In the wake of Sheryl Sandberg’s announcement that she will leave Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Sandberg has been both lauded and vilified, but mostly the latter.
Some in the media have painted Sandberg as a tech world villain who has sugar-coated the unappealing public face of her boss while helping to create an online platform that is partially responsible for the demise of American democracy. Her “Lean In” edict to women in business has been criticized for coming from a place of white wealth and privilege that ignores systemic workplace racism and lacks recognition of the many issues that poor women and women of color face.
But there is a piece of Sandberg’s story that is missing from the heated response to her decision to lean out. Seven years ago, Sandberg began the long, hard road to normalize grief in the workplace. This, for me, is her most important contribution of all.
On June 3, 2015, at 4:45 p.m., I was sitting at my office computer when Sandberg’s shloshim post appeared on Facebook. In Jewish mourning practice, shloshim marks the 30th day after the burial of a loved one. After seven days of shiva, during which Jews sit in their homes and the community comes to visit and share memories of the deceased, shloshim marks the end of the first month of mourning, a time when the mourner is encouraged to more fully rejoin the world.
Sandberg’s shloshim post about the sudden death of her husband and her experience of the first month of loss — mourning, parenting, figuring out how to move forward — was a moving elegy to grief and resilience, as well as a reminder that it could happen to anyone, anytime: “I have learned how ephemeral everything can feel — and maybe everything is,” she wrote. “That whatever rug you are standing on can be pulled right out from under you with absolutely no warning.” I cried as I read her words, wondering if I could be as wise in the face of such tragedy.
Twenty-five minutes later, at 5:10 p.m., the rug was pulled out from under me. My husband of 24 years had a seizure at his desk and was being rushed to a nearby hospital. By the end of that long evening, he was in a medically induced coma. We would soon learn that he had glioblastoma and a prognosis of mere months to live.
During the final year of my husband’s life, I spent many hours balancing my full-time job and full-time caregiving duties. I had teenagers at home who needed both the normalcy of their daily lives and the support to manage their fear and anticipatory grief. Each night, when I took a few minutes to think about myself and what the future might hold, I returned to Sandberg’s shloshim statement, searching for clues — what to expect when my husband died, how I would handle it, who I would become.
Despite a year of intensive caretaking and preparation, there was still so much for which I wasn’t prepared when my husband died. Already broken and tender, my heart shattered anew each time I watched my children guard against their own sadness and nightmares. I felt helpless to ease their anguish. Sandberg’s words again resonated: “I have gained a more profound understanding of what it is to be a mother, both through the depth of the agony I feel when my children scream and cry and from the connection my mother has to my pain. . . . She has fought to hold back her own tears to make room for mine. She has explained to me that the anguish I am feeling is both my own and my children’s . . . she was right as I saw the pain in her own eyes.”
In many ways, my family was fortunate. My husband’s organization had generous sick leave policies and paid him almost through to the end. I worked for an organization headed by a compassionate CEO whose earliest words to my colleagues about my tragedy were that they were to have my back, no matter what I needed. Every one of my colleagues saw that promise through. I had the support I needed to take care of my family while not fearing the loss of my job. And when it was time to return to work, I was given extended bereavement leave on top of the year I had just spent working at less than full capacity.
I tell this story often, and I point out that Sandberg used her story of loss and grief and office support to highlight the importance of bereavement leave policies that go beyond the standard — and wholly inadequate — one to three days. At Facebook and SurveyMonkey, which her late husband led, Sandberg pushed for and won 20-day paid leave bereavement policies.
Today, our country is facing its own incalculable loss as we navigate the third year of a pandemic that has killed more than one million Americans. We are facing a moment of collective grief that most cannot process, and most workplaces are ill equipped to support us. We are slowly learning the language of grief, learning that it is not something from which we can look away but must stare boldly in the face, just as Sandberg did by sharing her personal experience of loss.
Perhaps she did it to comfort herself. But she opened the lid to the language of grief in a public manner and in the workplace so that those of us walking in similar shoes at least have a road map for how to navigate this sad reality, both at home and at work.
Karen Paul is writing a book about grief and trauma. She is the principal of Catalyzing Philanthropy, a fundraising and development consultancy, and she lives Takoma Park, Md.