How Do You Face Work While Grieving? Sheryl Sandberg Shares What Helped Her

Flickr / Drew Altizer, Financial Times

Sheryl Sandberg

Flickr / Drew Altizer, Financial Times

Jenny Maenpaa
Jenny Maenpaa44
July 24, 2024 at 6:46AM UTC
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg became a household name in 2013 when she wrote “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” sparking conversations about shattering glass ceilings, supporting other women, and the role of privilege in upward mobility. Sandberg released her second book, “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” earlier this year, after her husband’s unexpected death from a heart attack in 2015.
When Sandberg’s husband, Dave, passed away suddenly in 2015, she became a very public face of grief. One of the most persistent criticisms of Sandberg after the publication of “Lean In” was how privileged her perspective was, particularly on the subject of choosing a partner.
In “Lean In,” Sandberg advised readers that choosing a partner is the most important professional choice a woman will ever make. Sandberg envisioned marriage as a business partnership, writing “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of a single woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully—and I mean fully—supportive of her career. No exceptions. And contrary to the popular notion that only unmarried women can make it to the top, the majority of the most successful female business leaders have partners.”
Criticisms of “Lean In” challenged Sandberg’s assumptions that 1. women, and particularly mothers, will always be in a partnership and 2. it’s as easy as pointing a finger and deciding someone is going to be on your team for life. In Sandberg’s current book, “Option B,” she tackles what happened when her plan for Option A, a long life of coparenting with her husband, was taken away from her.
Sandberg is still a billionaire, so her specific experiences do not mimic most women’s in many ways. But the unexpected loss of a partner cannot be mitigated by money, and in this way, Sandberg’s book provides validation for anyone grieving in a way that is confusing to others or even themselves.
In a 2012 speech at Harvard Business School, long before her loss, Sandberg admitted, “I’ve cried at work. I’ve told people I’ve cried at work... I try to be myself.” Forty-one percent of women say they’ve cried at work, compared to 9 percent of men, according to Anne Kreamer’s book “It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion In The Workplace.”
Kreamer writes, “In spite of the cathartic physiological benefits, women who cry at work feel rotten afterward, as if they’ve failed a feminism test. [Women] feel worse after crying at work, while men feel better.”
According to a Time magazine article on why we cry, humans are the only creatures whose tears can be triggered by their emotions. “Tears trigger social bonding and human connection. While most other animals are born fully formed, humans come into the world vulnerable and physically unequipped to deal with anything on their own. Even though we get physically and emotionally more capable as we mature, grownups never quite age out of the occasional bout of helplessness.”
In fact, it seems that crying provides catharsis primarily in relation to who sees you do it. An American Psychological Association study found that “Overall, participants were more likely to feel better if they cried alone or around one other person, but felt worse or didn't experience a mood change if they were with two or more people.”
Women are called hysterical and emotional when they express frustration, sadness, or anger through tears. So what should you do when you are experiencing grief or loss and do not have the luxury of an extended bereavement leave from work?
Sandberg writes about how many people did not know how to converse with her when she returned to work. She saw a reflection of all the times she had pretended everything was fine to a colleague experiencing personal trauma. You can choose what and how you share information with others. You can enlist a trusted coworker to act as a buffer for you, answering awkward questions. Keep tissues on you at all times - you will tear up without warning and it will make you and everyone around you exponentially more uncomfortable if your nose is running and everyone is scrambling to find a napkin. Engage in regular self-care, even if that means using an app on your phone to meditate and breathe for 10 minutes a day. Honor the person’s memory and your own experience by forgiving yourself for whichever way grief shows up for you.
Sandberg writes, “For a lot of people, post-traumatic growth is about a stronger sense of meaning in life — having a purpose, which is often about helping people in the way that you suffered, which not only gives your life meaning but gives your suffering meaning.”
Once again, she opened a thoughtful and nuanced conversation for working women about challenges many face and few talk about. Both of her books were written to help women by telling a personal story that could provide insights and resources to many. Sandberg’s life may not look like every woman’s, but her experiences navigating a male-dominated workforce, and facing sudden grief, sadly do.
Jenny is the founder of Forward in Heels Executive Coaching, which empowers badass women who want to excel at what they do, stand tall, and own their worth so they can light up the world. As a licensed psychotherapist as well as certified executive leadership coach, Jenny has been helping women make bold, lasting changes in their lives for over a decade.


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