How to tell boss my parent has a terminal illness. Complication inside
September 11, 2019 12:13 AM   Subscribe

I've recently learned that my mother has been diagnosed with a cancer that won't be cured. Her medical team is figuring out a treatment plan that will keep things at bay to give her as much quality time as she can have. We are all devastated. I'm struggling with what/how much to tell my boss.

Under normal circumstances, I would give my boss a heads up and let her know that I may need to take time off here and there to support my mother and my stepdad who is her primary support person right now. I live far enough away that visiting during the week would require time off work.

However, I'm also in the process of being laid off from my job. I am part of a major restructuring at my organization and my position will be eliminated at the end of the month. I received the notice just over two months ago. After six weeks of being ignored, my last pieces of work are finally starting to show up. I've also just been asked to provide knowledge transfer and training to the outsourcing company taking over a small but important part of my role. So I'm busy and I don't feel like I can take time off right now. My mother is not actively dying yet, and if she was, it would be a no-brainer - I would be with her. But right now, I feel like I need to power through the work stuff so I can be with her when I'm finally done. This is making me feel like a monster. She's my mom.

I was already struggling with the 3 months of working notice - I'm having a hard time keeping it together to care enough to provide more than the bare minimum of information to those that are staying on, especially after being ignored for so long. This is not who I was at this organization. I nearly always went above and beyond, often to my own detriment - I was pretty much burned out when I got the notice. I'm the only person currently in my role and had been there for 20 years so a lot of information will leave with me no matter how much I train and transfer - I just can't get it all done. I'm ready to be done here.

My boss is a reasonable person, but is spread way too thin and is dealing with even more during this transition. We both work remotely so our communication is done by phone/email/chat. I don't have a lot of communication with her outside of her immediate project requirements and a 1:1 call every three weeks. My 1:1 is tomorrow and it'll be full of status updates on my transition and final project work.

Any advice on how to talk to my boss, and how to power through these last few weeks at work while I'm dealing with such an awful family situation is welcome. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm so sorry about your mother!

I'm having a hard time keeping it together to care enough to provide more than the bare minimum of information to those that are staying on, especially after being ignored for so long... I'm ready to be done here.

I wouldn't let this transition keep you from pursuing the best approach to supporting her. If anything, isn't your job ... more disposable? I understand that you feel a lot of obligation, and in your shoes, honestly, I'd probably be the one asking this because I tend to take these things really seriously. But from the outside, it's not obvious that you have to put your job first here because (a) this deadline is of their own creation and could be moved if you and they wanted to negotiate that to allow you to complete your wrap-up work at a slower pace, (b) the last-minute nature of your exit work is of their creation so you shouldn't feel pressured by it, and (c) they could pay you as a consultant at an hourly rate for whatever information they really need later. Fundamentally, I'd put your mom first.

Are you eligible for paid (e.g., California's Paid Family Leave) or unpaid (e.g., the US Family Medical Leave Act) leave to care for family members? I'd look into that. There are some specific rules (e.g., for FMLA, that if you're giving less than 30 days notice that you have to tell them the next business day) so take a look.

I'd talk to your boss like this: "I have bad news to share, unfortunately. Over the weekend, I learned that my mother has terminal cancer. I'm going to need to take some time off to care for her. I'm sorry, because I know that this is going to disrupt the transition work. I'm happy to talk about various ways that we could handle this because I'd really also like to finish up this documentation." Then she should ask you what that time off looks like, and I'm not sure what your top choice would be. The conversation would be slightly different if your plan is to resign immediately.

I'm so sorry and wishing you the best with this hard situation.
posted by salvia at 12:50 AM on September 11 [21 favorites]


You have this internet stranger's permission to tell your work to go to hell.

My heart goes out to you. This sounds awful. Your mother is more important than your job, by several orders of magnitude. These people didn't treat you well in the past, so it's no surprise what they're doing to you now. And they're pushing you out anyway! Don't give them more than they deserve.

I can understand your desire not to burn bridges in this economy, but maybe think long and hard about how much you owe to work at this moment. I'm thinking it's possibly nothing.

Short detour here: After my father died -- he had been sick for a while but the actual death came suddenly and was shocking and threw me for a loop -- the company I worked for gave me three days. Three days to deal with the death of my father, alone. There were pets, a looming foreclosure, problems with the estate lawyer, all kinds of bills and money that was owed. It was complicated. And I was in grief and shock. My mother and other family had died years before. Dad was the last person on the planet I had been close to.

I came back to work after those three days they so generously allowed me, but those people were jerks. I ended up leaving the company not long after. In retrospect, I wish I had left as soon as they told me how little time they were giving me to deal with my father's death. I wish I'd done it while giving them the finger. I'm upset now that I gave them two weeks' notice.

FWIW, in your place I would:

- Make sure to eat regularly. Get lots of water.
- Do some breathing or stretching. Can you arrange a few appointments with a therapist?
- Sit down and hammer out a broad outline of the structures of your duties and get it on paper. Give them some documentation so they'll be happy.
- Try to commit to finishing your project. See how it goes and what they say.

But honestly? They've got a nerve asking you to do this! It's crappy but predictable. If you feel like you're coming apart, just tell them you can't do what they're asking given the way your life is cratering right now. And then leave. They can't kill you. You don't need them. They're letting you go anyway.

Others may have better solutions. Pulling for you!
posted by cartoonella at 12:53 AM on September 11 [18 favorites]


I'm also in the process of being laid off from my job.

Wait, you've been forced into unemployment? This is not just one but 2 incredibly stressful life events. Tell your boss. Let her do the initial talking and see what she proposes/offers as reasonable. If that's not great, I'd take as many carers days and sick days (stress) as you are entitled to- this is exactly why you work loyally for 20 years to earn the privelage for your work to have your back (or at least to have some entitlements) when times are tough like this. Just ask a dr, theyll likely write you a sick certificate based on stress and your situation. Your loyalty here is to yourself and your family, not your job that's ending. Please try not to feel guilty to your workplace. People with far more important jobs could (and do) get hit by a car and the company/ government/nuclear reactor/space station still survive fine, they'll make do.

All the best.
posted by hotcoroner at 12:58 AM on September 11 [7 favorites]


I am going through something similar (not *quite* to out-sourcing but close). My FIL has pancreatic cancer. Work did nothing for me over the past 2 decades when my mother died, or my mother-in-law, or my brother-in-law died, or other major family stuff. My wife pointed out that she cared if I was alive, when work has to have me (think driving in a blizzard or somesuch to get there), so do what is best for our family. So ignore work imho.
posted by baegucb at 1:17 AM on September 11


not wanting to abuse the edit window. I'd add, I have told co-workers about FIL. He is somewhat important. He is now 1 year into pancreatic cancer. 5 year results are not good. A manager who didn't hear about it? /shrug. I'm gone when my wife wants me to attend the funeral.
posted by baegucb at 1:23 AM on September 11


If you are sure that what's right for you is to finish out your time with the job, I would suggest that you make sure you are only working normal hours. No overtime, no above and beyond; they're not concerned with your future, so you don't need to worry about theirs, and even if you wanted to, you can't afford it now. You need downtime to take care of yourself in this difficult time.
posted by ktkt at 1:34 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


My mom was dying once (and has now been dead for some time) after she encouraged and kept as much track as she could, though she always worked too much. She once said, with some kinda, "YES FINALLY THEY TAKE ME SERIOUSLY" that I use her as an excuse to get outta whatever homework I needed to. I told her about every time I used her as an excuse. She relished it. We had more time around each other.

If you already have an outro, maybe ask your mom if you can use her as The Excuse. It all is Actual Terminal Death-style Death, after all. It is braver for everyone to get it that that can kinda happen whenever. (Also it super sucks and send a mail anytime; we have a whole non-official Dead Parents Club).

If you want to use that as an excuse to just make a real clean break, that is okay. Having a parent die is bananas in every way. And then speaking from just quite a lot of real experience, you will need some recovery time and grief will Mess You Up sometimes, but you will get back very quickly to aboving and beyonding. You have done good work. They're laying you off. You already probably put in more than they paid for. From now on, you are allowed to just ehhhhhhh for a bit. You are allowed.

I say tell your boss (who seems nice) that you are on the way toward checking out, not because you don't care but because you're taking care of other stuff in your life of lives. Tell her the specific hours you'll be available. And then detach from that as much as you can because you got other not-laid-off business and life to attend to. Include compliments if you still wanna be her friend. You don't have to.

I love you. This is hard. You are rugged, and the wind's gonna get kicked outta you. You will be okay, even if sometimes you're not quite.
posted by lauranesson at 2:13 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


Also that is a company and they are laying you off and you honestly don't owe them any more than the most minimal effort after giving . It is then a silent, "(Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, you're cool, fuck you," after that. Tell the good ones you'll miss them. Spend your exact paid hours at work making the knowledge transfer as clear as you can and then walk away with the image of that nonsense burning down behind you. Do not burn a building down.
posted by lauranesson at 2:24 AM on September 11 [7 favorites]


Your job does not care about you. Your mom probably does. I missed one of the last months of my dad's life for work reasons and I will regret it for the rest of my life. It was one of the worst decisions I ever made.

If you work remotely can you bring your work stuff to your mom's and finish up from there?
posted by rednikki at 2:35 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


I obviously have no idea what the terms of your layoff are. If they are giving you one month pay for every year worked or covering your Healthcare for a year or some package that makes it so you feel an obligation or there is an actual obligation I would not jeopardize that deal. I would have a frank discussion about your situation and tell them you will be taking time off but will make it up on the back end.

I think it is possible to both spend time with your mother and fulfill your final work obligations. If work is not being reasonable, fuck 'em.
posted by AugustWest at 2:39 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


I tend to get wrapped up in my sense of obligation towards the people I work with and I tend to try to please too many people, so I'll say this - my father's diagnosis and the months that followed, the time spent with him and my family - it happened 25 years ago and this thread has it all flooding all back but I couldn't tell you what project I was working on at the time.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:38 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


Your company made its decision and will survive or not based on that. You can always continue to knowledge transfer later at 2-3X your current hourly rate as a consultant. Your guilt about being human during your notice period speaks well to your work ethic but...as someone who’s been on both sides of the equation, it’s normal and something that is a predictable result of the way your business handled this. It’s not up to you to throw yourself into that gap, especially at such a terrible personal time.

What’s important here is your health. Limit your work hours, do what you need to do to spend time on your mom and your own oxygen mask. I’m sorry this is happening to you. It’s a lot. Hang in there.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:53 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


What cartoonella said.

I'm so sorry this is happening to you.
posted by james33 at 4:41 AM on September 11 [1 favorite]


I'm very sorry you and your mother are going through this.

Very bluntly -- Fuck your job and fuck your boss. They decided you were unneeded to them. You owe them exactly nothing more than whatever contract you have. Give them the legal minimum with no guilt. That's at most what they give you. Your health and your time with your mother are important. Some work bullshit is not. The work transition issues aren't your problem, especially since they wasted your last weeks. It's all on them. Tell them what is going on or not, that's a personal decision. The business decision is to fulfill the end of your contract and do what's right for you.
posted by jclarkin at 4:43 AM on September 11 [14 favorites]


I would tell your boss about your mom’s diagnosis, and simply say “I’m not sure what my plans are yet - I’ll keep you posted.” And then as the next couple weeks unfold, do what you think you need to do. It sounds like the end of your job is imminent, so keep them on a need-to-know basis. No need to scorch the earth but also no need to lay all your plans out in advance.

When my mother was dying - took about 9 months from initial diagnosis - my life still had to go on. Like you I lived far enough away that visiting was an overnight trip, so I could get there when I needed to but my life kept going. Not sure how your dad feels but mine was not interested in me hovering.

tl/dr: take every day as it comes. Certainly do not put work before your mom but don’t shut everything off till you feel you need to.
posted by lyssabee at 5:35 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


My heart goes out to you. Since you work remotely could you just go stay with your mom and do your work from her place? Or do you have a good friend who lives near your mother who would be happy to have you? If you could do this some of the stress would ease, the stress of not being able to see your mom every day, to spend as much of this precious time with her as possible.
posted by mareli at 5:37 AM on September 11


I'm sorry about this confluence of awful events. It seems like you have 3 weeks left in this job; are you anticipating needing to go see your mother in that time frame?
posted by DarlingBri at 6:55 AM on September 11


I've also just been asked to provide knowledge transfer and training to the outsourcing company taking over a small but important part of my role.

You have my permission to tell them to kindly go fuck themselves with everything, but especially this part.
Taking care of you and your mom come first. Then about 37 other things. Then work.
posted by bowmaniac at 6:59 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


In a perfect world you'd be able to bug out with no regard for work, but assuming you are subject to the limitations of capitalism and you need your remaining paychecks and severance (which I hope you're getting) and to not have them fuck with your unemployment and be a reference for future employment, you're probably stuck working out the last of your work commitment.

But since you work remotely, I agree you should go to her if at all possible. Personally, I would not tell anyone at work until it is completely unavoidable, lest they use it to make up an excuse to mess with your severance or unemployment or references.

Hopefully, if you are with her, you'll be able to squeak out enough hand-off material to look cooperative, and still not have to regret working when you could have been with her.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:50 AM on September 11


Twenty years from now, will you mind that you shifted to “lowest effort possible” at this particular job for the last couple months only to maximize time with your mom? Genuine question—I know some people care a lot about the effort they put into work. If it were me I would do the bare minimum at the office, increase the time I spent with my mom, and gave some extra attention to myself and leisure time too.
posted by sallybrown at 8:18 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


"Hi boss. Before we start, I wanted to let you know that I just got some pretty bad family medical news, and that's going to start taking up more and more of my time and attention. Here's where I am right now on [projects]: [status] [status] [status]. I know the original plan was for them to be at X state by now, but I didn't start receiving them to start working on till last week, so I've done the best I could with the time I had. Given my family situation, I'm not going to be able to put in any extra time on anything, and will probably need to take some time off during the week through my end date. I know that's not ideal, but I wanted to be sure you had a heads-up so you'd know what was going on. Realistically, I won't be able to produce training materials for the outsourced company at this point, and will probably only be able to do [realistic number of the things already on your plate - like, seriously, one or maaaayyybe two things], so what would you like me to prioritize?"

If they push the training, explain that the medical news has you in shock and that right now any work you do will largely be on autopilot, and you just don't have the mental space to step back and do an objective overview of your work. Because seriously, even if you wanted to, you don't have the mental space for that right now. It's not your problem that the company didn't prioritize this.

And then you get through the next few weeks on autopilot, taking whatever time off you need, and not worrying about the quality of your work. I would work out the remainder of the notice period (with whatever breaks needed!) if there's a severance package that depends on it, and then walk away without a backward look.
posted by current resident at 9:05 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


The other thing is that you are probably overestimating the importance of your handoff materials. From experience, a lot of people barely look at them. I know you can't be certain that they won't look at it, but I'd generally provide what they ask for and assume they won't look at the rest. I left my first job with the files meticulously organized, with a two page annotated table of contents. I still remember the time they called me (like six months in) with a question that revealed that they had never made it to page two. Or noticed that the file drawer had a file labeled exactly what their question was. It was satisfying to show them exactly where the material was in about 15 seconds, but I could have put in far less overtime during my last month and found that file in like, two extra minutes. This can really be an area where effort goes to waste.
posted by salvia at 9:45 AM on September 11 [5 favorites]


Immediately find out about FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) options. You may well be eligible for paid leave. do not hesitate to take it, as your employer has not hesitated to outsource your job, and require you to provide training. It's business.
posted by theora55 at 9:45 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]


I'm so sorry about your mother. I lost my mom a few years back, and its really awful.

But please just tell your boss - in as polite a manner as you feel appopriate - to go fuck himself and his request for extra work, and of course, SUPERfuck the company you gave 20 years of your for that's asking you to take on a massive amount of work mere weeks before you are laid off.

Do the absolute barest, tiniest, minimum amount of work from now until you are done, do not think twice about the quality of it b/c you are a pro that's been doing this for years, and use whatever free time and emotional bandwidth you have left to support your mom and family. Call in sick every single day from here on out.
posted by RajahKing at 9:51 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


I'm so sorry this is happening to you. Let me join in the chorus here: they're laying you off, kicking you to the curb after twenty years. You owe them the ultimate bare minimum. You owe your mom everything you can possibly give her right now.

(I feel like I should maybe make a macro that says "your bosses are not your friends" 50x. I seem to need it a lot in AskMe. It's true every time. Even when you've been there twenty years. Especially if you've been there twenty years and they're turning you out on the street.)

Best wishes to you and your mom.
posted by praemunire at 10:29 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


You are right that you can't possibly transfer 20 years of experience in the time left. No matter what . So you might consider that the company does have the option to hire you as a consultant to be available to answer their questions once the new people come on board. If they don't want to pay for that, that tells you something about how much they value a smooth transition vs money in the pocketbook. Note: I would not mention this to your manager right now but it is something to keep in mind going forward.
posted by metahawk at 10:40 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


At the very least, I would recommend giving your boss a heads up, in the event that you really need to go be with your mom before your last day with the company. What you don't want, and certainly don't need, is for your boss to be texting or emailing you if you are in the midst of an emotional situation with your mom. Ask me how I know that!

However, you don't owe the company or your boss anything. I would walk away and not feel bad about it at all.

I'm very sorry that you are going through this.
posted by GoldenEel at 10:51 AM on September 11


It will be MUCH HARDER for you to take time off from a new job a couple of months from now than to take time off, now, from this job that has already laid you off.

At a new job you'll be under great pressure to prove yourself dedicated and responsible. But at your current job? What are they going to do? Fire you?

Take all the vacation, leave, and sick time you have left to take. Use that time to spend time with your mother, to help your stepfather, and apply to new jobs.
posted by BlueJae at 11:39 AM on September 11 [3 favorites]


I would like to add to the chorus. The business decided to lay you off, you didn't decide to quit. If I were in your position and someone offered me a better gig, I would not even give a full day's notice, and that is without the pressure of an impending death in the family.

Of course, you do not want to put any separation benefits in danger, but that is seriously the only consideration I would give to them. This whole "we're replacing you, and since you're a professional you have to do a good job briefing your replacement" thing is ... amusing. No, wait, I mean infuriating. The way I understand it, your boss is also being carried along with events and it is admirable that you're concerned about that, but that is just too bad for her. If she is smart, she is already well along in her job search too.

Good luck and my sympathies about your mother.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 12:20 PM on September 11


You might consider that the company does have the option to hire you as a consultant to be available to answer their questions once the new people come on board.

Several of us have said this, but I just want to underscore it. In one job I was leaving, I ran out of time to do everything I wanted to, and instead of letting me work for free, they actually suggested this. My only point is that this pivot may be far easier than you think if you have always been an employee. You can phrase it along these lines: "one of the things I've decided to do after my employment here ends is to begin marketing my services as a consultant. The good thing is that this will make it easy for me to provide any help if XYZ Corp ends up needing any additional support from me after [October 1st] during this transition."
posted by salvia at 1:20 PM on September 11


How awful.

Your mother doesn't have to be actively dying right now for you to need to take time off. This is a devastating diagnosis and it's normal if you feel that you need some time off to process this and spend time with family.

I'd definitely recommend that you discuss this during your 1:1 tomorrow, so that you are letting your manager know early and you can work on some accommodations together.

I would say, "[Boss], we received some devastating news this week that my mother has a terminal illness. I feel that I really need some time right now to process this and spend some time with family. How can we accommodate this around my obligations here?"

Just get the conversation started and try to come up with something which works for everyone. Maybe it's taking a week off, then just finishing your last two weeks at the job. Maybe it's taking a couple of days off each week until you finish. Maybe it's working shorter days each day until you finish. Have a think about whether there is something which would work for you which you can request in the conversation.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 6:42 PM on September 11


From the OP:
An enormous thank you everyone for took the time to answer and weigh in on my question. All of your insights, advice, and stories really helped me gain some clarity on this shitty situation.

One important detail that I forgot to mention is that I do have a severance package that was negotiated via lawyers so my end date is firm. I'm very hesitant to do anything that may jeopardize that package. I did end up telling my boss about my mom and she was sympathetic, but didn't mention any possibility of any time off so I didn't either. We then talked about work as expected.

I've been checking in with my parents regularly and do plan to go down for several days once I'm done. I figure if anything, holding off will allow me to leave some of that bad energy at home and I can truly focus on what I can do to help my mom and the rest of the family/extended network. Then I'll likely be back and forth for a while. If I need to go sooner, I will but I don't think we're *there* yet.

I'm doing the best that I can to provide what I'm being asked for at work but not doing any OT/other heroics. Boss floated the thought of me potentially freelancing in the future if we could make it work around the severance stuff. While I don't believe in completely closing a door, I had to really bite my tongue to not tell her to go shit in her hat. I don't want anything to do with this organization for the foreseeable future (if ever). I need to take some time to heal/grow from what was a pretty dead-end job, figure out my next steps career-wise, and be available for my mom. That's more than enough right now.

Thank you again to everyone who weighed in - I'm so grateful to all of you.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 6:59 AM on September 12


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