Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivered an extraordinary and unusual commencement address today at UC-Berkeley’s graduation ceremony. For the first time ever in public, she spoke from the heart about the death of her husband, who passed away last May. Three years ago, the Harvard MBA wowed graduates at Harvard Business School with an inspiring speech at commencement. This time, she had lived through one of life’s great tragedies and came to Berkeley to open up about it.
“One year and thirteen days ago,” Sandberg told the graduates, “I lost my husband, Dave. His death was sudden and unexpected. We were at a friend’s fiftieth birthday party in Mexico. I took a nap. Dave went to work out. What followed was the unthinkable—walking into a gym to find him lying on the floor. Flying home to tell my children that their father was gone. Watching his casket being lowered into the ground.
“For many months afterward, and at many times since, I was swallowed up in the deep fog of grief—what I think of as the void—an emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even to breathe.
‘THE DEPTHS OF SADNESS, THE BRUTALITY OF LOSS’
“Dave’s death changed me in very profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void—or in the face of any challenge—you can choose joy and meaning.
“I’m sharing this with you in the hopes that today, as you take the next step in your life, you can learn the lessons that I only learned in death. Lessons about hope, strength, and the light within us that will not be extinguished.”
Over the course of a 25-minute, often highly emotional speech, at times holding back tears, Sandberg explained what it was like to return to her job at Facebook after losing her husband. “I remember sitting in my first Facebook meeting in a deep, deep haze, the Harvard MBA said. “All I could think was, what is everyone talking about and how could this possibly matter? But then I got drawn into the discussion and for a second—a brief split second—I forgot about death. That brief second helped me see that there were other things in my life that were not awful.
THE THREE Ps SANDBERG WISHED SHE KNEW WHEN SHE GRADUATED FROM COLLEGE
“A few weeks after Dave died,” continued Sandberg, “I was talking to my friend Phil about a father-son activity that Dave was not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave.” Phil put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.
“We all at some point live some form of option B. The question is: What do we do then?
“As a representative of Silicon Valley, I’m pleased to tell you there is data to learn from. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that there are three P’s—personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence—that are critical to how we bounce back from hardship. The seeds of resilience are planted in the way we process the negative events in our lives.
“The first P is personalization—the belief that we are at fault. This is different from taking responsibility, which you should always do. This is the lesson that not everything that happens to us happens because of us.
BLAMING HERSELF FOR HER HUSBAND’S DEATH
“When Dave died, I had a very common reaction, which was to blame myself. He died in seconds from a cardiac arrhythmia. I poured over his medical records asking what I could have—or should have—done. It wasn’t until I learned about the three P’s that I accepted that I could not have prevented his death. His doctors had not identified his coronary artery disease. I was an economics major; how could I have?
“Studies show that getting past personalization can actually make you stronger. Teachers who knew they could do better after students failed adjusted their methods and saw future classes go on to excel. College swimmers who underperformed but believed they were capable of swimming faster did. Not taking failures personally allows us to recover—and even to thrive.
“The second P is pervasiveness—the belief that an event will affect all areas of your life. You know that song “Everything is awesome?” This is the flip: “Everything is awful.” There’s no place to run or hide from the all-consuming sadness.
“The child psychologists I spoke to encouraged me to get my kids back to their routine as soon as possible. So ten days after Dave died, they went back to school and I went back to work,” she said. After being drawn into the discussion, Sandberg says she briefly forgot about her husband’s death.