Sheryl Sandberg, arguably the nation’s most well-known voice in the ongoing conversation about work-life balance, is now the nation’s most famous widow. No one saw it coming, most especially Sandberg. Her husband, Dave Goldberg, a prominent and successful executive in the tech world in his own right, died in a tragic accident while vacationing with Sandberg in May.
In my inaugural post for the Institute for Family Studies, I wrote about Sandberg as a positive testament to marriage. Though she is a weathervane on a host of issues, I argued that her strong endorsement of marriage as something that is not just compatible with female success, but often is a key part of it, is a counter-cultural message that ought to unify people on all sides of the various debates she’s a part of. It’s certainly one that young women need to hear more.
All too often we are told that marriage is an impediment to success. Sandberg argues to the contrary in her famous (or infamous?) book, Lean In. She writes:
I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully—and I mean fully—supportive of her career. No exceptions. And contrary to the popular notion that only unmarried women can make it to the top, the majority of the most successful female business leaders have partners. Of the twenty-eight women who have served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, twenty-six were married, one was divorced, and one had never married. Many of these CEOs said they “could not have succeeded without the support of their husbands.”
Now, despite losing her own husband at the far-too-young age of forty-seven, Sandberg continues to be a beautiful witness to marriage. Her first public comment about her husband’s death was almost entirely centered around their marriage. She updated her Facebook cover photo to a picture of them at their wedding, and wrote:
We had eleven truly joyful years of the deepest love, happiest marriage, and truest partnership that I could imagine. He gave me the experience of being deeply understood, truly supported and completely and utterly loved — and I will carry that with me always. Most importantly, he gave me the two most amazing children in the world.
She described him as her “rock” and wrote that despite all her pain, if given the chance to do it all over, “I would still have walked down that aisle. Because 11 years of being Dave Goldberg’s wife, and 10 years of being a parent with him is perhaps more luck and more happiness than I could have ever imagined.”
Her words reminded me of a lesser-known woman who lost her husband: my grandmother. While my grandparents did not live the public and jet-setting life of Sandberg and Goldberg, they clearly enjoyed a marriage that was equally blessed. Nearly ten years after his death, my grandmother only wants to talk about him. She recounts the story of his proposal over and over and speaks of him with similar praise, often losing herself in the moment and the memory. No doubt Sandberg’s reflections on her marriage have prompted others to recall similarly strong marriages worthy of emulation.
About a month after her first remarks, Sandberg spoke again, this time at the end of sheloshim, the traditional Jewish thirty-day mourning period. Her nearly 2,000-word expression of raw grief went viral. Her Facebook post has been liked over 800,000 times and shared by almost 400,000. She talked of her personal transformation through sorrow, writing, “I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.”
Sandberg did not have to grieve her husband publicly. She could have asked for privacy and left it at that. Instead, she chose to use her platform, even after losing her husband most tragically, to continue to honor her husband and to witness to the life-transforming partnership that is a good marriage. Though her situation is profoundly sad, she has somehow managed to give us all cause to think positively about marriage, to desire the experience of being “truly supported and completely and utterly loved” until death, even untimely death.
So often we look to newlyweds as reminders of what an exciting and happy marriage looks like. But as Sandberg reminds us, it can be widows and widowers who have the most to teach us.