Worried about one of the mentors/authority figures in my life
April 15, 2018 1:52 AM   Subscribe

This person is in their early 60s. I suspect they are going through some sort of health crisis. I want to respect their privacy and boundaries, so if they don't bring it up (and they haven't) I won't. I'd like to 1) deal with my own abandonment anxieties and 2) know what to do with caring feelings.

Let's call this person Bob for clarity.

I have a strictly boundaried, professional relationship with Bob. The relationship is asymmetrical, in that Bob gives more than I do (and the idea is, of course, that I'd pay it forward). I like Bob very much, and his guidance means a great deal to me.

In the last 10 months or so Bob has visibly lost a lot of weight, and he wasn't big to begin with. I wasn't sure until last week when I saw Bob wearing a shirt he hasn't worn for a very long time and it hung so loose on him. Bob's been looking tired. Bob has been taking whole weeks off here and there. Bob is the consumate professional-- he doesn't say much about his personal life, and his work, from what I can see (which is not everything), does not suffer.

Like I said, I don't want to pry, so I have no plan of bringing it up with Bob unless he broaches the subject first. I also trust that Bob is doing what he can to take care of himself. But every time I see him these days, thin and with dark circles under his eyes, a bunch of feelings come up.

A few years ago another mentor went through exactly the same thing (weight loss, looking tired, mysterious absences), who also never said anything until one day I accidentally saw him vomiting like crazy in his office. Then he told me that he had cancer, was in kidney failure, and needed a heart transplant. Then he dissapeared for a long time and nobody knew what's going on. Another mentor/authority figure person is showing all of the same signs, but she's told me about her illnesses as they unfold. Finally, my own father, who is the same age as Bob, has been sick. He's retired, but he too lost a lot of weight and looked tired and there are stretches of time when he doesn't have the energy to do anything.

I am fairly certain that part of my worries about Bob is my own projections, and that he's triggering my fear of sudden abandonment by all of these parental figures in my life, as well my sadness about what's happening to them. I'm working on processing these feelings, but it's kind of hard to keep seeing him like this. I'm also certain that I genuinely care about Bob as a human being and I would like to express that in a way that doesn't call attention to his physical state.

If you have insights about how to deal with my own feelings and how to show Bob support, I'd greatly appreciate them. If you've been me or Bob, or have read a helpful book, I'd love to hear as well. Many thanks in advance!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
For your own peace of mind, I'd actually recommend Metta, or Loving Kindness meditation. I love the way Sharon Salzberg explains it and practices it. I believe this would allow you to take your anxiety and turn that energy into compassion for yourself, for someone else, for everyone else, as it expands during your meditation time.
For supporting Bob, I think you're already on the right track: If and when he decides to speak about it, be present - really present - listen, and then merely ask how you can help. It may be something concrete, it may be something more ephemeral, but just the fact that you have shown up for him is going to do wonders for you both.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 3:16 AM on April 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Can you find a good moment to express how much his guidance means to you? Something simple and explicit, like 'I really appreciate your help with [this or that], it means a lot to me'?
posted by Too-Ticky at 3:17 AM on April 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh man, what a timely question. Now that I am in mid-career, my mentors are all aging like normal humans and I am starting to feel the tailspin of "They are going to be gone one day" and it makes me weepy sometimes. One had a serious health scare last year that brought me to my knees, which I was not expecting. I brought this up with my therapist, who acknowledged that mentors are a lot like parents in how we relate to them, but without the quid pro quo. Good mentors often shield us from the messy life things that we endure with our parents, so in some ways are actually "better" than our parents depending on where we are in our lives.

The best route at this time for you to be able to feel all your feelings is going to be a similar split. Focus on gratitude with your own mentor - try and identify something each week that you are grateful for about his role in your life and your career, and write it down. Once every two or three weeks, be in touch to share that. People who are experiencing serious illness are having their own role confusion, so being able to reinforce the very best parts of that will likely be a good mental and emotional support you can give him. The advice above about being explicit is great, because examples are meaningful. You don't have to be super simple as long as his mental faculties are intact. I sent some screencaps to a mentor last year to show her a regression analysis that her theory inspired me to do and it was very complex, but I got the feeling she was very pleased.

Then, for your own feelings of fear and abandonment, definitely seek our therapy! If your job has an EAP, this is a really good use for it. Give them a call, and see if they can hook you up with a session or two. I grew up without a father and mentors have always played that role in my life, I need professional advisement to help me navigate my complicated feelings around this.
posted by juniperesque at 6:58 AM on April 15, 2018

I am Bob’s age and I have cancer. People handle these things in different ways. I tend to tell everyone in my life because I just hate the idea of people wondering what is wrong and making guesses. Also, my immune system is compromised and people in my office tend to come to work sick, so I sent an email asking people to avoid me if they’re coming down with something. It seems like Bob, at least for now, wants to go for keeping things as normal as possible. So I would suggest following his lead on that, which is what you seem to be doing. But do be careful about germs because he is almost certainly immunocompromised. Be scrupulous about washing your hands.

I think it’s fine to thank him for stuff, but I wouldn’t go over the top. He might be hoping he’s effectively hiding his illness, and I’d let him have that. But if he stumbles or something, I think it’s OK to ask if he’s all right. But try to be as casual about it as you can.
posted by FencingGal at 5:47 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

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