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Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg delivers powerful words on husband's death

During a commencement address at UC Berkeley, the Facebook COO and "Lean In" author reflects on grief and resilience.

In an emotional speech Saturday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg opened up publicly for the first time about the sudden death of her husband.

"For many months...I was swallowed in the deep fog of emptiness that fills your heart and your lungs, constricts your ability to think, or even to breathe," Sandberg, 46, said during her commencement address at the University of California, Berkeley, several miles north of Silicon Valley and the Facebook campus.

"I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss, but I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, find the surface, and breathe again."

Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg takes a moment to collect herself while discussing her grief at the loss of her husband.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg takes a moment to collect herself while discussing her grief at the loss of her husband.

Screenshot by CNET

Sandberg's husband, Yahoo veteran and SurveyMonkey CEO David Goldberg, died at 47 of a cardiac arrhythmia a little more than a year ago, while the couple was vacationing in Mexico. And Sandberg, often fighting back tears, made her climb out of grief the centerpiece of her speech.

She counseled the new graduates to be resilient and to be wary of three common reactions people have when misfortune strikes. Don't automatically blame yourself, she said: "Not everything that happens to us happens because of us." Don't let a crisis in one part of your life blind you to the good things that still exist around you. And don't make the mistake of thinking that your sorrow will last forever.

"In the face of the void or in the face of any challenge, you can choose joy and meaning," Sandberg said. "You will be defined not just by what you achieve but by how you survive."

Despite the intensity of parts of her talk, Sandberg made room for levity. At one point she spoke of some of the disappointments the graduates might soon face. "You applied for an internship at Facebook, but you only got one at Google," she quipped, then added, in a reference to dating app Tinder, "She was clearly the love of your life, but then she swiped left."

"You will almost certainly face more and deeper adversity," she said.

The "Lean In" author also made it a point to focus on females. Opening her speech, she said to cheers: "It's my privilege to be here at Berkeley, which has produced so many Nobel Prize winners, Turing Award winners, astronauts, members of Congress, Olympic gold medalists -- and that's just the women."

Sandberg posted a video of the speech to her Facebook page, but she also stressed that social media, and digital media in general, can only go so far.

"Be there for your family and friends," she told the newly minted graduates. "And I mean in person, not just in a message with a heart emoji."