A Majority Of Americans Struggled In 2020. Here's How To Talk About It.

In an interview with HuffPost, Sheryl Sandberg gets real about grief and helping each other through the holidays and beyond.

There’s no doubt that 2020 was, let’s just say it, terrible. Yet the sheer scope of loss and grief stemming from the pandemic is still somehow shocking.

Eight in 10 Americans said they’ve experienced some kind of hardship this year, according to a survey released this week by OptionB.org. The nonprofit group, founded by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, is dedicated to helping people cope with loss.

Mental health issues were the most commonly reported problem, with 34% of people saying they struggled with it this year. Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they’d gone through job loss or financial hardship. Twenty-five percent said someone close to them died. And the same percentage said they, or a loved one, experienced a serious illness or injury.

You can’t pretend this away and just say “Happy holidays!” Sandberg told HuffPost in an interview this week. Sandberg has had her own trials with loss. In 2015, her husband David Goldberg died suddenly at the age of 47. The experience changed the way she understands grief, something she detailed in her book “Option B” in 2017.

“This topic is like, really personal for me, like deep personal,” she said.

The OptionB survey was conducted online by Survey Monkey, which polled 2,050 adults in the U.S. during the first week of November, and weighted the results to reflect the demographics of the country.

There was one bright spot in the findings: Nearly 7 in 10 Americans feel more resilient now, better equipped to handle hard times because of the challenges of 2020. And some comfort, too: More than half of Americans said that relatively small acts of support were meaningful, like a text or a phone call from someone just checking in or just to say they’re thinking of you.

Though this was the first time OptionB conducted a survey like this, the results line up with similar polling out this month from the Pew Research Center. More than half of adults in the United States now know someone who either was hospitalized or died from COVID-19. The numbers are even more grim for Black Americans: 71% said they know someone who was hospitalized or died from the coronavirus.

Sandberg talked to HuffPost about what she’s learned about grief and offered advice on how to support your loved ones this year, even at a time when we can’t be there in-person.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Everyone’s expecting the holidays to be tough. I didn’t need a survey to tell me that. I know it will be bad. Why do the survey? What service are you hoping to provide?

It’s not that we needed the survey to tell us the data. The whole point is, what do you do? And what you do is you show up and you acknowledge: “Hey, I know this is really hard,” or “I know you’re missing your mom this year,” or “I’m thinking of you on the holidays. I know this must be hard. How are you?”

You don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

The issue is that when tragedy hits, when people are challenged, people don’t know how to talk about it. I wrote a lot about this with [my book] ”Option B.” My husband passed away and no one mentioned it. Everyone just looked at me like a deer in the headlights.

Meghan Markle, who I don’t know, just wrote the exact same thing. She miscarried and no one asked her about it.

I think there’s gonna be a lot of people who inadvertently miss an opportunity to do a lot of good.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "Foreign Influence Operations and Their Use of Social Media Platforms" on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "Foreign Influence Operations and Their Use of Social Media Platforms" on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018.

We’re a country that’s seen so many people die this year, and we don’t talk about what that means.

Everyone is suffering in some way. Some people have very, very serious economic challenges. So one of the things you go through is you realize I’m not in this alone. Other people are in this with me. And I have an opportunity to be there for other people.

[There is an] opportunity for collective resilience. One of the things you learn when you study this: Resilience isn’t fixed. It’s a muscle, we build it. We actually build it in each other. And the opportunity here is that we are going through this together.

“The issue is that when tragedy hits, when people are challenged, people don’t know how to talk about it.”

What it’s been like as someone who recently suffered a major loss to live through a year in which you just cannot escape death or grief?

We had a loss in our family. My fiancé’s cousin passed away in April from coronavirus. So we had that. Really early.

We are a family that’s experienced loss. I think we know how long it takes, how many years it takes to recover. How in some ways we never recover.

I do think for those of us who have been through loss, there are things that you can understand that other people can’t. Before this, if anyone went through something hard, I addressed it one time. “I’m so sorry you have cancer. Is there anything I can do?” I never brought it up again because I was afraid I was reminding the other person it happened.

You know, that’s ridiculous. I thought if I said it a week later at the office, I was reminding them they had cancer. It’s literally absurd. The woman isn’t like, “Oh, I forgot I had cancer.”

The grief and the loss this year has been extra weird because no one can see each other in person. You probably went to a few Zoom funerals. I did. They’re terrible.

Normally, when someone dies, there’s a funeral. And what does that matter? It really matters because you are surrounded by an opportunity to talk. And so how do you show up when there’s no funeral? The Zoom funerals are really hard.

What do you do? And the truth is, and the survey shows this, is that small acts of kindness make a huge difference.

Texting, checking in. Huge difference. I have a friend, a close friend who’s been going through cancer. And so you know, every few weeks, there’s a chemo appointment. I put on my calendar when those appointments are and I just check in. I just text or call the day before and the day it happens.

That’s nice.

It’s a really small thing. This is a friend that’s close enough that I would have gone [to the chemo appointments]. I feel so helpless. What can I do? Well, all I can do is check in. So I’ve checked in. And the person said to me, it made a huge difference.

For me, it felt like, not enough. I really felt like I was at a loss. It was very hard [Chokes up].

Was there anything about the survey that surprised you?

The data on small acts. I don’t know if it’s surprising me, but I think it’s important. A little counterintuitive. It feels like when big stuff happens. You have to do big stuff.