The Big Read

Sheryl Sandberg's Option B offers advice on healing after trauma

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg speaking at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January. She wrote her second book, Option B, with psychologist Adam Grant.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg speaking at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January. She wrote her second book, Option B, with psychologist Adam Grant.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

That is how all-consuming grief was for Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg after she lost her husband in 2015

When you are one of the world's 20 most powerful women in business, it might beggar belief that most of your colleagues treat you as if you were invisible.

That was, however, what Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg confronted when she returned to work 10 days after her husband, Mr David Goldberg, chief of Web-based survey company SurveyMonkey, died suddenly on May 1, 2015, while they were on a couples-only holiday in Mexico.

As the 47-year-old writes in her second and eagerly awaited book, Option B, which she launched on April 24: "Walking around the Facebook campus, I started to feel like a ghost, somehow frightening and invisible at the same time." Her description of appearing to be an apparition to her workmates is spot on, as any survivor of, say, cancer who returns to work could tell you.

It got so bad, she adds, that she "sought refuge" with her boss, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, in his conference room. There, he explained to her that their colleagues "wanted to stay close" to her but "did not know what to say", which was why they were seemingly cold, distant and stilted, when previously they had been almost like family to her.

Sandberg shows herself to be acutely vulnerable and, thus, winningly human - such that this book is a model record of real-time resilience.

Mr Goldberg had been running on a treadmill in their hotel's gym when his heart gave out. He fell off the exercise machine, hit his head and was lying in a pool of blood when Sandberg found him.

Option B is her friend Phil Deutch's shorthand for an alternative path in life after fate has flushed one's ideal way down the tubes. It was Mr Deutch's birthday that they had been celebrating in Mexico.

  • OPTION B: FACING ADVERSITY, BUILDING RESILIENCE AND FINDING JOY

  • By Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

    W H Allen, paperback/226 pages/ $27.82 with GST from Books Kinokuniya or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 155.937092 SAN

Her searing account of family life after Mr Goldberg is now a bestseller here, just two weeks after its worldwide release, largely because most readers are curious how even one as tough-hearted as she coped with the sudden loss of her beloved second husband. She divorced her first husband when she was 25, which she detailed in her debut book, Lean In (2013).

  • In a nutshell

  • THE GOOD

    With the help of her psychologist friend Adam Grant, Silicon Valley maven Sheryl Sandberg has written a lucid, blow-by-blow account of how she clawed back her life after losing her husband in 2015. Her feat has been to infuse her tell-all with raw honesty, without at any point seeming maudlin or indulgent. Her instinct of anticipating hurt to her children and herself and deflecting it with guts and good cheer will show anyone in grief a quicker way out of their tunnel of torment.

    THE BAD

    Sandberg is an over-achiever who sometimes overthinks her subject and wants to rein in even what she cannot control. This results in a fair bit of repetition of points and, sometimes, curious juxtapositions of sympathy and cold-bloodedness in a single paragraph. For example, she urges employers to see how hard it is for someone in grief to be productive at work and then, in the same breath, cites sobering statistics on how much such a loss of productivity can cost an organisation. At best, such attempts to show both sides of the coin confuse her main message about how to heal from grief.

Her pain at losing Goldberg is so deep that, as she describes in Option B, "15 months and three days" after his death, she still gets "irritated" with their closest friends for being "insensitive" by reminiscing about romantic moments with their spouses in front of her.

  • Ponder love and loss at May 31 meet

  • Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg was the author whose writing was discussed at the first Big Read Meet on July 17, 2013. Her debut book, Lean In, urged working women to seize opportunities to lead.

    Now, almost four years on, she has released her second book, Option B, in which she deals with losing her second husband suddenly, by reaching deep into herself - and reaching out to others who are in trauma too.

    Join senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai in discussing her lessons learnt on May 31 from 6.30pm at the Central Public Library, Basement 1, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

    Sign up for the event at any NLB e-Kiosk or try your luck at the door.

That makes her seem petty; she is anything but that and the reader will soon see her plain and direct recollections as authentic and incisive, and so, more effective in guiding one out of grief than dime-a- dozen misery memoirs.

  • Five questions this book answers

  • 1 What are the immediate steps you can take to heal after suffering a great loss?

    2 What are the three things you must not do while you are grieving?

    3 Why do most people find it hard to relate to those who are in trauma?

    4 Who are most able to help someone heal after a personal tragedy?

    5 Why is it crucial to pay attention to everyday interactions with your loved ones?

Sandberg has ensured that her memoir proffers healing for all by writing it with her good friend, psychologist Adam Grant, whom Big Read Meet regulars will remember from their discussion of his 2016 book, Originals.

Grant, whose mantra is that one's salvation lies in helping others, matches his practical lessons learnt to Sandberg's day-to-day struggles with being a single parent to two young children, who now fear they will lose her suddenly too and sometimes even envy her for having had more years with Mr Goldberg than they had.

So along the way, they give readers inspiring glimpses of how many other people came through trauma, including rape victims, disaster survivors and a gay Filipino whose mother threw away every cup he used because she thought him "dirty".

Their tips for healing can sometimes seem strung out, but Sandberg's pithy frankness lifts everything. Sometimes, though, the candid rictus that is her writing style jars with her overall nurturing tone. For instance, she notes that her children are more "privileged" than most in having the best education and teachers who cosset them so that they are permitted any amount of "cry breaks" that they need.

As a dissection of grieving, her book sits between C. S. Lewis' scholarly A Grief Observed and American poet Elizabeth Alexander's The Light Of The World, her evocative paean to her late husband, who died just as suddenly as Mr Goldberg.

But Option B stands apart from these books for Sandberg's unflinching focus on describing and dealing with changes in family and social dynamics after great personal loss.

In doing so, she shows herself to be acutely vulnerable and, thus, winningly human - such that this book is a model record of real-time resilience.

Has Sandberg really bounced back though? Well, as of February last year, she has been dating billionaire video-games businessman Bobby Kotick, who is 53.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2017, with the headline 'Truly, madly, deeply'. Print Edition | Subscribe