Grief at work
May 22, 2016 12:54 PM   Subscribe

How the fuck do I handle grief and grief police?

For the past few years, I was a caretaker for a very loved elderly family member who was my last remaining parent figure. He died a couple months ago, and the burial service was last week. Recently, I had my annual performance review at work and it was both written and said that my lack of enthusiasm (read: overwhelming grief) was negatively impacting the morale of my co-workers. I have met extraordinary deadlines, been even-keeled, reliable and professional throughout this time. I have direct team members who have not even acknowledged my loss. My boss told me again last week that my lack of enthusiasm would play into a day of reckoning, read: fired.

When my relative was in the ICU and my siblings and I had to make the decision to remove life support and watch my relative die, my boss and my boss's boss were emailing me AT THAT SAME TIME demanding I make a plan to address the work crisis his death would cause to our next deadline. I met that deadline without impacting my co-workers.

This death is a major loss and has me so heartbroken, but the job stress is compounding my grief so much I can't even see straight.

How the fuck do I even begin to address this?
posted by vers to Human Relations (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Get a new job. One where you work with people who exhibit human empathy, at least a little.
posted by triage_lazarus at 1:03 PM on May 22, 2016 [141 favorites]

I think there's nothing you can do with the current (horrible!) bosses and coworkers. You're meeting deadlines and being professional while going through a major life trial and people are mad because you're not more smiley and light-hearted at work?! Find a new job. These people are awful and nothing you say or do will fix that.

I'm very sorry for your loss. You sound like a wonderful person who made the last years of your loved one's life far more comfortable and filled with love.
posted by quince at 1:03 PM on May 22, 2016 [21 favorites]

Start looking for a new job ASAP. Based on what you describe, this is an unfixable situation.
posted by paulcole at 1:05 PM on May 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

You are so deeply enmeshed in this environment that it seems almost reasonable to you that this level of toxicity exists. That's completely understandable at your end; the only way you will recognize how awful it is (and I know this from personal experience) is to take a job in a company (or start your own) where the priorities are people-first. My best guy-friend lost his mother about six weeks ago. His has an important job, but he's not the biggest fish, and his company depends on him for a lot, but when he checked in by phone from the hospice, he was told in no uncertain terms that he need not think about work, and they continued to be supportive like that through hopsice and her passing and his mourning, and even after he returned, they kept reminding him that if he needed shorter hours, or to take breaks, or to just make his own schedule, they understood.

I've had jobs like yours. I've also had 15 years where I'm in charge of my work life. The difference has been one of earning back my health strengthening my sense of authenticity and agency, to use the fancy words. The people with whom you work may be your friends, but they may just be the people with whom (and for whom) you work. The people you love deserve your focus. It's much easier to get another job than another person who means everything to you.

Please see a grief counselor, even if you have to schedule it before/after work or on a weekend or by phone or Skype. And please know that there truly are other, better places to work out there where the main (and sometimes only) focus would be on supporting you until your mourning had somewhat subsided.

I can't reduce your grief, but I can remind you that your grief is normal, that your giving any attention to work, let alone the high quality you are apparently giving, is exemplary, and your workplace is not healthy for you and probably not for the people who feel obligated to perpetuate this lack of empathy or humanity, and they can't even see it. {hugs}
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 1:12 PM on May 22, 2016 [50 favorites]

You deal with your horrendous work situation by finding another job. This is just awful and I'm so sorry, both for your loss and for the asshats making your completely normal grieving process so much worse.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:17 PM on May 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is horrible. Go to your doctor and get signed off for a couple of weeks, and use the time to come to terms with what has happened and start looking for a new job. If your boss and co-workers are as horrible as they sound, they are going to do what they will do whether you take care of yourself or not. So take care of yourself.

And so sorry you are going through all of this. Humans can be awful sometimes.
posted by rpfields at 1:36 PM on May 22, 2016 [14 favorites]

DTMFA this job. Not sure where you live but the job market right now is very healthy and you should have no trouble finding something better. With the level of aggression you're getting there is very little you can do except leave. Any other choice will result in more aggression or will require you to suppress your trauma even more which is not a good idea.
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:38 PM on May 22, 2016

Yes, for absolute short-term crisis management, please go to a doctor and talk to them and GET DOCUMENTATION of the extraordinary stress you have been under, as well as talking through a support treatment plan. If you have the means to go on medical leave, have that conversation with the doctor and put it in your pocket. Then if you have the energy (or rage drive) to also speak with an employment lawyer, do that before pulling the trigger on the leave. Because if they are unable to write you up for missing deadlines and yet think they want to threaten to fire you for "lack of enthusiasm" or for taking leave, I think they might be constructing a pretty great middle-finger lawsuit for themselves.

And then find a new job. These people are shit and you can't make them not be shit.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:49 PM on May 22, 2016 [38 favorites]

Cannot recommend getting the FUCK out of there enough! Start looking this instant. These aren't people, they're psychopaths. Especially that boss.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:05 PM on May 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

WTF. Sobbing at your desk for a week would be one thing, but they're upset just because you're not enthusiastic enough?! These people are crazy. I would find a new job.

So sorry for your loss.
posted by ilovewinter at 2:23 PM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

The first thing is that work situation sounds like a nightmare. If it's at all possible, and after you've had enough time to decompress, start looking for another job. Try to get an extra good feel of company culture when you are so you hopefully don't end up in a place like this again.

Second thing is, people's favorite thing to do with grief is let their own discomfort with it color how they treat the person who is actually grieving. The only thing you can really do in that situation is remember that's their shit to deal with, not yours, which of course doesn't make it okay but may make it a bit more understandable. When I worked at a similar company, after a loss I had all sorts of weird interactions with people based on what they thought my grief should be, or what their grief was in a similar situation was that they just projected onto me, and it was awful.

But, again: 100% about those people's emotional responses, and not about you. That their morale is impacted when you're still just doing your job in a normal and professional way really proves it.
posted by ariadne's threadspinner at 2:42 PM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Until you find another job, perhaps you can explain that your grief has dampened your affect but not your commitment to hitting deadlines and performing competently, and ask if you can arrange to work off-site so that your "lack of enthusiasm" isn't visible.

It's not ideal to accommodate their lack of empathy, but adding a job search and the stress of maybe losing your job perhaps isn't what you need right now. If you can work this compromise, they get to keep a seasoned and performing employee, you get a breather, and no one has to see each other face to face on a regular basis for a while.
posted by Capri at 2:46 PM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ugh, I'm sorry you're having to deal with this, and I'm so very sorry for your loss.

The best technique I've found for compartmentalizing is to spend an hour or so in the morning and on lunch really letting the feelings come to the surface, then shifting from feeling them into meditating (just noticing what's around me; noticing that despite my inner pain, my breath still passes in and out, in and out). I usually finish that ready to focus on work for a few hours. Aside from that, maybe fake enthusiasm -- easiest over email. "I'm so excited! Can't wait! Great job! Go team!"

After finding a new job, maybe you could drop a dime to one of the reporters that covers the company or business lifestyle issues in general. It'll probably go nowhere, but sending a quick email won't take much time either. And maybe it would help to read other critiques of the BS you're dealing with, like Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble or coverage of Amazon's workplace culture.

I'm very sorry for your loss.
posted by salvia at 3:03 PM on May 22, 2016

Yes, you should probably look for another job.

If that's not possible right now, however (I'd weigh stress at current job vs stress of finding a new job and try to decide what you're capable of taking on), I'd request a meeting with your immediate supervisor. Be as honest as possible about what you're going through and how callous you've found the response from your company to be so far. If they're human beings with ability to feel sympathy, they should really cut you a break, and might just need it spelled out for them one more time that yes, you are in fact going through a terrible period in your life. Plus it sounds like you've been a great employee despite all this.

Unfortunately, experiencing loss and grief can sometimes bring out the worst in people around you. If you can, try to spend time with people who make you feel better during this time. Do you have any friends at work you can rant to? Friends or relatives outside of work who "get it"? Your needs should come first right now - try to put aside this petty work BS and do some self care when you can.
posted by aspenkf at 3:14 PM on May 22, 2016

Very sorry for your loss. Been there, done that, with a sibling and a parent. It really sucks.

Do you want to stay at your job, after the way they have treated you? Will it harm your career goals if you leave to take another job?

Assume you probably have very little paid time off left after what you've been through. Can you take a sick day to re-center yourself and just sort of chill and think about what you want to do next?

If you want to stay on at this job, and personally, I see very little benefit in it for you, unless I am missing something, you might want to talk to a) an employment lawyer and b) some supervisor sideways to your boss, or c) someone higher up than your boss. Because it sounds like a really toxic work environment.

Also, if you don't already, get your hands on an employee manual, whether physical or online, in case they terminate you. This could be important if you have to fight for unemployment benefits. If they do terminate you, most states define it as if you did something willfully wrong, which it looks like you haven't, but IANAL, and only have the experience of helping someone else related to me through a wrongful termination unemployment hearing (where I quoted their employee manual back to their attorneys, and the state employee told them to eff off with the umemployment denial, basically, because they'd done a bad thing, and this person also got a bit o' hush money after a strongly worded letter from his attorney to their attorney).

Do you have a strong support network away from work? Family, friends, etc.? Can you get in touch with a grief counselor through the hospital or hospice, usually they have a social worker who could give you referrals, and sounds like you have been blindsided, and need someone in your corner to bounce things off of.

Again, sorry you are going through this, I really know how stressful it is, believe me. It sucks, and it sucks even worse to have your employer be so cold-hearted about your situation. I've been in similar situations, and found out later that the rest of the managers considered my boss to be a psychopath, but since I wasn't really their responsibility, all they could do is watch the trainwreck that they inflicted on their department. And please don't sign off on anything agreeing to bad performance without talking to an attorney, at least.

I don't feel HR and EPA programs are of much help in this instance, as they are operating via the company code, that is, close ranks and side with management. But like I said, let them decide whether to lay you off or not, so you can get unemployment benefits if it does happen. Agree with the other commenters that it's probably just best to move on and cut your losses, but if this job is important to your career track and you want to hang onto it for a little while, you might take a day to consider your options, and drink some chamomile tea and binge on Netflix, and give yourself a mental break until you can recoup. You sound like a very smart and capable person, but you've just gone through a major shock, so if you can find anyone who will have your back, do it.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:43 PM on May 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

Hope they fire you for it, then collect unemployment while hunting for a job that doesn't treat you like shit?
posted by tapir-whorf at 4:17 PM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree with everyone that in a humane society, people are cut some slack for things like grieving, child care, and other family emergencies. If we can't create that society, we can at least stop our complicity by taking a walk. That doesn't necessarily mean quit right now if you don't have another job lined up, but it means looking around, taking care of yourself first, and your job second. If they are going to fire you over it, then that is pretty easy to explain at your next job interview. Plus, you can collect unemployment.

It's usually costly to let a good employee go and you can be comforted that their intolerance to their employees' well being is ultimately harmful to the company's stability.

And if you just absolutely love this job and are only concerned that you are not able to do it as well as you want to in this immediate period of grief, then absolutely go and get a doctor to sign off on FMLA (assuming you are USian). This is a perfectly acceptable use of FMLA and any doctor will have heard this request a dozen times before. This is why we have this law, so that people don't have to worry about losing their job just because they are dealing with some personal stuff.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 4:32 PM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry for your loss.

How was your review last year? Was this issue raised at all? You said this person died a few months ago and the burial was recent... Were you having a particularly tough time in the months preceding?

Being a caretaker and working full time sounds exhausting. I would be surprised if it didn't impact your work.

Are you certain their comments referred to your grief? I know it's been a difficult time, but are you sure you have remained professional (I know I couldn't!).

You also said some of your team members haven't acknowledged your loss. I can think of two possible reasons. Some people are very uncomfortable about death and truly do not know what to say. Maybe cut them some slack? Or at least try not to keep score.

Also you said this person was a family member but not a parent. Is it possible they don't really get the relationship? Some folks really aren't that close to family outside parents and siblings and wouldn't be all that affected by the death of, say, an elderly aunt.

As for the emailing: the timing is unfortunate, but if I'm emailing a colleague who is out, I'm not expecting them to see it immediately. Nor would I time sending it.

You are grieving and you are angry about your review. Maybe these folks are terrible. Or perhaps this has all been an issue at work in a way you couldn't see.

Good luck to you.
posted by bluedaisy at 5:40 PM on May 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

First, I'm sorry for your loss. I've been through some traumatic experiences in the past few years and a) the traumatic experience felt like a full-time job; b) my full-time job felt like a full-time job; and c) keeping it together at work felt like a full-time job. Three full-time jobs is a lot of fucking jobs to have to show up to.

That being said, if your attitude was addressed in your performance appraisal then I think it's fair to say that you aren't showing up at work the way you think you are. Someone who is an even keel flies under the radar; it's called an even keel because nothing is amiss. Did you ask for clarification about what a lack of enthusiasm is? Lack of enthusiasm can be neutral, but lack of enthusiasm can also be Eyeore. With regard to the "day of reckoning," what, exactly, did your boss say to you? Stress in my own life makes me hear things differently than they are intended.

When I read the part about your bosses contacting you for a plan about the work deadline what I hear is that they were trying to take work off your plate, you held onto it thinking you didn't want to burden others, and you resent them for it. If my girlfriend got hit by a car today I wouldn't be able to hand off my workload without quite a bit of legwork but it's the responsible thing to do for me and my employer. It's shitty and it's just a fact of life.

Look for other jobs if you think that's what you need to do, but in the meantime ask your boss what specific behaviors you can demonstrate that will make you appear more engaged. And I know this sounds flippant, but "acting as if" or "fake it til you make it" really do work for me. Every day I walk into work and say, "It's gonna be a great day!" even if I'm in a shitty mood. I didn't realize that people noticed until I forgot to say it one day and two people asked me in jest, "Woah, is today not gonna be a great day?!" For grief generally and not just at work, try to get outside of yourself a little each day. Say hi to individual people: "Good morning, Emily," not just "hey guys." Ask a few people tomorrow what they did this weekend and try to ask a follow-up question.
posted by good lorneing at 6:04 PM on May 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

If it's a biggish organization, go to HR. I found in a similar situation that after I went to HR and explained (not very calmly!) that the boss was targeting me for what he considered personal failings though my performance was good, HR said that I should report back to them if there was any 'retaliation.' Just going to HR gave me some protection from being fired. The boss of course really loathes me now, but can't do anything about it. (This isn't the law, but company policy.)
I also asked to transfer to another department, so I'm still technically under that boss, but have almost nothing to do with him.
Anyway, if there's an HR department, you might make an appointment and talk to them. Even if you just give generalities, you'll be getting it on record.
But if it's a smaller workplace, I know there might not be an HR dept, or it might be the boss's buddy.
posted by my-sharona at 7:50 PM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've read your question several times, as it occurred to me that the only possible excuse your employers and co-workers could have is that they weren't aware of your situation at all. And even then, dinging you for "lack of enthusiasm" at a performance review in which you did everything you were supposed to do strikes me as petty and reason alone to start looking for a new job (if they're going to pick nits like that after the good job you've done for them, I doubt anything you do could please them).

But if these people were aware of your grief situation and still acted like that, the mind boggles. No matter what, find a new job pronto, with people who appreciate you. Give your current job two weeks' notice and the minimum courtesy requires, and not a whit more -- they don't deserve it.

I am so sorry for your loss and wish you comfort and good fortune in a new situation soon.
posted by Gelatin at 5:28 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Skip the employment lawyer. A lawsuit against unreasonable people will be expensive and stressful. You'll get fired or leave anyway.

Cliché, but therapy to help support you through this very stressful time.

You can wait until they fire you before looking for a new job if you like, only with the support of a therapist. The advantage of this approach is that you don't have to interview and start over with all new people while you are still raw with grief. Heal yourself and then start over in a new job when you're a bit more together.

PM me if you want to talk - I was fired in similar circumstances, it was horrible in the moment but long term was really great.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:54 AM on May 23, 2016

I'd recommend getting a doctor's note saying that you are suffering from ______ and that you need the following accommodations in the workplace: _________. That might mean time off or what-have-you. I don't know how it works where you live, but this would be protected under human rights for employment where I live.

And I nth finding a new job.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 9:18 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for the kindness and empathy, the insights, the reality checks and the calls to action. I'm still working on figuring this out, but you've been immensely helpful and I sincerely appreciate ir.
posted by vers at 7:30 PM on May 24, 2016

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