What Sheryl Sandberg Learned From Death

Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and founder of Leanin.org. Below is a transcript of her speech that she gave at the 2016 UC Berkeley Commencement. 

Today I’m gonna try to tell you what I learned in death.

I have not spoken about this publicly before and it’s hard.

One year and thirteen days ago, I lost my husband, Dave. His death was sudden and unexpected. We were in Mexico celebrating a friend’s fiftieth birthday party. I took a nap. He went to work out. What followed was the unthinkable—I walked into a gym to find him lying on the floor. I flew home to tell my children that their father was gone. I watched his casket being lowered into the ground.

For many months afterward, and at many times since, I was swallowed in the deep fog of grief—what I think of as the void—an emptiness that fills your heart and your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even to breathe.

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, find the surface, and breathe again.

You will almost certainly face more and deeper adversity.

The question is not if some of these things will happen to you. They will. What I want to talk about today, is what you do next.

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 of 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.

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 diagnosed his coronary artery disease. I was an economics major; how could I?

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 nowhere to hide from the all-consuming sadness.

The child psychologists I spoke to encouraged me to get my kids back to their routine as quickly as possible. So ten days after Dave died, my kids went back to school and I went back to work. I remember sitting in my first Facebook meeting in a total haze thinking, “What is everyone talking about and how could this possibly matter?” But then I got drawn into the conversation and for a second—the briefest of all seconds—I forgot about death.

That brief second helped me see that there were other things in my life that were not awful.

The third P is permanence—the belief that the sorrow will last forever. This was the hardest by me for far because for so long it felt like the overwhelming grief would never leave.

We often project our current feelings out indefinitely. We’re anxious and then we’re anxious that we’re anxious. We’re sad and then we’re sad that we’re sad. Instead, we should accept our feelings—but know that they will not last forever.

The three P’s are common emotional reactions to so many things that happen to us—in our careers, our personal lives, and our relationships. You’re probably feeling one of them right now about something in your life. But if you can recognize you are falling into these traps, you can correct because just as our bodies have a physiological immune system, our brains have a psychological immune system—and there are things you can do to help kick it into gear.

I stand here today, a year after the worst day of my life, and two things are true. I have a huge reservoir of sadness that is with me always—right here where I can touch it. I never knew I could cry so often—or so much.

But I am also aware that I am walking without pain. For the first time, I am grateful for each breath in and out—grateful for the gift of life itself. I used to celebrate my birthday every five years and friends’ birthdays sometimes. Now I celebrate always. I used to go to bed every night worrying about all the things I did wrong that day—and trust me that list was long. Now I go to bed trying to focus on that day’s moments of joy.

It is the greatest irony of my life that losing my husband helped me find deeper gratitude—gratitude for the kindness of my friends, the love of my family, the laughter of my children. My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude—not just on the easy days, like today, but on the hard days, when you will really need it.

And when the challenges come, I hope you remember that deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. It’s a muscle, you can build it up, and then draw on it when you need it. And in that process you figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself.

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