what went wrong and what was going to go wrong tomorrow and what I messed up,” she said. “Now I go to bed thinking about the good.”