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Someone else's grief: office edition
December 13, 2013 2:49 AM   Subscribe

My boss' mother is dying. It's not about me, but: what am I not doing that I should be doing? What have I not even thought of?

My boss (with whom I have a great relationship - I'm her only subordinate, and we essentially do the same job but she's more senior and experienced than me, so there's been a lot of bonding over shared adversity and we're a tight team) is currently at home spending time with her mother, who is dying. Her mother lives with her, and they're very close, so it's naturally hitting her pretty hard.

We have fairly different views on death and dying, so me getting philosophical about it isn't likely to be much comfort to her (I'm an atheist with quasi-Klingon views on the body after death and a pretty bad relationship with my family, she's moderately religious and very close with her parents), but I'm not being a dick about this, obviously - it's her grief, which she's been dealing with for around a month since her mother's condition first became terminal.

What I've been doing so far is:

- Offering practical help - covering for her over the last month or so while she's had to take a lot of time off at short notice (we work for a really great company and her boss is the CEO, so this is fine from an organisational point of view) in a way that (hopefully) means she doesn't have to think or worry about work at all, offering to give her a ride home if she needs to get there quickly and her husband can't take her, etc.

- Offering unspecified help (I know from reading previous questions around grief that this can sometimes be more stressful than helpful for the recipient, but I'd feel bad if I didn't ask if there was anything else I could do)

- Offering sympathy/asking how she's doing/how her mother is doing (she's someone who would rather be asked and doesn't find it intrusive)

I completely 100% get that this isn't about me at all, but I do wonder if there's anything I haven't thought of that might help - my question, I guess, is: if you've been in a similar situation, is there anything else that a (twenty years younger, very awkward) close colleague could have done which would have helped? And is there anything beyond being understanding and covering work stuff if necessary which would have helped further down the line (when the initial frenzy of someone dying has settled down but you're still very much grieving)?

The only thing I can't really do is bring their family pre-prepared meals, as they live more than an hour's drive away from me, and my casserole is not edible.

posted by terretu to Human Relations (15 answers total)
I think you nailed it in your question: "It's not about me."

You give the initial offer of "I'm sure this a terrible time for you, please let me know if there's anything, anything at all I can do."

And then you stop talking, and let her grieve or process it as she chooses.
posted by modernnomad at 4:16 AM on December 13, 2013

That is something people so often fail to do - and something that someone in pain so often needs. Make an effort to lend her your ear. Sometimes just allowing someone to talk through things can be a huge help. (That said, don't push her to speak - I said listen, not question.)
posted by Flood at 4:21 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

"We're holding the fort down over here. Please do not worry about work at all. I've got your back and you won't be coming back to a firey mess. In the meantime, please know that you and your family are in my thoughts daily and that I am here for you."

That's really all you need to be doing.

If she's staying with her mother, is her own home or pet being checked on? Does she have friends for that? Her mail? Need for fresh clothes or something from the store? If it's not too forward, you could check and ask if she needs help with that.
posted by pazazygeek at 4:33 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]

Sorry, I missed the part that her mother still lives with her until a re-read. But offering to run errands, if you think it wouldn't be too boundary crossing, is something you could do, if you're up for it. But again, because you are co-workers, it is in no way expected and could be dicey. Errand running and such is a friend thing, not a coworker thing. :)
posted by pazazygeek at 4:35 AM on December 13, 2013

Food. Dropping off food is always a good plan. (Do not go in, do not allow enormously encumbered people to feel obligated to entertain you.)
posted by DarlingBri at 5:15 AM on December 13, 2013

These ideas are all wonderful. And you've asked a great question. Here are some of the things my coworkers did for me, and it really helped.

- Encouraged me to take time off to care and to grieve without worrying about work
- Reassigned some of my tasking (which may or may not be possible for you, but knowing that I didn't have to do everything I normally did was a huge relief)
- Brought food to my house (gourmet casseroles to defrost and serve, fruit, salad); a fruit basket to the reception hall
- Sent occasional notes that they're thinking of me and my family (during the illness)
- A couple of my colleagues attended the memorial, which I hadn't realized would be so important for me that they came
- A few sent me sympathy cards or have called me in the two months since to check on me and remind me to get sleep and focus on my health

So, even if you're not religious, do try to go to the memorial and try to bring another coworker with you. I didn't get to visit with my coworkers at the time and just saw them for a moment, but it meant a lot to me that people who knew me but not my father wanted to show their support and respect in this way.
posted by mochapickle at 5:51 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

We had a lot of people dropping in for visits as well as medical staff. Someone dropped off a cooler of various beverages (alcohol and non alcohol) and someone else dropped off snacking foods. This was very helpful to have things on hand to offer others as well as for ourselves when we weren't up for real meals (assortment of cheeses, crackers, desserts etc). This didn't require a lot of prep or take up too much fridge space either, nor would it require cooking on your part.
posted by maxg94 at 5:53 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Quick side note - I would probably avoid sending food. If you are adamant that is what you want to do, I suggest you try to find out if they have any food allergies/intolerances/dislikes etc. I recently had a couple people prepare some special food for me on the days leading up to my wedding day and it was all stuff I couldn't eat due to my gluten intolerance. That sucked. I appreciated the sentiment and gesture, but yeah... couldn't enjoy it. I never told them because I didn't want them to feel bad. :( And after my foot surgery someone sent me a likely very expensive gift basket of food, all of which again was things I couldn't eat. And years ago when my mom was hospitalized following her cancer surgery people gave us a lot of food, including a tuna casserole. Everyone in our house hated tuna casserole, so it went to waste. It wasn't that I/we were ungrateful in any of those examples, we really appreciated what people were trying to do. I/we were just left feeling guilty for not being able to enjoy what they invested time and money preparing for us.

I always think that words of sympathy ("I'm so sorry this is happening."), a sincere offer to help in some way they need ("If there is anything i can do to help, let me know.") and then maintaining a level of normalcy is the best way to go. When I am going through difficult times I really appreciate having some sort of no grief refuge, where I can pretend that life is normal and the Bad Thing isn't happening. Be kind, cut them some slack, but try to keep things normal. That is what I would do.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:52 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd like to echo the above comment about not bringing food without asking: when my father died, my mother and I were inundated with food, and most of it went to waste, as it was either stuff that we didn't like (a grocery bag full of Wonder bread, baloney, and yellow mustard), or enormous (a giant frozen casserole that we couldn't finish). We also both tend to grocery shop and cook while dealing with emotions, so all the food that was given to us was preventing us from doing the thing we wanted and needed to do, and we couldn't tell people no because we knew their gifts came from the heart (just not from the head...).
posted by telophase at 7:10 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

The holidays are already a really busy time. Could you offer to help her with some of her holiday tasks, like wrapping gifts, addressing cards, mailing packages? I'm looking at my own to-do list, and thinking that those are the only things I could receive help with, but if I needed the help, that would be appreciated -- and I'd never think to ask my subordinate to do that, because I'd be afraid of insulting him. If he offered as a friend, however, I would be able to accept.
posted by Capri at 8:38 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would second pazazygeek - when my parents died in quick succession, the fact that I was able to spend a fairly extended time (about 3 weeks) out of the office without worrying that I would come back to a fiery mess was a huge weight off my mind. TBH, I would have probably not been able to do anything about it even if my direct reports had not picked up the slack, but it was a great relief that things did not crash and burn while I was away.
posted by crocomancer at 8:56 AM on December 13, 2013

The way to phrase practical help is "I am going to the grocery store / Target / the pharmacy. Is there anything I can pick up for you while I'm there?" (only offer this when you are planning to go anyway). Similarly during the holidays you can note when you are going to post office, etc and see if she needs things done there.

I also agree that you should go to the memorial when the time comes, it will mean a lot.
posted by crazycanuck at 9:05 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think where you will really shine is in supporting her over the long haul after her mother passes away. I wouldn't worry too much right now about stepping into the role that your boss' friends and family are more appropriately filling (bringing food to her home, etc). Offer support that is within the context of work, but don't overstep into inner-circle family terrain. Some people are really private about their home lives, and it may be her mom wants the home to be kept quiet and family-only right now.

Just hold down the fort for now; and after her mom dies, maintain a steady hum of "being there" for her. Since you two are a tight team with good rapport, you can take your cues from her -- if she wants to talk, you can listen. If she needs to step out to cry, you can cover for her.
posted by nacho fries at 9:18 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you're doing pretty much all you can right now. Just keep reassuring her that you will hold down the fort when she takes time off.
posted by elizeh at 2:32 PM on December 13, 2013

If you're still reading, this is a nice, brief breakdown of empathy vs sympathy and how to be empathetic.
When someone’s kind of in a deep hole and they shout out from the bottom and they say, “I’m stuck. It’s dark. I’m overwhelmed.” And then we look and we say “hey,” and we climb down, “I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone.”
posted by sestaaak at 11:04 AM on December 17, 2013

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