One afternoon in May 2015, Sheryl Sandberg and her husband were relaxing while on a vacation with friends in Mexico. Feeling sleepy, she told her husband that she was drifting off. Then she awoke to her worst nightmare.
Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, and husband Dave Goldberg – chief executive of data firm SurveyMonkey – were among guests at a Mexican resort to celebrate the birthday of a friend. The couple were enjoying the 11th year of a happy and fruitful marriage.
Sandberg and Goldberg first met in Los Angeles, California, back in 1996. At the time, Goldberg was working at a music start-up that he had helped found. Sandburg, meanwhile, was at a consulting firm in the city. Goldberg, apparently, was instantly enamored by his future wife. However, it’s unclear if the feeling was immediately reciprocated, as Sandberg fell asleep at the movies during their first date.
Indeed, divorcee Sandberg was actually dating another man when the pair first went out. Goldberg, meanwhile, was smitten by her. But it seemed that it just wasn’t to be when Sandberg moved away to Washington, D.C., not long after their movie date.
The pair then remained friends for a few years until 2001, when they met once again after Sandberg took on a position at Google in San Francisco. And even though Goldberg still lived in LA, the pair – now both single – decided to go on a joint winter vacation.
What’s more, the couple became close during the trip. But it wasn’t until weeks later that they finally went on their first proper date – a jaunt to South America, no less. The idea came from Goldberg, who had a passion for planning travel. Speaking about the romantic escapade in 2013, he told Time Magazine, “When you’re friends with someone, you can’t just go out to dinner and say, ‘Okay now this is a date.’ You’ve got to do something very different. It was either going to work out really well or it was going to be a disaster.”
The trip was a big success, nevertheless, despite Sandberg – who was in training for a forthcoming marathon – pressurizing Goldberg into a rigorous hike up a Chilean volcano. Love was blossoming, and within a few months the pair were renting a house together while Goldberg shuttled between LA and San Francisco. It wasn’t long before the couple were engaged. But work commitments meant that it was tough for Goldberg to leave LA.
It wasn’t until the couple made the choice to have children that he eventually left LA behind and relocated to San Francisco. Goldberg left behind his beloved music venture, which he had started with his high school best friend, and started a new life in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge as he took over the helm at SurveyMonkey.
The pair were then blessed with two children. And Goldberg was a devoted dad who prioritized spending time with the family, including meal times. On other occasions, the family would gather round and enjoy online games together. The couple seemed to have the perfect family life.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that they neglected to make private time for themselves. The couple enjoyed various trips away together, including their 2015 trip to Mexico to celebrate the 50th birthday of a close friend of Goldberg’s. Sandberg and Goldberg joined their friends at a plush resort in Punta Mita.
But after Sandberg awoke from her nap and could not find her husband that day in May 2015, she sensed that something wasn’t right. Goldberg had gone to the gym, so Sandberg and her brother-in-law Rob went there to look for him – and that’s when they discovered him there on the ground.
“We found Dave on the floor, lying by the elliptical machine, his face slightly blue and turned to the left, a small pool of blood under his head,” Sandberg subsequently wrote in her 2017 book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. “We all screamed. I started CPR. Rob took over from me. A doctor came and took over from him.” But it was too late. Goldberg had already died of a heart condition.
Sandberg’s book gives a moving portrayal of the moment when she realized that her husband wasn’t coming back. “When his brother Rob, in shock himself, said we had to go, I took a few steps out of the room, then turned around and ran back in, hugging Dave as hard as I could,” she wrote. “Eventually, Rob lovingly pulled me off Dave’s body.”
But Sandberg still had to face the awful task of telling her two children that they had lost their father. “I lay on the grass, holding them as they wailed,” she wrote. “Day after day my kids’ cries and screams filled the air. In the moments when they weren’t crying, I watched them anxiously, waiting for the next instance they might need comfort,” she added. “My own cries and screams – mostly inside my head but some out loud – filled the rest of the available space.”
The distraught Sandberg was struggling to find a way to channel her grief until she began speaking with psychology professor Adam Grant, who later went on to co-author her book. He helped her deal with some of what she was feeling. “I thought resilience was the capacity to endure pain, so I asked Adam how I could figure out how much I had,” she wrote in Option B. “He explained that our amount of resilience isn’t fixed, so I should be asking instead how I could become resilient. Resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity – and we can build it.”
The book is an exploration of Sandberg’s grief. And she hopes it will act as a help-guide for others who may be going through similar distress following the sudden, devastating loss of a loved one. She is also hopeful that the book will help other bereaved people gain “post-traumatic growth” in the aftermath of such a shock.
In addition to dealing with her grief, Sandberg, as a successful woman in the public eye, also had to deal with shocking disrespect and misogyny in the months following her loss. Some online trolls criticized her when she began to date a friend almost a year after her husband’s death. “Men date sooner, men date more, and women get judged more. And, you know, obviously that’s super unfair,” she told The Guardian in an April 2017 interview.
However, she did receive support from one very famous pal. That friend was Mark Zuckerberg, who had headhunted her for her role at Facebook back in 2008. Appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Sandberg said, “One thing that was really important that I learnt from Mark Zuckerberg, my 15-years-younger boss, was it’s not just telling people they can have time off; it’s building their self-confidence.”
She painted a candid image of Zuckerberg and how his support helped her through tough times in the workplace, saying, “People said to me what I used to say to people – ‘Oh with everything you’re going through you couldn’t possibly contribute.’ They were trying to be kind, but I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to be able to do my job.’ What was kinder was what Mark did. He would say, ‘You made a good point. You can come in if you want, but you made a good point today.’ I’m pretty sure that wasn’t true. I wasn’t making any good points, but he told me, I want you here and you have value.”
It has clearly been a truly difficult few years for Sandberg and her family, who seemed to have it all until that tragic day in May 2015. But Sandberg is now on a mission to give hope to others who are going through similar ordeals. And the way she has turned the loss of her beloved husband into a journey to help others is one ray of light in this otherwise desperately sad story.