Sometimes it feels incredibly difficult to know what to say to a friend or colleague who’s lost a loved one and we tend to fall back on tried-and-tested phrases – which, while meant genuinely, are so well-trodden they feel like clichés.
Sheryl Sandberg has been more than open about the effect her husband’s unexpected death has had on her in the last two years, hoping to encourage others by laying her own grief bare for the world to see.
And in a new interview, she’s discussed how to speak to a grieving friend, as well as how to support colleagues and employees in the workplace going through a difficult time – a situation that’s often incredibly tricky to navigate.
Discussing her return to Facebook following husband Dave Goldberg’s death in 2015, the social media executive told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs it’s not necessarily about giving someone time off to heal (though that’s not to be downplayed) but about also respecting their decision to come back to work – and reassuring them that they’re still very much valued.
Sandberg said that her own experience of loss had change the way she approached bereavement, or life-changing health news such as a cancer diagnosis, in the workplace: “At work it changed me too, because what I used to do – and I still believe in – is anytime anything is going wrong, I always focused on giving people a break.”
But she pointed out that while time off is important, CEO Mark Zuckerberg was instrumental in helping her realise that sometimes, going back to work supports people too.
“People need the time off, they need to grieve and recover and take care of family members and themselves – but they also need to be built back up,” she explained.
“And so Mark, I don’t even know how he knew to do this, but my 15-year-younger boss Mark Zuckerberg said to me – not just do you need time off, he said that – but he said ‘I’m glad you’re here because you made an important point today.’ The days when I felt like all I could do was show up in the office for a few hours and cry, hearing that was so helpful.
“So now, I [still] offer people time off, I say ‘Can we take that project off you?’ But when they want to be at work [let them].”
She added that not only was it about feeling valued, but about using work as a distraction: “The memories of Dave are everywhere, but they are worse at home by far, so for me, getting out of the house and having something else to do, that was a lifeline. And I’ve heard that from many people who have lost spouses and children.
“And for those people, saying to them ‘We still want you. No pressure, but do you want this project? Because I still believe in you,’ that’s so important. And we help others by rebuilding them, helping them build their self-confidence back up.”
Sandberg has long championed the use of “How are you today?” instead of “How are you?” to allow the person grieving some space to be honest about their feelings.
It also acknowledges that there are peaks and troughs to grief, rather than a steady upward momentum.
Speaking to host Kirsty Young, she expands on the idea that platitudes, while heartfelt, can sometimes be unhelpful.
“It’s a hard thing to do but you get there by focusing on what’s real and acknowledging the pain. Before I lost Dave, I got this wrong […] I’d say ‘I know you’re going to be OK,’” she explained.
“Now I know the voice in their head is saying, ‘How do you know?’ Now I say, ‘I know you don’t know if you’re going to be OK and neither do I, but you will not go through this alone. I will be there with you. We can show up for each other.’”
Her willingness to go public with her grief, even penning a book – Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy – about her experiences, has no doubt helped thousands who have experienced the same thing.
Aptly enough, she began her journey by posting an essay on Facebook shortly after Goldberg passed away from a heart attack at the age of 47.
In the incredibly emotional BBC interview, she described how she felt isolated until she spoke out with the post and was surprised at how much it resonated with people.
“It wasn’t just the overwhelming grief and sadness, but what happened in the days and weeks that followed was this profound dense of isolation. I felt like people were looking at me like I was a ghost,” she said.
Saying she initially “wrote it really for myself”, she decided to post her thoughts on Facebook. “I thought ‘It’s not going to get worse and maybe it might get better’ [...]
“But it actually really helped. It didn’t bring Dave back and it didn’t take away the grief but it took away the feeling that I was alone because people started talking to me again.”
Speaking to Stylist about grief earlier this year, she explained that helping out a friend going through a difficult time doesn’t have to be a big deal, and that people shouldn’t be put off by worrying they’ll upset someone by asking how they are: “As difficult or awkward as it might be to reach out to a grieving friend, I urge you to do it – and not just once, but again and again.
“You don’t have to say anything profound or do anything heroic. Just say that you’re there for them. Take something off their to-do list – even something small, like taking the trash out or swinging by the store to grab milk. I promise it helps.”
Listen to the full interview here.
Images: Rex Features