As Facebooks chief operating officer, she is one of the most powerful women in the world. How did she cope with the sudden death of her husband?
Sheryl Sandbergs last words to her husband, like all last words, assumed a haunting poignancy. Im falling asleep, she told him, oblivious to the imminence of tragedy, and curled up on a cushion for a nap.
It was Friday 1 May 2015. She and Dave Goldberg, 47, had left their two children at home with her parents in northern California and flown down to Mexico for a weekend break to celebrate a friends 50th birthday. They were Silicon Valley royaltys power couple; he the CEO of a tech company worth more than $1bn, she the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of global bestseller Lean In, a feminist call to arms for working women to emulate the self-belief and ambition of men. Sandberg had featured on Forbes list of the most powerful women on the planet, served as chief of staff to the Treasury secretary in Bill Clintons government, been widely tipped as a future member of a Hillary Clinton cabinet and earned a personal fortune well in excess of $1bn. At 45 she was mother to a 10-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter; weekends away were rare and precious. No wonder she was tired. She fell asleep that afternoon a happily married wife, and woke up an hour later a widow.
When Sandberg didnt see her husband, she at first thought nothing of it and joined her friends for a swim. She took a shower, spoke to their son on the phone and dressed for dinner. It was only when she rejoined the group on the beach and realised no one had seen Goldberg for hours that panic set in. Racing to the resort gym, she found him lying on his back, his face blue, a pool of blood around his head. She performed frantic CPR, an ambulance rushed him to hospital, but it was too late. He had suffered a fatal heart attack. Sandberg flew home that evening to tell her children their father had died.
The news of Sandbergs loss made global headlines, but held a particular resonance for my family. I knew what it was to fly away a happy couple and come home with a coffin, for our own beach holiday had shattered into tragedy 12 months earlier when my partner had drowned. As a member of what Sandberg calls this club of ours no one ever wants to join, I wasnt surprised that she went back to work 10 days later when every room in your house is haunted by memories, the longing for refuge is overwhelming. Nor was I surprised by the problem she was floored to find waiting for her at the office.
You know, we were Facebook. We were very open. We sit at open desks and we share openly, she tells me as we talk at Facebook HQ in Menlo Park, in northern California. Sandberg doesnt even have her own office at work, but sits among her colleagues in a vast open-plan space. Its part of who we are. We share. But everyone looked at me like I was a ghost. No one would talk to me. She confided in her boss, Mark Zuckerberg: All my relationships are gone, and no one will talk to me. He told her, They want to. They just dont know what to say.
In Jewish tradition, the mourning period for a spouse lasts for 30 days. As it drew to a close, Sandberg took a risk so out of character that even now she seems faintly amazed by herself. She wrote an unfiltered account of her grief-stricken month, and posted it publicly on Facebook.
The night before, I thought, this is a terrible idea. This is too personal, too raw, theres no way Im posting this. But when she woke the next morning, I was like, this is supposed to be the end of mourning? I could not feel less like the end of mourning, this is horrible. And I said, you know, its not going to get worse, and I just hit post. And it broke open the dam.
Sandbergs post has attracted more than 74,000 comments to date. Strangers all over the world flooded her Facebook page with tales of their own tragedies and heartbreaks. And you know, she says, after that, I didnt feel alone any more.