Talking Loss at Work

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Well, this is awkward…

Loss is a tough subject. And its aftermath brings with it endless uncomfortable scenarios that many people don’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole. Enter Meg, Modern Loss’ advice columnist. She may not be a therapist, but after hearing her responses to several reader questions, we knew we wanted her take on, well, most everything going on in our lives. She is the pithy, perceptive friend everyone needs and she, too, has been living with loss for years. 

Send her your toughest questions at hello@modernloss.com (Subject: Ask ML). Your name will be kept anonymous. –ML

My mom died four years ago, and at this point I’m never sure about the appropriate timing and way to tell coworkers and new acquaintances about my loss. Because I’m younger, people assume that both of my parents are living, and it can be uncomfortable figuring out how to work into a conversation that my mother passed away. It sometimes makes the other person uncomfortable, especially in a work setting. Often someone will ask me a general question about my parents (plural!) and I am never sure if I should respond by saying that my mom passed away and it’s only my dad or just let it go. Any advice?

The more you let it go, the more it becomes generally understood that both of your parents are alive and well. And the more awkward it will be to correct this misconception, particularly over the span of a long relationship, work or otherwise.

I suspect that conventional etiquette would say that you need not (or probably even should not) divulge any such private information in your workplace, but I think that’s an unrealistic standard. Still, ask yourself: Is this something you actively want your co-workers to know? Or is it more that you do not want to be reminded with their questions (as if you could forget)?

You and your co-workers share the burden of not making each other unduly uncomfortable at your place of employment. It’s not all on you.  If you don’t want to tell people, for whatever reason, I suggest answering honestly and specifically. Q: Did you go to your parents’ for Thanksgiving? A: I went to my Dad’s. The drawback to taking the passive route is that you might have to go through several post-holiday watercooler recaps before co-workers get the point.

Slightly trickier is if you want people to know. It (understandably) sounds like this loss is a big part of your identity, and for your co-workers to know you they need to know about it. In which case, feel free to say, “My mom passed away,” when the issue comes up. However, for this to work you need to be armed with 1) Graceful answers to a variety of (sometimes ludicrous) follow-up questions, 2) Zero expectations of follow-up questions or appropriate condolences from co-workers, 3) The ability to not cry about this at work. For many years, my own response to “I’m so sorry” was to start crying and say, “Me, too” which, need I even say it, is not recommended or professional.

For new acquaintances, I think you just have to assess on an individual basis when it becomes more uncomfortable for you that they not know. It’s not going to be the same for everyone.  Once you reach that point, tell them directly, with the added bonus that if the person does not respond appropriately, you can tailor your relationship with them accordingly.

I’m in estate distribution hell. I’m 33 years old and my parents have both passed away, much earlier than I expected they would. To my disgust, my three siblings and I have been arguing over every last item since there weren’t specific instructions for who should receive certain pieces of personal property. The situation has started to consume me — affecting my sleep and heightening my general daily anxiety level. I can’t go on like this for much longer. But every time I think of giving up and telling them to take whatever they want, I wonder if I’ll regret it in the future, especially when I have a family of my own. When is enough enough in terms of letting go?

It stinks when sharing a loved one’s items gets reduced to an estate version of calling the front seat. But when you lose someone unexpectedly, it becomes hard to separate that person from his or her possessions, which is where I think a lot of this grabbiness may be coming from. I am from the never-give-up-on-your-siblings school of thought. They may be jackasses now, but with your parents gone, you really will need these jackasses more then ever.

Estate distribution can be terrible, but it can also be an opportunity to be together with your siblings in your new family configuration — that is, without your parents. So, claim the high ground. Insist everyone come together (or participate virtually) at the house or storage space or wherever all the stuff is. And then you have what’s called a snake draft (Google it or ask any friend involved with fantasy sports—basically everyone picks one thing and then the picking order changes and everyone picks another thing and by the end the choosing has more or less evened out). Ask your siblings to agree that these things are for personal use — not financial gain — and make everyone agree that should someone decide they need to make a few bucks off the dining set you sat around at every holiday you’ve ever known that siblings have first dibs. There will come a point when you decide enough is enough, but it should be you deciding, not giving up because the sibs are difficult.

Ultimately, there are no guarantees that this will result in siblings behaving better.  But you can’t control the actions of others and you’ll feel better in the long term if you keep your hands clean during this process.

Meg Tansey hails from New England, where talking about your feelings is frowned upon. She has lots of life experience but is not an actual therapist. Meg has a MFA from The New School and currently lives and writes in New York City. Send Meg your questions at hello@modernloss.com (subject: Ask ML).

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