Grieving vs. Working
December 29, 2008 10:21 AM   Subscribe

I just got back to work after taking a week for the holidays, which is apparently a big no-no at my job because this is an insanely busy time for the office. My boyfriend and I just learned that his best friend committed suicide last night. I'd like to take off [more] work but I don't know how to tell my colleagues what's going on without sounding manipulative or lazy.

I like my colleagues, but we're not terribly close--I'm new, and the only remaining person in my specific field after a series of lay offs, so when I'm gone the entire project stalls until I return. Out of maybe 20 people in the office, only one other person took time off for the holidays. A week of unpaid holiday vacation was a stipulation that I made when I was hired (I only get to see my family once a year), but the people who OK'd my vacation were subsequently laid off. When the time came around to remind my new superiors that, uh, I'd already bought plane tickets, I could tell they weren't happy. I worked double the week before and then worked remotely from home so we didn't lose any progress. With the economy the way it's going, I'm still worried that this ill-timed vacation doesn't reflect well on my work ethic. So now I'm back from my trip and faced with this terrible news. What's worse, the days leading up to New Year's are very very busy for our office, and after a lot of lay offs this season, we're especially strapped for manpower. Everyone's hunkering down and working 13-14 hours a day up until Wednesday evening.

Naturally, this event totally blindsided everyone in our circle of friends. I need to be there, especially for my boyfriend, who was closest to our friend and is simply devastated by her death, but I don't know how to convey the severity of the situation without blurting out the barest details of the grisly situation. If I knew everyone better, this wouldn't be a problem, but I'm worried the admission will just seem manipulative or overly personal. If I cite a vague "family emergency" I'll sound like a college student who wants to get out of writing a paper.

What's the best way to phrase this to a superior who's already a little peeved that I was gone last week? New Year's tasks are always rolling in, so I can't assure him this time that I'll work double today and tomorrow so I can take off Wednesday to console my boyfriend and attend the funeral.

Thanks in advance for your help. I'm still in shock and haven't dealt properly with the emotional aspects of this news, but it would be great to work out an arrangement that allows me to focus on grieving instead of worrying that I'll lose my job during the recession.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The best you can do is be very honest with your employer, the answer is yes or no... and accept the answer, unless, of course, you are willing to give up the job for this..
posted by HuronBob at 10:28 AM on December 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Personally, I'd go with the honesty route. I think if you're earnest about facing the problem, and don't beat around the bush, you'll earn some points for it. i.e.- "I won't be able to come in as a close personal friend has committed suicide. I realize the timing is poor, and I appreciate your working with me during this difficult time."

Hard to tell how they're going to react -- you know better than any of us, but I've always been of the mindset that it doesn't matter what's going on at work: personal life always come first. Unless you're the lone night manager at a nuclear power plant, or the Secretary of State, I can't imagine that they won't be able to figure out a way to work without you.

If you're really feeling guilty, you could offer to forfeit some vacation from next year for this and ask if there's any documentation they'd like (notice of death in the paper, or airline tickets/hotel receipts).
posted by PandemicSoul at 10:31 AM on December 29, 2008 [7 favorites]

As a sidenote, to f/u on HuronBob, there's no way to guarantee you won't lose your job, since it sounds like something you're already worried about. You just have to decide what's more important to you, as Bob said, and make sure you won't regret that later.
posted by PandemicSoul at 10:33 AM on December 29, 2008

If there's an HR department, go to them first. Remind them, and your project leader, of the extra work you did to make sure the project didn't fall behind while you were gone. Hopefully, they can see it not as further delay but as the first delay - your previous absence didn't slow down the project; this one will, but you're obviously committed, and this shouldn't count as a second strike.

The admission will seem overly personal, but as long as you don't have a problem with revealing the reasons, it'll be alright. Talk to the project leader in private.

If you feel like you can, offer to work a few hours each day over the next two days - four, say. Make that a last consideration, though, if you feel you won't be able to get time any other way.


On preview: PandemicSoul's wording is good: State it directly and with the clear expectation that they will understand the difficulty of the situation for you.
posted by Picklegnome at 10:34 AM on December 29, 2008

I think Picklegnome had a good idea about offering to make up the time. If you bring one or two ideas (about how this event WON'T negatively impact the company) to the discussion, your approach will seem more credible. I know it's hard to ask employers for time off, particularly when you already feel that you've tested their patience, but funerals are kind of a sacred area, aren't they?

(I always thought they were.)
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:41 AM on December 29, 2008

I hate to say it, but it doesn't sound to me like you've got a very good reason to ask for time off under these circumstances. So going into this, you may have difficulty persuading a boss who is already peeved at you.

I am not discounting the terrible news, but the person who died is not your best friend, and given the following things ...

-- the tremendous workload at your job this time of year (with 13-14 hour workdays)
-- you're the only person handling your area
-- they've had to do without you for a week, which you acknowledge was a "no no"
-- you're not asking for time to take care of someone ill, but to console someone

... I just think your employer is going to have a hard time agreeing to more time off.

So, no matter how tactfully you ask, be prepared for this to further irritate your boss. It sounds like you are causing a serious problem to your co-workers if they are having to work thirteen-fourteen hour days and you're asking not to be there at all for a few days.

I would suggest taking another approach, and evaluating whether you have to take time off. You say this has "blindsided [your] circle of friends" --- that means that there are other people to support your boyfriend, people who knew and loved the deceased. While you're at work, it seems reasonable that he could spend time with them.
posted by jayder at 10:42 AM on December 29, 2008 [16 favorites]

Nasty company - if they are laying people off anyways, chances are you being the newbie are closer to being shoved out the door than anyone else.

Can you do your work remotely? Sometimes being able to be home, yet without the constant buzz of the office can help to bridge the gap of a personal tragedy, yet keeping busy.
posted by jkaczor at 10:44 AM on December 29, 2008

I think you might want to consider going to work, except for attending the funeral, if there is someone else who can sit with your bf and then you and he can reconnect in the evenings. I am sure your bf would prefer not to overly burden you with the risk of losing your job if at all possible.
posted by By The Grace of God at 10:48 AM on December 29, 2008

Just tell them. Directly. It isn't an excuse. You know it isn't, and they will, too. If your boss has the temerity to question you on something like the situation you describe, or the lack of sensitivity to demand that you come in to work (and not take a couple of days), you really should reconsider working for this particular boss. This is a classic example of circumstances beyond your control, and it would be inhuman to deny you time off to help with arrangments.

Is there any way you can work out some sort of compromise? That you'll do some work from home, but won't be able to come in? I'm thinking things like updating particular spreadsheets or logging in from home to check/respond to email to help get things moving. Don't volunteer or promise that you'll do your full job from home. Just acknowledge that your work won't get done whilst you're out and offer to do specific things. If you promise to do x and you deliver, they have no rational reason to be unhappy. If you promise to do x, y and z and deliver x and y, despite the tough time you and your fella are going through, you're on thinner ice.

I've been through this myself, just recently - though not suicide, not yet deceased, but a family member. You just have to tell your boss (and coworkers), as soon as possible, and just hope for the best. If you really are as valuable as you've said, they won't let you go for this. The timing is a bitch, and if you acknowledge that fact, and offer to find a way to have some sort of work happen while you're out, it will go a long way to smoothing things over (and keep your desk/inbox down to a manageable level when you get back to work).
posted by Grrlscout at 10:51 AM on December 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

i'm with jayder - and with Bob - ask if you must, but realize that your termination might be the result. i'm sorry your going through this hard time, and i'm sure your bosses will be sorry too, but everyone has things they have to get over to get to work every day.
posted by nadawi at 10:52 AM on December 29, 2008

I've been in your exact situation before: having to choose between meeting work obligations during the busiest season of the year, or supporting my family during a very traumatic experience.

I chose work, and it was one of the bigger mistakes in my life. Even though (or perhaps because) I was putting in double-time, my state of mind was a mess and I was not meeting demands made of me (which were unreasonable anyway). I neglected my the girl I intended to marry, leading to our eventual breakup. And months of not dealing with the trauma led to me sinking into chronic depression. 3 years later, I still have recurring anxiety problems.

I left the job a year later when I realized I couldn't hold it together any longer. And I realized...fuck them. I had told them exactly what had been going on, yet they didn't give a shit and still wanted me to come to work. What was wrong with these people, and why should I work for them if they had no human decency?

Yes, I traded my $75,000/annum salary for various $10/hour service jobs. But I lived within my means and in the meantime recovered my mental health, spent proper time with family and friends, and rediscovered the important things in life. And now I'm back on my feet, in a better job making even more money than before (not that it's important, but it doesn't hurt).

Only you can evaluate the severity of your situation. Assess it as objectively as you can: might you have to choose between your job and your boyfriend? If so, decide which is more important to you, and then let the chips fall where they may. I think if your bosses are decent people, they'll put up with a bit more time off even if they're not happy about it. If not, they can go fuck themselves.
posted by randomstriker at 10:55 AM on December 29, 2008 [11 favorites]

I am sorry for your loss.

I like what HuronBob said, this keeps things really simple. There are so many details with your situation and you can really drive yourself crazy, obviously you don't need superfluous pressure at a time like this.

Break it all down to basics and keep it that way. At a time like this would you rather be a better worker or better friend / lover? Make the decision and deliver your announcements / requests in brief, don't invite or get caught up in the drama.

Be mostly a listener at a time like this. Consider that perhaps all of this has less to do with you than what you perceive.
posted by ezekieldas at 10:57 AM on December 29, 2008

You and those who loved the lost friend have my empathy.

Huron Bob and jayder have good points, but, as randomstriker points out, it really depends on your own coping abilities and the actual stress this may cause your relationship.

Have you asked your boyfriend yet about how you could best support him through this difficult time and what he thinks could be helpful if you do have to work through it?
posted by batmonkey at 11:40 AM on December 29, 2008

Agree with HuronBob. Be prepared for the consequences including your colleagues not being pleased with you at all. You are already dealing with an office that has survivor layoff guilt and people stressed about their next paycheck. People in your department have been laid off while you survived and seem to be gone. It is not rational, per se, to blame you for being gone during the crunch time but do not be surprised if it happens.

Be honest and be prepared for your employer's response whether it is, "yes" or "no". Have a back-up plan if your employer asks how your leave does not impact them and a plan for losing your job. Do not plan to ask for a raise.

Being anonymous I am not sure if you are in a place where health insurance is standard for all citizens. Part of the fear that fuels productivity at the cost of emotional health is the fear of lost health insurance. I hope that this is not part of the equation for you.
posted by jadepearl at 11:41 AM on December 29, 2008

As devastated as your boyfriend is, I suspect that if you ask him what he wants, he will not want you to jeopardize your job and the goodwill of your colleagues to console him.
posted by jayder at 12:05 PM on December 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

You have to work.

The grieving process that your boyfriend will be going through doesn't have an expiration date. Let his other friends pick up the slack now...later on when your work calms down you will have time to be there for him when the other friends may be going back to their own routines. Losing a job in this economy is not something you need to risk right now.

Do mention what is going on to a supervisor, but do NOT ask for time off right now. Unless you hate your job and can get another one quickly.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:57 PM on December 29, 2008

I think jayder's earlier comments are well worth consideration, but...

As devastated as your boyfriend is, I suspect that if you ask him what he wants, he will not want you to jeopardize your job and the goodwill of your colleagues to console him.

Of course he won't want you to jeopardize your job. Only the most selfish boyfriend would ask you to drop everything for him. I'm quite sure he will insist that you don't, but that doesn't mean you should listen to him.

When I went through the aforementioned experience, everyone in my family told me not to do anything that might risk my career. As well intentioned those sentiments were, they turned out to be wrong.

You are the best judge of your situation. Even your boyfriend shouldn't have the final word.
posted by randomstriker at 1:05 PM on December 29, 2008

I agree with S. Alia. If I were your boss or a coworker, I would not be particularly sympathetic—or rather, I would be very sympathetic if you came to work, much less so if you stayed away. It's really not in the same class as, say, your own mother dying, in which case no one would question your need to take time off.
posted by languagehat at 1:08 PM on December 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

By the way, if you don't have kids or underwater loans, then being out of work is really not that bad. You downsize, adjust, regroup, refocus and rebuild. I look back on my year of unemployment quite fondly -- far too many wonderful experiences to recount in this thread.
posted by randomstriker at 1:16 PM on December 29, 2008

The right thing to do here is to attend the funeral and be there for your loved one. You are giving the company the opportunity to do the right thing by you. If they don't, then look for a new job anyway and do what you need to do by your boyfriend. You sound like a good employee what with putting in the extra work before and during your agreed vacation to ensure that things work out for the company. Life is too short to spend any time working for anyone who doesn't respect both that effort and the needs of your personal life.

Oh and Randomstriker speaks sense.
posted by merocet at 1:26 PM on December 29, 2008

I'm sorry for your loss.

Under these specific circumstances, I don't think it's practical to expect worry-free time off. Your company has already been through layoffs and your co-workers with more tenure are probably concerned for their jobs. Concerned enough to be putting in 13 to 14 hour days during the holidays. Whether fairly or unfairly, as a new employee your teamwork skills are being judged during this crunch time.

If the job is critical to you, I'd say ask for only enough time to attend the funeral services and then make sure your boyfriend has your undivided attention outside of working hours.
posted by contrariwise at 2:55 PM on December 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not to sound too unfeeling, but most companies only give bereavement leave when an immediate family member passes away. Were I the HR person in charge, I must admit that while I'd offer my condolences, I wouldn't consider the passing of someone's boyfriend's best friend's a necessary reason for time off. Bereavement leave is given as a courtesy for those who have to make funeral arrangements and such; a friend of a friend situation doesn't really fit the bill.
posted by Oriole Adams at 7:19 PM on December 29, 2008 [3 favorites]

Has your boyfriend asked you to take time off of work to support him or was that your idea?

I would try to assess whether not being with your boyfriend would cause him to be more irked than not being at work would cause your boss/colleagues to be irked, and then decide which situation is preferable.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:22 PM on December 29, 2008

Given what you said about your work, I would NOT take time off for this. No way, no sir. I think you already sound like you are on the shit list for taking time off as is, and if you're the only one who does what you do, and they are in a panic mode...If I were them, I wouldn't be remotely sympathetic to you. Especially since well, it's not like it's your mom or immediate relative that died. It was a friend. Nobody's gonna give you leeway for that.

Keep your job, don't take the time off.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:01 PM on December 30, 2008

I've been in every possible combination of this type of issue, it seems. As a manager, my standard answer to my team is that if I can say yes to a request of this nature, I will say yes, but always be prepared to hear a no. In this case, I would not hesitate to turn down this request. And frankly, I would question your commitment to the team and your judgement in asking for this type of favor. And the silent voice in my head would questioning your intelligence, as well. It is obvious to you that your team members are under enormous pressure to complete their project. Obvious again is the state of the current economy and how it affects the job market. It is also obvious to you that you've received special treatment that other team members would not dream of asking for. A request for even more special treatment is out of line, in my opinion. This situation, as difficult as it is, does not involve a family member, and that's the deciding factor.

If you do survive this situation, you also need to be prepared for a very clear communication from your management that vacation time during the holidays will not be allowed next year.
posted by raisingsand at 2:25 PM on December 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I really don't see any way in which it would be appropriate for you to expect time off for this (excepting funeral attendance).
posted by the bricabrac man at 1:19 PM on December 31, 2008

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