Why my boss wasn't allowed to talk about my dead mom
People can reeeally mess things up.
I get this. I still mess things up and I think about this stuff day in, day out! We've been trained, conditioned, and outright told to "help" in ways that aren't helpful. To ask things that in some cases should go left unsaid. And we try to fit other people's grief and experience into the understanding of our own.
And sometimes it just goes sooo wrong.
When I went back to work after my mom died, some days just meant heavy internal (and okay... some external) eye rolling. Sighing in the bathroom. Crying in the bathroom. Pushing through, ignoring, and (unfortunately) apologizing for my grief.
A few jobs later, one of the things that I've learned about these experiences - especially the ones that go really, really wrong - is that sometimes it's worth fighting, and sometimes it's not.
To stay safe, I've drawn lines, had convos, refused to have convos, and learned what helps and hurts me (aka. my #1, my guiding light).
Here's a few lessons I learned from fighting, from giving up, and from moving on.
1. Lots of people are having a hard time navigating their grief at work.
The policies that are "made for this" kind of thing are often heteronormative and incredibly inadequate. They don't accommodate the complexity of the modern family structure and can result in people being back in the office within days of losing a loved one. For some people this is great - I love being distracted and fulfilled by work when things are going well. For others, not so great, and super f'ing hard to deal with!
I got TIME and I still had my bad days. And what's helped me since - while navigating unhealthy workplaces - has been talking to other people about the stuff they're putting up with, the stress they feel, and most importantly: how they manage it.
As easy as it is to say, "Ain't nobody got time for that!" ... ain't nobody got time for being unemployed for six months in Vancouver either. So sometimes we deal, and it's best to start with finding support from other people who are fighting, crying, stressing, having to over-explain around Mother's Day (or just on a Tuesday), and more.
2. Sometimes when you think you're talking with someone you're really just talking at them.
One of the lessons I learned from the experiences I've had since my mom died is that just because something is very personal, very intimate, and very VERY hard for you, doesn't meant that everyone else has to treat it that way. Sometimes there are objectives, agendas, business goals, and more that get in the way of what for me needed to be a learning experience in humanity, and in turn for my employers needed to be a check on whether or not I could perform as a good employee.
And that's fair - you've got a business to run. But what scared me in my circumstance was how often people still aren't listening. You can talk and explain and open up and be vulnerable... and you're talking at them, not with them. You say "Grief is not a problem > solution situation" and they say "But how are we going to resolve this issue of you grieving at work?"
3. "Trying" WASN'T enough in a professional situation because the things you say can REALLY damage.
I didn't want this to turn into a list of things you *shouldn't* say to a grieving employee... but here's a little section dedicated to things that I wish hadn't been said to me and why they were problematic.
"You might not see it, but you're creating a tsunami effect in the office." "COOOOOOOOOL, that makes me feel safe! Thanks for pointing out that I - in my loss, grief, sadness, and stress - am also somehow ruining the lives of my coworkers (adults) and management (also adults) as a horrific storm-like presence."
"We can't have everyone walking around on eggshells around you." True. And though I never asked for this, I understand that people are just going to feel weird about this topic. On the company blog, you want to send out a newsletter talking about how your mom made your career... then think, "but should we? Will it upset Alica? Will she get sad and smash her laptop?" And my response to that: I talk about this nonstop to AVOID people having to walk on eggshells around me. I open the door to avoid people feeling weird as much as possible, because I've been there and I get it. And... I just like freakin' talking about my mom :) and if you didn't get to meet her, you should hear stories.
"Everyone has bad days... we can't just have people running out of the office." Totally. Everyone has bad days. And my bad day - whether I'm crying about my mom or being dumped or losing a dog or smashing my car - is a bad day. But IMO, when you're handling an employee who is dealing with intense grief in a moment where they want to remove themselves or take the day off or go for a walk, find a way to put a policy in place so that they're not meant to feel like *not being present = being worse at handling your stress than others*.
"Are you getting better? Is your therapy working?" I can't with this. And in short: just read this.
4. When things get TOO bad, some of us are lucky enough to just walk away. And I am grateful that I did.
I've had some pretty great experiences talking to other people about how they handle their grief in the workplace, and it's taught me that if you're experiencing ANY kind of bs from your higher-ups, you're not alone. I've met people suing their employers for straight up telling them to stfu then stopped paying them because their behaviour wasn't okay, I've met people who silently suffer through their grief at work and are just taking it day by day. And the most important thing I've taken from this is to protect myself, my health - mental and physical, and my SOUL. In multiple jobs, I've learned the signs of hitting walls, being fed up, putting up with too much, and needing things like therapy, a break, or a walk (...or rainforest sounds from youtube + a bath + pure darkness #thankyouperfectboyfriend).
I'm grateful for my support systems on this planet and beyond and at the end of the day, most recently I just had to ask myself, "WWDD?" What would my mom Deborah do? She'd prob bust out a paint set, invite me and Daniel to come live with them, and say that we can get a corgi to keep me company while I'm unemployed. And most importantly, she'd say take care of yourself because life is short and sometimes shit just isn't worth it.