Sensitivity in a time of deep tragedy?
November 17, 2021 5:33 PM   Subscribe

Someone who I'm not close to, but meet with socially on a regular basis, has suffered a horrendous loss. The way some of our mutual people have been handling the subject has not been great, certain choices in particular seem insensitive in my view. I'm not sure if I'm overreacting or if something should be said?

There may be some Ask vs Guess culture involved in this situation as well.

Person A's child passed away. The death was unexpected and violent in nature. It's just about the worst news I've ever received about someone who I know personally, and I cannot begin to imagine their pain. Person A and I are not close friends, but are friendly and under normal circumstances we would meet regularly with a larger group. The group also has an active chat with daily participation.

Person A is good friends with Person B in the group. Person B quietly let the group organizers know of Person A's loss. Person C, one of the organizers, took Person B's message to mean that Person A does not want anyone to know what happened, and keeping this information on lock is paramount to everything else. Myself and another organizer took it to mean that Person A will likely not be attending events with us for the foreseeable future. It's very, very recent. The funeral has yet to be held.

Person C insisted on assigning Person A to a role at the event this week. I objected to this, and suggested that we quietly slot someone else in instead. Person C's view is that Person A may have a different way of coping with loss - perhaps Person A would like life to continue as normally as possible and would welcome the distraction. My view is that there is no possibility of normalcy when a parent has lost a child mere days ago, and Person B notified us of what happened for a reason - so that we would handle things on behalf of Person A. I was hoping that Person C would consult with Person B before doing this.

In any case, Person C was of the position that if we took Person A out of the role for this event, we would be treating Person A differently than normal and thus be breaching their privacy. Person C is the de facto leader, so their decision stood, and they announced the roles in the group chat.

Person A ended up responding in the chat that they are feeling sick and unable to attend. I feel badly that they were put on the spot to make up an excuse, when we could have covered for them and likely nobody would have noticed (we move people around to different roles all the time). They even apologized to the group for calling out sick, which killed me.

I'm writing this question now, because Person C is currently spamming the group chat with baby photos and... I am aghast. I know everyone has different ways of coping, and maybe I'm completely overreacting here. But I'm upset, verging on angry, at the lack of sensitivity Person C has shown in their role as a group leader.

My question is, am I overreacting? And if not, what could be said or done to handle things better going forward? I just want to do right by Person A.
posted by keep it under cover to Human Relations (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I was appalled until I got to the baby photos, then I was aghast. As someone who has lost a child, please personally reach out to the grieving parent and ask how you can best support them and ask if they would mind if you shared the news with the wider group. If the grieving parent agrees, then please do. Person C’s opinions on this do not matter. You should also privately call out Person C for the baby photos, and if they persist, call them out publicly. They have shown they are not suited for the group leader role, but you can tackle that another day.
posted by saucysault at 5:46 PM on November 17 [70 favorites]

Person C sounds completely off their rocker in terms of social norms and sensitivity.

I would:

1. call person A and tell them you heard what happened and that you grieve with them. Tell them you'd like to bring over some enchiladas or something else for dinner tonight, and see if that's ok. (Not just ask them to "tell you if there's anything you can do".) If they say no to food tonight, ask if another night (or type of food etc) would be useful. If they say no then you can ask if there's anything else you can do.

2. ask A yourself (since for some reason Persn B hasn't done this) if it would be helpful for others in the group to take on their duties for them for a while.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:50 PM on November 17 [25 favorites]

Person C, if not in fact an appallingly cruel person, is behaving in an appallingly cruel way. Yes, by all means call them out. As one who is dealing with a loss of similar magnitude (and there is nothing worse-- I can confidently say that I no longer fear loss, because I've already had the worst there can possibly be), I suggest that those of you around Person A simply let them deal with it in their own way, stay close but not too close, avoid stupid boneheaded cliches, and, when Person A signals that the communication channels are open, simply be present and listen. It's called the ministry of being with. I recommend it.
posted by charris5005 at 5:52 PM on November 17 [40 favorites]

Yes, this is terrible. You are absolutely right to want to intervene.

Person A has asked Person B to be their proxy to the organizers. So I would call B and find out how they think A would want this handled. And then I would write everyone outside of the group chat, and tell them whatever B said. If B thinks it's appropriate, I would include a link to a public obit, funeral info, plus an address for deliveries/mail.

Try to respect B's time, because they may be busy helping A. But find out what you need to know, and then make sure A's wishes are carried out. A deserves whatever comfort and support will come naturally from the group, unless it's clear they don't want it.

Whatever B tells you, tell C, and make sure C complies with it too. Don't let C make this any worse.
posted by Susan PG at 6:20 PM on November 17 [7 favorites]

Person C sounds like the kind of person who thinks that grieving is somehow shameful and they are trying to protect or harden Person A against the 'shame' of grief. However, they are also really trying to protect themselves against their fear of the unbearable loss - thus the torrent of baby photos. Ignore the problem (children die) and it will cease to exist. The baby photos are them trying to ignore harder.

I would rapidly lose faith in Person C as any kind of leader because they show a remarkable lack of emotional intelligence.

You are a good person for trying to smooth out these things on behalf of Person A. Take care.
posted by Thella at 7:16 PM on November 17 [26 favorites]

Reach out to everyone - everyone - with love.
posted by amtho at 7:47 PM on November 17 [3 favorites]

Person C sounds insane. Either totally in their head cerebral emotionless or a narcissist or both. They need to be overruled. Mutiny is ok here.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:57 PM on November 17 [2 favorites]

I don't think C is insane. I'm guessing they have not experienced great loss so is not clear on what to do. And when people are in doubt....they do nothing. If you do decide to talk to C about this, this is something to keep in mind. But before you do I think you need to touch base with B. B's the close friend. They are the ones who know the most about this (other than A). I would check with B before contacting A.
posted by storybored at 8:18 PM on November 17 [3 favorites]

2nding that C is not (necessarily) insane, nor a narcissist, nor a sociopath, nor cruel.

Being sensitive to other people means knowing, or guessing well, what they are feeling. People with less training in that, or less experience, are going to guess wrong.

If we beat them up about it, they will not learn to be more sensitive; they'll learn that the people administering the beatings do not care about the feelings of the untrained.
posted by amtho at 11:18 PM on November 17 [7 favorites]

Going forward if this was to happen again, in your shoes I wouldn’t hesitate to be a lot more assertive and determined to overrule Person C (their de facto status might have made you shy of putting your foot down, but really, they’re not your boss, you can say no to them). You knew what was right and you have the power to say “actually no. This isn’t ok”. In the first situation you also could have privately liaised with B to get a united front against C.

With the baby photos, I would message C privately and frankly tell them to stop it. It’s not the right time. You don’t need to bring up the prior incident as I don’t think it would help, but if C is stubborn or dismissive you could point to the fact that poor A is in no way able at the moment to say what she needs as evidenced by her really tragic resort to faking sick.

Don’t react in line with your anger. Just do what needs to be done to effectively protect A against C (whatever reason C has for acting like this, which is absolutely insensitive and heartless).
posted by Balthamos at 12:21 AM on November 18 [4 favorites]

When I lost my infant daughter, a small but very palpable number of people did end up reacting in ways like this. I fully agree it likely has to do with their feelings (subconscious maybe) around grief and loss and vulnerability.

I would suggest asking C to lay off the baby pictures. The best way is just calm and matter of fact: “Hey C, in A’s time of loss, maybe leave A off the baby pictures list.” And then yes, reach out to A. If possible, go to the funeral. Bring food or whatever you feel is appropriate. Sit with them.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:00 AM on November 18 [13 favorites]

A friend in a group chat (of old friends) recently lost someone close, suddenly. One of the group members (there are no “leaders”) who is closest to them let everyone else know individually, by phone, and maybe other means. This must have been hard for them to do but in this case, for this group, it seemed best. Announcing it all at once to the group would, I imagine, have been painful for the person experiencing loss, and… well, what can everyone else say, in the group? It would all seem so superficial I think.

Whether this is the right course for you depends so much on who is in the chat, how they know each other, how they know Person A, etc.
posted by fabius at 5:29 AM on November 18

My parents lost a child under very unexpected circumstances (an accident) and a few people acted this way. But many called, visited, sent flowers, sent casseroles and fruits, and attended the funeral. I know they appreciated that a great deal.
posted by Lescha at 9:39 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

Person C's reaction is telling you a lot more about themself than about what needs to be done in response to the actual situation at hand. And if Person C would handle that the death of their own child in the way they're pushing for re: Person A (i.e. life continuing as normally as possible), that would be their right to do so; but Person C is not Person A, nor are they in Person A's shoes right now. That Person A is calling out "sick" suggests you and Person B have a better read on what Person A needs right now.

With that being the case, it's completely understandable and not at all an overreaction to feel angry at Person C, who by your description sounds both too heavy-handed and totally off-the-mark in handling Person A's loss within the group context. The whole thing with showing baby photos in the group chat just further highlights Person C's insensitivity--not that it needed highlighting--and would add to the anger (it certainly did for me when I read it).

If you're able to give some feedback in as diplomatic a way as possible to Person C about this, I think that would be both appropriate and may help relieve some of the upset/anger/aghastness you're experiencing. It may be something you discuss with Person C one-on-one or otherwise away from the group as a whole.

It's important to also emphasize what others have noted: none of this necessarily makes Person C a bad person/narcissistic/etc. As you're experiencing, it's a very painful situation to even witness, and people deal with that pain the way they know how to. And for some, it may set off certain Things from their own histories and traumas that make them less able to respond helpfully (which of course does not justify or excuse the misstep). So I guess the attitude for this would be, "Charitable about intentions, firm about what needs to be done differently."
posted by obliterati at 10:21 AM on November 18 [4 favorites]

Deaths are not private. Once someone dies, especially violently, that information is publicly available in a number of places. The appropriate response is meaningful support, not pretending it didn’t happen. Sometimes people conflate a death with other “bad things” in their minds, like a health crisis or a relationship problem - things that people may reasonably want to keep private. But our culture treats deaths, even ones that make people uncomfortable, as public information.

People who have never dealt with it and are afraid may react inappropriately, and the kindest thing that can be done is telling them what an appropriate response looks like.
posted by jeoc at 11:07 AM on November 18 [5 favorites]

Person C may genuinely believe this is the right thing to do rather than being an awful, insensitive person...but it seems awfully convenient that this outlook means that Person C doesn't have to change anything about their behavior or deal with the uncomfortable situation in any way. In other words, sounds like they have highly motivated reasoning about this and you shouldn't trust it.

You are 100% right with your read on the situation. Kindly reaching out to Person A (or B on their behalf) to ask their feelings about how to best support them is not going be the thing rubbing salt in the wound and making the loss even more devastating. As for the baby pictures...that definitely needs to be shut down.
posted by Squalor Victoria at 11:32 AM on November 18 [1 favorite]

Please reach out to Person A directly. Person B sharing this information does not mean, "No one acknowledge it." I think we often are terribly awkward with death, especially when it's unexpected and of someone young. Ignoring it when you haven't been asked to do so explicitly is not an approach to helping Person A.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:39 AM on November 18 [2 favorites]

Thank you for your caring response. Please send the grieving family a note or card of condolence, and, if possible, check in with them from time to time. This pain will be fresh and piercing long after the world has moved on.
posted by theora55 at 12:15 PM on November 18 [4 favorites]

I would like to think I would call C and tell them I was confused by the photos, and was wondering what the goal was in sharing them. Come from a place of not knowing. I can't imagine a single possible response that would lead me to look less unfavorably on them, but then again I'm wrong a lot, and I would feel better about whatever I ended up saying to them knowing that I first had offered something like the benefit of the doubt.
posted by troywestfield at 3:23 PM on November 18 [2 favorites]

Your instincts are right. Person A is probably reeling and not sure what they need, nor how to ask for/articulate it. But Person C is certainly not helping. I was also aghast, especially when you mentioned the baby pictures.

I lost both my daughters at birth, two years apart. I experienced the Person C reactions from people who were caught up in their own fears/denials. In some cases, those relationships are now completely gone. But many of the people who reached out have drawn closer since then. That's especially true for the people who didn't just say "Let me know what you need/what I can do" (though I appreciated that!), but were more specific: "I'm bringing you dinner tomorrow. Does 6 PM work?" or "I'm going to come by and sit with you Saturday morning, if you'd like. We don't have to talk, or I can tell you bad jokes."

And to theora55's point - keep showing up. Our culture has a way of expecting people to "get over it" relatively quickly, but years later, I really appreciate the friends who reach out on my daughters' birthdays, mother's day, the holidays to check in.
posted by writermcwriterson at 8:18 AM on November 19 [4 favorites]

« Older Non-Traditional Thanksgiving Side Dishes to Pair...   |   Where is the 2nd Seattle Starbucks location with... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments