my coworkers overheard me on an emotional personal call

A reader writes:

I work in a direct care field and am attaining a graduate degree in the same field. My employer is helping me with internship hours, and classes are held at the work site. Getting started with this grad program plus work has been stressful enough, and some of my colleagues are really struggling with the workload.

I am struggling with something else. My only surviving parent has been diagnosed with a degenerative and usually fatal illness. I am in my late 20’s, and among even my older colleagues, such a life crisis appears to be rare. Needless to say, I am struggling with anxiety, sadness, and getting all my work done, as well as providing good direct care to my patients. Overall though, I am managing. I do not become overly emotional at work and have maintained excellent attendance so far.

Things came to a head last week during class when a relative called me and attempted to dispute my parent’s medical treatment. It became apparent that this relative is in denial about my parent’s medical condition. I know I shouldn’t have answered my phone, but we were on break and I was concerned that there was a problem occurring for my parent that I may need to be aware of.

I left the building and went to the parking lot to complete the conversation. It became very heated, as I argued with this relative over the need for prompt treatment for my parent’s medical condition. While there was no cursing, etc., my voice was raised in response to the argumentative tone of my relative. Unfortunately, I later found out that my coworkers could hear me from outside. Some of them already know what is going on with my parent and I’d previously discussed it with the professor, but it was brought up at a meeting today and presented as a point of concern by my manager, who is already aware of the problem. I assured her that I would not reach out to relatives or accept calls during business hours unless it was a true emergency and we discussed my overall professional demeanor in handling the problem, the fact that I haven’t missed work, continue to come to work with a good attitude, etc.

What else can I do to make sure that this doesn’t become a mark against me at work?

Honestly, I think your manager was wrong to raise it with you, unless it was more disruptive than it sounds here. People are human and have lives outside of work, and you’re dealing with a highly stressful, difficult situation that of course may bleed over into work at times.

That said, I’m assuming that the conversation just got a little bit loud, and maybe you sounded angry or frustrated at times. That’s not ideal, but you were in the parking lot, not inside your office. If it happened a number of times, then yes, that’s something your manager could reasonably address (simply because hearing someone having a loud, angry conversation is likely to be disruptive and distracting to others).

However, if it was more intense than that — outright yelling, profanity, that kind of thing — I could see why she might want to talk with you. Even then, though, I’d hope she would frame it more as concern than chastising.

Anyway, I wouldn’t worry too much about how to undo this. You’re human, you had an emotional moment, it happens. It’s been addressed, and you should assume that you get to move forward from here. Continue to do good work and it should be fine.

Note: The letter-writer also asked about tips for handling life crises and grieving while at work. Please feel free to weigh in on that in the comment section if you have helpful thoughts.

{ 144 comments… read them below }

  1. AnonAcademic*

    I kind of think your manager and professor are jerks for not approaching this more compassionately. This is the time for them to offer you support – access to counseling, schedule flexibility, etc. – not chastise you for having a very human reaction.

    As for dealing with caregiving, please make sure you have your butt covered in terms of health care proxy for your parent should they become incapacitated, that they have an advanced directive, etc. This will also allow you to COMPLETELY TUNE OUT meddling relatives because there is no threat they can *actually* interfere with your parent’s care. Some phrases for blowing them off include “I’ll take that under advisement,” “I’ll look into that,” “I’ll bring that up with their doctor” and my favorite, “it’s not up for discussion.”

    1. SaraV*

      I cannot agree with AnonAcademic more concerning you having medical proxy in case your parent becomes incapacitated. Please discuss with your parent, as hard and as sad as it will be, what their wishes are concerning their medical care. I would then have those wishes typed up, and have your parent sign it. Heck, even more CYA, I personally might even make a video of them reading their wishes, just so that any relative can’t come back and say that you just made the list up.

      I know the above conversation may be difficult to have, but for me, it would take a burden off my shoulders to be able to point to a document and say “I’m doing what my parent wishes for me to do,” instead of trying to defend the choices being made.

      1. Brandy in TN*

        Yes exactly whan AnonAcademic and SaraV say. Get you legal affairs, (I mean your parents also). We have POA, advanced directives, wills and the like. And have copies. Make you many and keep them at hand. I know it can sound cold but take you one to each separate dr you see to get them on file (not the will of course.) Ive been down this road with my mom and it helps.

        1. Jeanne*

          You’re all correct. Your parent needs a will, power of attorney, living will, and health care power of attorney. I have them all and it really helped when I was in a coma. If the estate is not complicated, it will be a few hundred dollars for the lawyer. Very worth it. If the estate is complicated, you need it even more.

          1. neverjaunty*

            Yes, this. And many states have standard forms that you can fill out, which your parent’s health provider (hospital, primary care physician, hospice) likely has copies of. You can prepare these ahead of time and bring them to the lawyer if you want a double check to make sure everything is in order, but generally these are designed to be do-it-yourself. Nolo Press also has similar materials and they are very highly regarded.

            I’m so sorry you’re going through this, OP.

            1. Brandy in TN*

              Im sure you might know this already but if your close and its just your parent and you, get on your parents assets as co-owner/partner. Get on your parents checking acct.

              1. videogame Princess*

                Also make sure you get a lawyer to guide you through these steps. It might be expensive, but it will be absolutely worth it.

              2. Not So NewReader*

                Please check with a lawyer before getting on any asset with your parent. POA might be enough for what you need to do. Unless you have a specific reason, very valid reason, try not to mix your assets with your parent. I’m not a lawyer and your state might be different than mine. However, I have been through the my own version of the mill and back. Please go carefully and think things through.

              3. teclatrans*

                Can you say more about why to do this? I have a single living parent, no siblings, and this would not have occurred to me (and I am not sure what negative repercussions there might be).

                1. la Contessa*

                  This isn’t my area of the law at all, but after my dad dealt with bank accounts in two states and getting the right paperwork and such when my grandmother died, my parents put me on their bank accounts. I’m on one as a co-owner, and another put me on as POA, so it’s not “my” money in the event of a bankruptcy or anything, but when my mom passes away, I’ll have immediate access to money to pay the funeral home and such without having to go through the court first (obviously I will for other things, but not the money in the account).

                2. Brandy in TN*

                  I said to do it so it like La Contessa says, you can have immediate access to checking accts and also it can save you probate time and fees. Other people may feel different, but I think it makes it easier.

                3. the gold digger*

                  Echoing. When your parent dies, you will still need to pay her mortgage and her electricity bill and her medical bills and for the funeral. It will be a lot easier to pay the bills from her checking account than to use your own cash and get reimbursed later.

                  (I have been on my mom’s checking account since my dad died 18 years ago. I have never done anything with it, but someday, I will have to.)

                4. Accountant*

                  I think getting put on a bank account is fine. My mom put both me and my sister on one of her bank accounts and she’s not even in bad health.

                  However, if you are put on any of your parents investment or brokerage accounts it could have tax consequences. If you inherit stock you get a step up in basis that typically makes your capital gains taxes way lower when you sell the stock than they would be if you just get put on the account when your parent is still alive. If they give you the house, that can have gift tax implications as well.

                5. Chinook*

                  Once a death notice is submitted, all financial accounts where the deceased are the sole owner are frozen until probate is completed. But the bills still come in from when they were alive and need to be paid. By having your name on a chequing account, it stays unfrozen (which allows for automatic withdrawls to keep coming out as well as for you to write cheques on it). A power of attorney could also clear this up but, by that point, the account has been frozen for a day or two and things may have bounced.

                  IANAL or an accountant, but my family learned the benefits of this when my grandfather died. He had one account with my grandmother and all others only in his name. It took a lot of work for her to unfreeze the accounts which she was legally entitled too so she asked both her children to be joint owners of all assets, which really helped when she unexpectedly became incapacitated and not of sound mine.

    2. Jill*

      This is what I was going to say. Also make sure that your parent’s financial papers are in order. It is astounding how quickly kind and caring relatives & friends can turn into greedy and meddlesome relatives when someone’s life is drawing to a close. I hope this doesn’t happen, but the fact is that it does – people will take advantage of both the ailing person and their tired, frazzled, emotional caregivers in order to get at money and possessions. Make sure your parent’s wishes are in writing and that you or another appropriate/trustworthy person have parent’s financial power of attorney. It will give you so much piece of mind knowing it’ll be harder for them to be swindled. “He/she has already made her wishes on that clear” and “we’ll have to wait and see what the will says on that” were scripts I had to use quite a lot.

      Also, don’t be afraid to get help. Even if you have to pay for a maid or a paid sitter or yard care services, do it. And don’t feel guilty about using Parent’s money to do so. Parent depends on you, and you need your health and sanity to be a good caregiver. Paying for help for certain things is money well spent. Don’t let anyone guilt you out of that!

      1. RVA Cat*

        +1,000,000 to all this!

        If your parent has the means, since you are already stretched so thin it might be a good idea to involve their attorney in some of the financial matters – and to be executor of the estate.

      2. Artemesia*

        Make sure no meddlesome or otherwise relative has a key to the home. One of my uncles drove from California, loaded up a truck with my grandmother’s furniture and such and drove it back home (from Wash state) without even visiting his mother in the hospital — ‘well, she wouldn’t know me’. Virtually everything of value that she had was scooped up long before she died and the estate was settled. If you are the only child — or even with siblings — make sure that locks get changed so that people cannot help themselves when your parents is hospitalized or if s/he goes into a nursing home and certainly when s/he passes. It is sad but necessary to protect the stuff as well as have POA for medical decisions.

        Sorry you are facing this. My Dad had a 15 year miserable ride down with a degenerative illness — beyond tough on my mother his primary caregiver and on the rest of us.

      3. T3k*

        This this this. A distant relative of mine died several years ago, and while most of his children were pretty good about trying to split up the estate (there really wasn’t much to take from it) one of them swooped in and tried to run off with the most valuable pieces, including a sentimental object for another relative. Luckily, one of the other brothers saw a note had been left in the object stating it was to go to that specific relative so he was able to save it from being dragged off and most likely sold by his brother.

      4. Chinook*

        “Even if you have to pay for a maid or a paid sitter or yard care services, do it. And don’t feel guilty about using Parent’s money to do so. Parent depends on you, and you need your health and sanity to be a good caregiver. Paying for help for certain things is money well spent. ”

        On the same vein, don’t hesitate to ask for help from those you trust. I would never volunteer to help a friend in this type of situation because I wouldn’t want to look like I was meddling but, if someone asked, I would step up in a heartbeat and offer any services needed (including bringing you food so you eat regularly). Now is the time to rely on an support system you have.

    3. Green*

      I’d also like to recommend “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande for everyone. We’re all going to die someday, and we’re all going to have people we love who die, become ill unexpectedly, and get older.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Thanks for this. This book is hard to read but important. I think my mother in law bought probably a dozen copies and handed them out when she was going through her final illness.

        1. Green*

          I read it just because I love Atul Gawande’s books, but I gave it to my mom when she was dealing with my grandmother having a serious accident and needing to go to assisted living. She loved it so much she gave it to her friend who has cancer, and the friend liked it so much she gave it to everyone in her grief support group. It’s both touching and practical, and I have a feeling the book has been shared a lot through “word of mouth”.

    4. INTP*

      I thought it seemed jerky too. Especially to bring it up in a meeting! It would have seemed a bit intolerant, but kinder, if they approached you 1-on-1, and said “I understand you might have to take personal calls under your circumstances, and there was no way for you to know this, but your call was audible and a bit upsetting to some of your coworkers. In the future, could you seek somewhere more private, like the Teapot Unloading end of the parking lot?” But it doesn’t seem like a huge deal to me, certainly not something worthy of group discussion.

      I’m used to office environments rather than healthcare or others where the clients might be milling about in the same space as employees, so I could be wrong here, but I don’t see why the OP needs to agree not to take personal calls on her break – it’s her break to speak to whomever she pleases (assuming she’s in an emotional state to return to work afterward), or during other times if the calls are short. Obviously she should hang up quickly if it turns out that the relative is just calling to chat, but it’s normal to conduct short personal business that might not be urgent but is still important during the workday IME.

      1. fposte*

        “Brought up at a meeting” could just mean between the two of them, though; anyway, I’m hoping that’s what it was.

        1. Artemesia*

          I was assuming that because for it to have been brought up in a larger group would have been monstrous.

    5. Batshua*

      My therapist’s favorite was “I’ll think about that” — sure, you thought about it, for five seconds, and totally rejected it. And that’s okay, because now you don’t have to lie, either. :D

  2. fposte*

    Oh, OP, I’m so sorry; it’s got to be particularly hard to be steeped in the direct care ethos while this is going on, so you don’t really get a conceptual break. If I mentioned such a phone call to one of my staff dealing with that situation, it would absolutely be with the notion that I’d like to help in whatever way I can. Hopefully that’s what your manager was thinking too.

    I have nothing brilliant as far as tips go beyond the cliches about taking care of yourself and lowering your standards for the inessentials. Hopefully others will have more actionable ideas.

    1. Ad Astra*

      I am picturing the manager bringing this conversation up because she’s concerned about the OP, and the OP misinterpreting the conversation as a warning or negative feedback when it’s not. At least, that’s what I hope is going on.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        I was thinking the same thing. Did the manager specifically say to get things under control, or to never take personal calls at work? It could have been an opener to a conversation about support, or to suggest the OP take some time off, but it may have gone in another direction if the OP became defensive. (And being defensive is understandable, frankly, any emotion is understandable in those circumstances.)

        1. Meg Murry*

          I am so sorry, OP. I also hope the boss was bringing it up with you out of concern for you and to make sure s/he knew what was going on more than reprimand.

          I wonder if part of the manager’s concern is where OP was taking the call – if the residents/patients/clients could hear her? Or their parents/visitors (I am imagining a nursing home, but I know there are other forms of direct care, so excuse me if I’m using the wrong term for your facility). It could be upsetting for a resident to hear her nurse or aide yelling on the phone, and think OP was yelling at a patient, or arguing with a staff member if it was an argument about medical treatment. OP – it might be worth taking a stroll after work or on one of your shifts to scout the best places to take a quiet private call in case you are upset – is there a separate employee parking lot, or back loading dock? Or scouting which rooms are currently unoccupied by residents?

          In addition to the financial/legal paperwork for your parent mentioned above, you should also talk to your boss about the paperwork necessary for you to have in order for FMLA. You can use FMLA to care for a family member’s serious illness, which this certainly sounds like it qualifies for. Usually having the paperwork in place that means that if you have to call off work to deal with a situation, or take a few hours off to take your parent to the doctor’s office, you can do so without penalties (like “points” for calling off). FMLA can be taken continuously (to take a few days/weeks off at a time) or intermittently (to take a few hours or a day here or there). It is best to get the paperwork done now, so you aren’t scrambling to do that at the same time as deal with an emergency hospitalization or other catastrophe, and right now you have time to talk to your manager and/or HR to make sure you follow the appropriate steps to use FMLA (for instance, I had to call my absences in to an insurance company that handled all FMLA and disability claims for my company, in addition to my boss) when you need it.

          Last, I think you should consider taking some time off from the graduate program, either now, or not enrolling next semester, if it is another source of your stress. Can you talk to your professor or an adviser about taking a personal leave from the program, or what that would take? Many programs let you take either a semester or year off with the appropriate forms, without having to re-apply to the program. You also should talk to your professor about the consequences of missing class or assignments. If you have to miss a certain number or exams or classes, would you be allowed to make them up? What if you have an emergency during finals week? Or is there a rule that says “miss X classes = automatic fail”? If you were to drop the class now, could you take a “Withdraw” or “Incomplete”? Or have you passed that point of taking a withdraw?

          Again, I am so sorry that you are going through this. I hope your boss can have compassion for you and be as understanding and reasonable as possible, and I hope your parent is receiving good medical treatment. Other than the argumentative relative, I hope you have some other family members or friends that you can lean on in these tough times, and you aren’t handling this entirely on your own.

          FYI, for your annoying relative – my phone has an option to respond by text with canned messages, and I also subscribe to visual voicemail. My sister and I have a system where if she calls, I respond with a text “can’t talk now unless it’s an emergency. If so, call again now and I’ll answer” or “call you back in 5 minutes”. Perhaps you could do the same with your annoying relative? Visual voicemail is nice, because I can read the message she leaves like an email to determine whether it’s something I need to deal with NOW, or if it can wait.

      2. Afiendishingy*

        Yes, this was my thought too and I hope it is the case. I’m sorry things are so tough right now, OP.

    2. Fish Microwaver*

      Never underestimate how heartless and harsh managers and professors can be in the direct care field. Workers in this field are not recognised as human beings, with all the highs and lows that go along with that. Don’t expect any compassion from these people. Remain professional but distant at work.

      1. afiendishthingy*

        Wow. There are bad and good managers in every field. I supervise direct care human services staff and I recognize them as human beings and treat them with compassion.

      2. The Strand*

        I’m interpreting this as, “Even though their day to day involves the discussion of how to take care of others, some of the people leading in this field behave in a way completely counter to the values they espouse.”

        Likewise, you would think that in health care, people at every level would pay close attention to wellness, compassion, and health issues. Yet bullying, substance abuse and burnout occur in many of these fields. I suspect that “compassion fatigue” and depression happen in direct care just like health care.

  3. BuildMeUp*

    I’m so sorry about your parent, OP.

    I agree that, especially since your manager is aware of what’s going on, it probably wasn’t necessary for them to talk to you about it the way they did.

    Is there a way for you to make an arrangement where someone involved in your parent’s care (a nurse, etc.) can contact you directly about any problems or emergencies? That way you won’t have to answer your relative’s calls thinking it might be something urgent.

    As for dealing with your relative, I recommend Captain Awkward’s archives. They are full of great scripts and resources for dealing with situations like this!

  4. Former Diet Coke Addict*

    Ah, OP, I am sorry you’re going through this. I’m also in my late 20s and my dad has been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. I live in another country and I’m saddled with a whole different pile of crap to deal with as well, but I feel you on this. It’s very, very, very hard to deal with and not to let it bleed over into work.

    I wish I had some good advice for you, but mine is all pretty basic. I find it helps if I can promise myself a Scarlett O’Hara style “I’ll think about it later,” and have a good cry at home that evening. I’ve deliberately tried to make my desk a fairly good place, so I have comics and photos pinned up. I don’t feel bad any longer about leaving personal conversations or uncomfortable ones (for example: my coworkers know my situation and still had a conversation in front of me about how terrible they would feel if their fathers died. One is in her 50s and her father is quite elderly. I left the office and calmed down a bit without even bothering to say anything. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with doing this before, but I’m much less patient these days.)

    Honestly, the biggest thing weirdly helping me is to not beat yourself up too much. Just recognizing that I’m under a lot of stress with something like this happening had made it easier for me to manage my emotions. I have a terrible job, which it sounds like you do not, but I have found that my job means so much less to me now than it did before. I still strive to do a good job, of course, but I’m less stressed about it because of the other enormous stresses in my life. It’s allowed me to let go of some things. Giving yourself permission to see that your priorities may be different and your life is in flux can go a long way to feeling more sorted and orderly.

    I’m very sorry, OP.

    1. Ad Astra*

      Your third paragraph is spot on. When I’m under a lot of stress, I feel a thousand times better just admitting to myself (and others, if necessary) that things aren’t great at the moment. Many people feel pressured to pretend everything is OK, thinking that will keep things from “getting” to you. In my experience, trivializing my struggles just makes me angry at myself for not somehow dealing with things better.

    2. Dana*

      Your co-workers are awful. I lost my dad to cancer two days after I turned 17. I’m 27 now. It’s never a good time to lose a parent, but I’m certainly jealous of my former 50+ boss in a way who just lost a grandparent last year and still has both her parents.

      I’m so sorry you’re going through this.

      But seriously, your co-workers suck.

      1. Former Diet Coke Addict*

        It’s true–the biggest thing no one ever told me that I never suspected would be the terrible jealousy and envy I feel towards other people with healthy parents and grandparents. It’s awful!

        1. Emily*

          You guys, I’m in tears here. I didn’t realise other people felt that jealousy. I lost my dad & 3 of my grandparents when I was 19 & have struggled with that bone deep jealousy & sometimes anger ever since.

          Thank you for sharing. It’s stupid, I know, but I’ve honestly thought it was just me/my personality failings for the past fifteen years.

          1. Taryn*

            You’re so not alone. I lost my brother a few years ago, and I still feel a twist in my gut when people telling sibling stories, even though I still have two other living brothers.

    3. anon attorney*

      This is good advice. My partner has had cancer for the last 2 years and I am only now coming to accept that I can’t, and indeed don’t want to, operate in the same way as I did before. Something like this depletes you emotionally and physically. It’s vital to treat yourself kindly and ask for help when you need it. Not always easy though. Wishing you and your family well.

  5. MF*

    OP, I really feel for you. Over the last year and a half, my grandmother passed away, my only sibling was struggling with drug addiction and mental health issues, and one of my colleagues was killed. (The grieving process for my colleague was not surprisingly very different, since my other colleagues were dealing with it as well – it was very intense). I don’t know that I have a lot of good advice to offer, except that I personally found that having friends that I could talk to about everything outside of work was helpful in allowing me to be able to focus at work. Of course, that’s sometimes not possible – there were times when I teared up about my grandmother at my desk, and had to take a moment to compose myself, and that wasn’t always easy to refocus afterwards. Also, if there’s a colleague that you maybe feel closer to who you can check in with from time to time if you’re particularly struggling, that can be helpful.
    It also helped me to remember (particularly when things were rough with my sibling, which no one knew about at work, whereas people did know about my grandmother passing away), that other people could also be dealing with similar things as well that they’re not talking about. For some reason, realizing that I most likely wasn’t the only one stressed out/sad about personal things made me better able to cut myself some slack if I was finding it a little harder to focus.

    1. hjc24*

      Your second paragraph is so true. I read an aphorism somewhere recently that was something like, if everyone in a group put their troubles in a basket, most would choose their own to take back. Not that that should serve to diminish your grief or the OP’s troubles, but rather to illustrate that compassion and understanding is something we should endeavor to practice whether or not we know what others are going through, as well as to remind ourselves that we are not alone in our struggles.

  6. James M*

    My sincere sympathies, OP. It does seem like some workplaces do hold it against employees for being human (perhaps some fields are worse than others). I hope your coworkers don’t make things hard for you.

  7. TN*

    OP, I agree with Alison. It sounds like you took every precaution short of ignoring the phone call to make sure you weren’t disruptive. I think it was bad form for the manager to bring that up in a meeting (that hopefully was just you and her – right?) as a true “issue”. It’s ineffective managing like that which can make employees anxious i.e. every time you have a meeting or closed door office discussion you think it’s going to because you did something wrong because that is all that is brought up. I’m sure that this added to your stress level – and for that, I am sorry. Beyond what has already transpired, I think you are in the clear. I’ve definitely had moments at work where my composure broke and I don’t believe any of that has been held against me or hindered my ability to grow.

    As for dealing with life crisis and grieving in the workplace, I found that it was helpful to me to have one or two people I truly felt comfortable with and confided in – one was a trusted manager and the other more of a friend – who were able to be my support. If I was having a rough day I went to my manager and explained beforehand what was going on (she was trusted) and she would either assign me work that was maybe less customer facing and more solitary work, she would let me make an extra trip or two the “bathroom” if I was becoming upset (there’s no crying in the work, right?), etc. The friend, obviously, offered support and encouragement and an opportunity to vent if necessary. Don’t bottle it up OP! People are human which means you are able to break down a bit and still be capable of your job.

    I wish you all the best and support from afar. Sending my good vibes your way.

    1. Carmen Sandiego*

      I second the advice to have your manager and a trusted colleague be your point people when things get overwhelming. I have a
      close friend who lost her child, and her manager helped to ensure that she was able to balance professional commitments with the time and space she needed to grieve. The manager also helped with things like intercepting flowers and cards that would have made her fall apart, until she was ready for them. I’m very sorry about your parent’s illness, OP.

      1. Fish Microwaver*

        Be very cautious with your manager until s/he proves to be trustworthy and compassionate.

  8. TotesMaGoats*

    Allison is exactly right. Assuming you weren’t dropping f bombs at the top of your voice, a heated conversation in the parking lot while on a break isn’t something I would have even brought up. Except if I’d heard it, I want to check and make sure you were okay. Completely agree with everything Allison said. There was no need to chastise you at all.

    From the grieving perspective, I can hopefully give a little advice. I went into premature labor at 17 weeks and had to deliver. I was out of work for about a week. Prior to this, everyone knew I was pregnant. So, clearly, everyone knew I was no longer pregnant. Senior leadership sent a flower arrangement to the memorial service and a couple staff members came. All my colleagues and staff because they knew what was going on were so supportive and wonderful. These same people then lived through my five subsequent miscarriages. I couldn’t have handled work if I was trying to put on a brave face. They knew that if my door suddenly closed that I needed some time. YMMV on that score but in general I’d like to think that coworkers would be supportive if they knew what was going on. This might be one of those times when sharing, at least some, details on what’s going on will get you so much further than keeping it all a secret. Especially if you are in the medical field, your coworkers will understand what you are going through from the medical side and caregiver side. Plus, if they know that you are dealing with all this, should you breakdown at work, hopefully they’ll know the right things to say and not assume you’ve lost your mind.

    I know that a lot of the commentators here fall into the “no one at work will know anything about my personal life ever” camp. We know I’m not that way. You’ll have to determine where you fall on that scale but I would advocate for at least some sharing.

    1. Anon369*

      To this comment’s point, you want to change where you fall on that “personal life” scale (or need to, but wish you didn’t). My spouse has an advanced degenerative disease requiring a lot of care and I feel very vulnerable about some of the things I’ve shared with my boss/team from time to time out of necessity. Prior to this, I was a “no one at work will know” person, but I have to be patient with my new needs.

      1. OhNo*

        I very much agree. It helps to be open to changing how much you share with your coworkers, because there may come a time when you need to share quite a lot. Speaking from personal experience, hitting that point is very difficult if you have an attitude of “I will never share anything with my coworkers, ever.”

        Better to make your peace with it early, so you can share what you need to, when you need to, without having to psych yourself up for the sharing process every single time. It’s harder than it sounds to become okay with sharing if you’re not normally, but definitely worth it in the long run.

    2. thelazyb*

      I lost a baby at 17 weeks too. It sucks so very much. 5 subsequent losses too breaks my heart for you, i am so so sorry you had to live through that.

    3. Bend & Snap*

      Big hugs. It took me 7 years and 4 lost babies (only two pregnancies) to have my little girl. I was very open about it at first but the whole experience turned me into a very private person, which can make work challenging. People are generally sympathetic around this kind of thing so I think you’re smart to let your colleagues know when you need quiet and/or support.

  9. mdv*

    My dad died in August, and what I’ve discovered is that there are a lot of phone calls that I think are going to be “normal”, and they end up turning me into an emotional wreck. Now I take an hour of vacation here and there in order to make those calls, instead of making them from my desk.

    Now that you know what this relative is calling you about, you will know not to take their calls… but I also recommend that you create some kind of “priority” ringtone attached to the phone numbers of people authorized to call you in an emergency (such as your dad’s direct caregivers), so that you know when it is an emergency and you DO need to pick up the phone. Just a thought!

    1. Kyrielle*

      This. Also, if you answer a phone call from someone who *could* legitimately be calling about an emergency issue and they’re calling to dispute care or some other non-critical item, you may want to have practiced saying calmly, “I’m sorry – I wanted to make sure it wasn’t an emergency, but I’m at work and I can’t take time from the middle of my day for non-emergency discussions.”

      1. fposte*

        I like this a lot. OP, a relative like the one you describe isn’t likely to be one and done, so I think it would be good for you to have something like this in your pocket for such future calls.

      2. Boop*

        This is what I was going to say. Some people want to get in on the drama in these types of situations and will call and harass you if they feel that they are not the center of attention. If the person has a legal right to be involved in the care (is a spouse or guardian, or has power of attorney) then you can arrange a better time to discuss matters. However, if the person does not have a right to discuss this with you, then shut it down. Don’t let them emotionally blackmail you by saying they should be involved because they’re your mother’s sister’s husband’s cousin twice removed – if they don’t have a legitimate reason to be involved in care decisions, don’t discuss it with them.

          1. JMegan*

            Oh, thanks for posting this! I saw it several months ago, then forgot to bookmark it, and of course couldn’t find it again when I needed it. It’s perfect.

            OP, I have no advice for you, but a tremendous amount of sympathy. You’re allowed to have a certain amount of your personal life bleed into your work life, and I think you handled it just fine. Hopefully your boss’ message was one more of concern than of “don’t do this again.”

        1. Observer*

          From what the OP described, it doesn’t sound like that’s what is happening. I’d be willing to bet anything that the relative is older than the OP and, in addition to being in denial about the medical facts, is utterly convinced that the OP is an “inexperienced kid” who couldn’t POSSIBLY be truly competent to make the right decisions. I mean, she’s still in school, right?

          There is no doubt that the OP needs to shut it down, but when there is genuine concern couple with inability to deal with reality, you have to deal with it differently than when it’s a drama lama.

      3. OhNo*

        Alternatively, if your family members are okay with a little brusqueness, you can get into the habit of starting phone calls with, “I’m at work, can this wait?” (or, if you prefer to be more forceful: “I’m at work, so this will have to wait.”)

        For an example: my brother rarely ever calls me, so I always answer my phone when he does. When I answer his calls at work, the first two sentences out of my mouth are, “Hi, what’s up?” followed by “I’m at work, is this important? Can you call me back later?”

        My family is pretty okay with being curt and they don’t get offended easily, though, so YMMV depending on your family’s dynamics.

        1. louise*

          My mom used to do that with the understanding we were always allowed to say “It’s an emergency, can’t wait.” Then, the one time it sort of was an emergency, I thought “well, I’m not near death, so I’ll just talk to her later.” When she returned my call and found out I was sitting at the ER with a broken ankle she wasn’t too happy with me for not invoking the emergency clause! I was in college and over 800 miles away–I figured there wasn’t much she could do, so no need to worry her until she had a few minutes to devote to the call!

    2. TL -*

      Some smartphones also have the option of “silence except…” and you can program caregivers’ numbers, ect.. to go through on rings and have every else’s go through on silent.

  10. OriginalEmma*

    Work with your parent to establish an advanced directive, Power of Attorney, living will, etc. etc. NOW. Whatever it takes to ensure the care they receive is the care they want, regardless of meddling relatives. Keep official copies, give them to your parent’s healthcare providers, talk with other members of the family to drive home the fact that meddling is unacceptable and disrespectful to OP’s parent.

    1. MashaKasha*

      Coming late to this, but I 10000% agree. We lost my dad to cancer two years ago. He was diagnosed seven years ago. His treatment did not work and he refused further treatment. The only people that knew about the initial diagnosis were my mom, myself, and my family, he forbade us t0 tell anyone else. The only people who knew that it failed were my mom, and (for the last few months of his life) myself, again we did not tell any of the relatives. When they finally found out at the funeral, we got an earful from some of them about how we “should have made him” go for chemo, radiation… none which was any of their business. I’m glad he shielded us from the relatives by keeping them out of the loop. Since OP’s relatives are already in the loop, and WILL be compelled to tell OP how it should be done, seeing as OP is only in her 20s… and their well-meaning advice is honestly the last thing OP needs… Everything needs to be in writing, copies readily available for OP and OP’s parent to show to any relative that feels the urge to butt in.

      I’m even going to go one step further and say that OP’s parent needs to get their will down to the last detail as well. My dad did that as well. All the way down to saying it in writing on his will that he wants “the cheapest coffin”. Having this document on hand helped me and my mom a lot when we arrived at the funeral home in shock and exhaustion from dad’s last week, and they tried to upsell us, as funeral homes do. We just gave them the copy of his will and that shut them up quickly. Afaik, dad put his will together several years before he was diagnosed, i.e many years in advance. He was just the kind of guy who liked to dot his i’s and cross his t’s.

  11. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Here’s an unpopular opinion: keep information on the life crises to a vague minimum or avoid it altogether in the workplace.

    I went through two of these back-to-back, and I made the mistake of sharing.  

    With Crisis 1, I had a nosy coworker investigate my absences under the guise of, “We care so much!”  Both bosses knew where I was, what I was doing, and how long I would be gone.  Didn’t matter.  As I was dealing with personal issues, I was getting emails from the rest of the office who somehow knew the intimate details of my personal life and were wishing my well.  (The receptionist blabbed when the nosy coworker was threatening to take drastic measures, i.e. start calling people I knew.)  I was extremely upset.

    Having learned the lesson with Crisis 1, during Crisis 2, I didn’t tell anyone anything.  I made excuses about needing physical therapy and day long doctor’s appointments about an old injury.  No one noticed as I always had a non-emotional reason for why I needed flex time.  In the end, though, they definitely knew something was up, but I kept mum and gave them no reason to pry.

    The two worst consequences were: I got denied plum work projects because people didn’t think I was up to it and I could never have a legitimate grievance ever without someone bringing up my personal life.  My bosses and my nosy coworker wanted to “give me space” and “be there for me” by taking away big elements of my jobs without my consent or input.  I was also supervising an extremely under-performing employee.  Every time I needed to criticize or redirect or confront him on another shoddy job, he assumed I was really mad about my personal situation and not him.  Same things happened with coworkers when I needed to communicate something they didn’t want to hear.  

    No one ever took me seriously in that job ever again even though they thought they were doing the right thing as I’m sure your supervisors did.  (Neither group did, by the way.)

    If you need flexibility, bring it up as “personal issues” and be as vague and scant on details as possible.  Reiterate that you’re fine, and you will continue to be as long as you get what you need in the interim.  Promise and then follow through on ensuring your work is up to par.

    1. Kyrielle*

      The other side of this is that some places can handle this information respectfully and kindly. When my mother was dying of cancer, after she passed, and after my dad died shortly after that, my then-office was aware.

      They cut me extra slack, they gave me extra time off because they knew I was dealing with two losses, they were kind and respectful. I told everyone what was going on, and that while I might ask to take time now and then to handle things, I needed the time I was *at* work to be focused *on* work. And having put it that way and told them, they gave me that. There was a sympathy card and flowers, but other than that they let me choose when and if to discuss it, and they quietly and tactfully failed to notice if I was weepy at my desk and trying to hide it.

      Not all offices will get it right. But some will.

      1. Brisvegan*

        I am going through some stuff at the moment with my teenaged son having a serious illness (nothing currently life threatening, but tricky at times). It has been difficult and has affected my attendance at the office, though I can work from home.

        My boss has been amazing and supportive. She hasn’t removed responsibilities (which I am still meeting) and has continued to support my career growth. Other coworkers also know and have been wonderful, supportive and kind.

        Not every workplace will make things more difficult. Some are great.

        Some of my past bosses would have been jerks, but my current Dean is worth her weight in gold.

        1. Brisvegan*

          Also: LW, my sympathies on the difficult time that you are going through. It is really awful to have a close family member sick and even worse to have others making it more difficult for you. Jedi hugs, if you want them.

    2. neverjaunty*

      They absolutely weren’t doing the right thing. If your manager believed that you ‘needed space’ or help, she could have privately discussed it with you and ASKED what you needed, or if they thought you were dropping the ball on task X could have brought that up, just as they would with any other employee.

      And nosy co-worker at Job 1 should have been canned. Good grief.

  12. littlemoose*

    I just wanted to extend my sympathy to the OP. I lost my dad to a brief terminal illness earlier this year, and keeping it together at work wasn’t always easy – and I get to close my door and work by myself. That you are doing direct patient care at a quality level while completing classes and dealing with this is a testament to your strength. You have so much on your plate, and I extend both my sympathy and my respect.

    As for this specific incident – I know you’re probably feeling self-conscious about it, and that it looms large in your mind, but honestly it sounds like you handled it pretty well. You addressed it directly and reasonably, and are taking steps to prevent it from happening again. If your family members are reasonable, could you come up with a code or signal for texting that would signal a true emergency re your parent, so you’ll know when you truly have to take or make a call during the day? (I say reasonable just because, if another family member doesn’t have good boundaries, etc., they may abuse it and defeat the purpose, like the boy crying wolf.) I wish I had more ideas for you. I am wishing you all the best.

  13. Ad Astra*

    OP, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. It sounds like you’re feeling alone and overwhelmed, so I would really encourage you to look into support groups for people in your situation. I can’t imagine what it feels like to have a seriously ill parent, but there are people out there who’ve been there and can help.

    I agree with Alison that this is probably not a huge deal, assuming the conversation really happened as you described.

    If your relative tries to argue with you again about your parent’s treatment, remind yourself that you don’t have to stay on the phone. Say something like “I’m sorry, Lucinda, but I can’t argue with you about this. I’m hanging up.” And then hang up. (My dad taught me that just hanging up was rude, but it’s perfectly OK to end the conversation whenever you want to. That helped a lot when dealing with my sometimes volatile mother.)

  14. TootsNYC*

    Just a tip to help you manage that: Can you figure out how to screen for emergency calls? Like, if this relative is someone who would argue with you about your parent’s care, this is probably not the person who would call you to say, “get to the hospital right away–Parent is worse!”

    So if you can set up “who will call me to alert me for emergencies,” and maybe even a code with them, then you can decide to not answer those phone calls, even on break.

    Also, maybe set yourself a rule (makes it easier to follow): You might answer on a break, but if it’s not an emergency, you -have- to say, “I’m sorry, I’m at work, and I can’t talk. I’ll call you tonight. Bye.” >click< (no waiting for them to agree and "let you off the hook"–just hang up on them after your little "goodbye" speech.)

    Those might make it easier for you to stay "in the zone" at work.

    Also, can you set an answering message to say, "If this is an emergency, please hang up, and call me back twice, letting it ring once each time. Then I will call you back." Just something to control how those important calls come in.

    And I think I wouldn't worry excessively now. Focus on practical ways to compartmentalize (good luck!), and this will settle out.

    1. Judy*

      When my dad was seriously ill, my sister and I established codes for pages that were sent during the day. She works in a job where it’s difficult but not impossible to send or receive calls. We had codes for “call NOW”, “call on next break” and “call me tonight”, so that she could know what I needed. He’s well now, but it helped us when we were going through it. It was before texts, but she had a pager, so I could only send numeric messages. We had a bit of fun with it, picking the code numbers.

  15. Elizabeth West*

    I have no advice that anyone else hasn’t suggested, OP, and all of it so far has been good–especially the proxy and power of attorney items. Now is the time to take care of that. I’m sorry you and your parent are going through this.

    Big giant hugs to both of you and to everyone in this thread who is dealing with/has dealt with illness and loss (and shitty, nosy coworkers).

  16. Anonymous Poster*

    I’m so sorry about your parents, OP, and know that you’re in our thoughts and prayers.

    I had to deal with admitting to sexual abuse as a child and going through counselling. This involved digging up what happened, how I responded in the 20+ years since, and trying to course correct. I was not going down a good path. I was very emotional, and felt awkward as a male victim working in a technical field the entire time. It was very difficult to maintain a professional demeanor, and I’ll admit that I did not put in my best work. I made the mistake of not cluing in my manager, but I didn’t want to because I didn’t trust him with something like this. So I want to commend you for being clear with your manager about this, because it explains a lot of what you’re going through. You’re handling that side of things very, very well and I want you to realize that. It’s likely your manager will see impacts and knowing that there’s a very good reason why will help alleviate a lot of her or his concerns.

    I had to find an outlet. For me, it was religion and really taking seriously my health, which led to running races and going to the gym. I needed the physical outlet for my anger and frustration, or else I’d suffer more flashbacks. At work, I’d take more breaks than usual while I worked through things, and usually I’d take a walk during them. Not always an option, but it helped me have that outlet when I needed it and would have to come back and be completely professional.

    Also, I’d keep little notes from my girlfriend at the time (now wife!) at my desk and read through them as a pick me up. They were incredibly useful at building me up again when I needed it most.

    1. Anonymous for This*

      I am going through something very similar but as a woman in technology. It’s difficult because I have to be on pointe at all times – this is not a forgiving industry for women.

      I use my commute to put away the personal thoughts and start ramping up at work. I use my commute home to relax and enjoy my family. I take an occasional day when I have a very hard time. I stopped therapy because that make things too raw, but I have a few confidantes who are willing to listen in pinch. I use medication – long-term and short-term to manage anxiety. OP, don’t be afraid to ask for ativan, xanax, ambien, or something that may help you sleep and help you relax for a few moments.

      I also write to work through my feelings. Later I read back to find new things to focus on or to remind me of my progress.

      1. Not So Sunny*

        I understand Ativan and Xanax can be very habit-forming. Of course, OP will trust her physician on that.

        1. Sara M*

          They can be, but they can also be enormously helpful when used minimally, and at important times, in smaller amounts. A doctor can help with this.

        2. Nashira*

          Yup, and sometimes they are still the best choice. I take a benzodiazepine every night to sleep and it’s the best decision I ever made. I’m glad my doc suggested it, especially when the nightmares come about the times my dad nearly died.

        3. Anonymous for This*

          They can be habit-forming for people who take them daily and become physically dependent, or for people who struggle with addiction and get hooked on the feeling of escape.

          I use mine occasionally, and try to minimize the number of days I use. This is definitely something to talk to your doctor about.

    2. Anon too*

      Sending you support and encouragement! Similar issues came out in my family in the past two years, and it’s been horrific. I’m glad you are doing what you need to do to get yourself back on the right path.

  17. Lily in NYC*

    Hi OP, I’m so sorry for what you are going through. Were you reprimanded or do you mean your boss was concerned and worried about you (sympathetic)? Maybe she just wanted to make sure you are ok?

    I absolutely relate to this. I lost my dad recently to something similar to ALS. I found out about his diagnosis at work and sobbed at my desk and didn’t care who heard me. Three days later, I found out that there’s a 50% chance I’m going to inherit my dad’s genetic disease, which is always fatal. And on that same day, I got a call at work telling me that my best friend died suddenly. Needless to say, I was a complete mess and I was not able to compose myself at all. My dad slowly declined over 7 years and there were a few moments where I got upset at work.

    But people were incredibly understanding. Human beings have emotions and I think most people are understanding about it when someone is upset about things like this. It’s different when someone gets emotional over work issues – people are more judgmental then.

    If your boss reprimanded you, then that is awful and I’m sorry. You will probably have more moments of sadness at work – I used to go into an empty office or our private bathroom if I felt myself getting weepy over an email about my dad. I ended up asking my mom not to send me anything upsetting over email and that helped. It can’t hurt to talk to HR and let them know what is going on in case you need to take time off suddenly. Don’t forget you can use FMLA to help with caregiving – I took two months off when my dad was near the end and I am so happy I was able to be with him when he died and to be there to support my mom through the worst of it.

    You will get through this. You will. It’s going to suck and it’s going to consume your thoughts but I promise things will get better. Please allow yourself to feel sad without guilt and to take care of yourself and your family because that is the most important thing.

  18. ThatGirl*

    It’s not quite the same, I know, but when I was 24 and at my first job out of college, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and left my dad at the same time. I lived seven hours away and was generally very upset with her as well as sad over the whole situation. (She is now fine and we have made peace)

    At that point, though, I did what I needed to do to take care of myself. And it’s very important to do that for yourself. I did occasionally cry in the bathroom, but for the most part I was able to deal with my stress and sadness at home, leaning on my boyfriend and close friends for emotional support. I would encourage you to get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly (even if it’s just going for a walk) and eat well. Spend time with friends. Do things that help you feel good and contribute to your well-being.

    And be kind to yourself: you’re human. I’m sure you’re handling everything as well as you can.

    1. Dan*

      Op writes, “I am in my late 20’s, and among even my older colleagues, such a life crisis appears to be rare.” ThatGirl writes, “I did what I needed to do to take care of myself. And it’s very important to do that for yourself.”

      I think what ThatGirls writes is the key. When OP refers to “such a life crisis appears to be rare”, well, the reality is that we expect to outlive our parents. Since outliving the parents can’t be a rare life crisis, then what is? I think the answer lies in the framing of the crisis, and not taking care of oneself.

      My ex-MIL has really bad alcoholism. At one point, my ex made it her life’s mission to get mom into rehab. It seemed like my ex’s well being on a daily basis centered around whether or not mom was actually going to decide to go to rehab that day. My ex was so wrapped up in her mom’s alcoholism that my ex wasn’t watching out for her own well being. The thing is, no matter how sick mom is, nobody is more responsible for mom’s well being than mom herself. When mom chooses not to go to rehab, there’s healthy and unhealthy ways of dealing with it.

      That’s what I’m seeing here — I’m not seeing an OP that is taking care of herself. If that happens, then I think the work distractions will minimize.

  19. Jerzy*

    OP, you have my deepest sympathies. Struggling with work, school and, not only a family health problem, but problem family members, is a lot for anyone, regardless of age. I agree with Alison that your manager had no real call to raise this with you, other than out of concern for your well-being.

    That said, I can only share my own experience with this kind of thing: I had a nephew born in August 2014, who at one month old, was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer. In June of this year, my husband called me to let me know that after months of aggressive treatment, my sister-in-law and her husband had decided to put my nephew into hospice.

    While on the phone, I knew people could overhear me, and knew that something bad was happening. As soon as I was off the phone, I excused myself to the ladies room and had myself a cry. I splashed some water on my face and returned to my desk to find two of my coworkers waiting for me to make sure I was ok. This is how I wish your manager, who knew of your situation had handled your emotional outburst. You didn’t need discipline for being emotional over what is unarguably an emotional situation.

    That said, over the following weeks, I would often have to excuse myself to the ladies room for a few moments when my emotions got the better of me. I doubt anyone heard me crying, and if they did, it was never mentioned. If they saw I had puffy eyes, they never mentioned that either. You know why? Because they knew that I was under emotional strain, and as long as I was doing my work (which I was), the occasional moment of being overcome with grief was certainly not unexpected or, for that matter, entirely unprofessional.

    Best of luck OP in dealing with all of this. My thoughts are with you.

  20. Jeanne*

    Your best friend in these situations is your car. When you go outside take your keys. Keep tissues and a bottle of water in your car. Quickly tell someone you have an emergency call and go to your car. You can talk and no one will hear you. Then you can compose yourself before going back in.

    I am sorry they are being insensitive. Some people feel that bad things will never happen in their lives. They have no empathy. Please take care of yourself as well as your parent.

  21. Jillyan*

    Was this issue raised during a group meeting? Or a meeting between the manager and LW? If it’s the former, that’s really wrong. I agree, this is a one time occurrence and sometimes managers need to let things like this go if they happen only once. The LW is going through a rough time but from what is described in this letter, is handling it really well for the most part. It might be helpful, if you have time, to join a support group for people dealing with terminal illness (many groups are specifically for family members.) I’m sending positive energy your way.

    1. LBK*

      Yeah, I wasn’t sure if that was a group meeting or a one-on-one either, but I’m assuming if it had been in front of others the OP would’ve mentioned the additional embarrassment of being called out on this publicly. I’m hoping it was just her and the manager.

  22. KimmieSue*

    My sympathies OP. You have a TON on your plate. Give yourself a break now-and-then. Even though your free time is likely non-existent, some exercise will help you unwind. Even a 20 minute walk around the building at lunch will help. Focus on your breathing and trying to clear your mind. If even for just that 20 minutes.

    Hang in there.

  23. AMG*

    My husband is recently became profoundly sick and can’t work or drive. We don’t know why. We are facing financial issues with the loss of income as well as my husband’s health problem. I let it spill over into work and was not nice to a vendor during a meeting. When my boss, who knows about my husband, confronted me on the meeting, I broke down crying. Nearly sobbing. For an hour. after another hour, I still could not pull myself together and worked from home where I spent most of the crying until my skin was raw. My boss was awesome and supportive and kind, partially because I let him know what was happening. I am in the camp of letting people know so that they have a little context. No need to give them a daily play-by-play. We are professionals, but we are also a lot more than that and life happens. I’m very sorry you are going through this.

  24. Cora*

    First off, I’m so sorry you’re dealing with such a sad, hard thing. I also want to second/third/fourth the opinion that that a little parking lot shouting is probably not a huge deal.

    Several years ago, I lost three friends in a car accident a few months after my grandfather had died. I found that the best way to handle workplace grief is to own it and to tell people what you need from them. When people started asking (and sometimes when I could tell they wanted to) I’d say something like: “I recently lost some people close to me, and I’m grieving. But it’s really helpful to be able to come here and focus on the great teapots we make.” If people pressed me for detail or tried to offer themselves as a shoulder to cry on and so on, I’d tell them I really appreciated their concern but that the very kindest thing they could do was let work stay a place where things were just the same as before.

    I will also add that sometimes work can be where you find the people who can help you with some of this, so it’s helpful to be at least a little bit open to that. A janitor once heard me crying in a stall. (Crying is for bathroom’s and offices with their doors closed, if you can swing it at all.) She knocked and asked me (really firmly) if I needed a tampon or a cup of tea. She actually brought me back to her break room and made me tea. She said something like “I can tell you’re going to use all this sadness to be kinder and stronger than you were already.” Best thing any one said to me during that time.

    A girl in a different department (someone I didn’t know very well) walked up to me and said that she’d been through something similar in high school and handed me a gift card to the coffee shop we all go to. “Be good to yourself,” she said and walked off.

    All of this is to say, make boundaries but be open to kindness. Kindness is out there, even when things are their worst. That’s my best advice. Sending you good vibes and good wishes.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        A kind soul with crystal clear eye sight. WOW. I hope OP sees this story. OP, please learn to accept random acts of kindness. It will help you in ways that you cannot foresee. Thanks for sharing your story, Cora. I have someone in my life that I am going share it with.

    1. anon attorney*

      I’m sorry this happened to you but thanks sharing your experience. People can be so kind, so unexpectedly.

  25. Almond Milk Latte*

    I’m really sorry, OP. I lost both of my parents in my early 20s after lengthy illnesses, and it just sucks, especially since your peers (and most of your elders even) can’t relate. I’m sorry your work is handling this with such hamfists. Some employers are such crap about this. You’re not alone. <3

    1. Former Diet Coke Addict*

      It’s so difficult to find people who have been through the same thing when you’re fairly young. None of my peers have lost parents, and most of my much older coworkers have not either. People are uncomfortable and don’t know what to say and are frequently callous out of not knowing what to say.

      But then if you do open up about it, you find that there are lots of people who have been through it. Like miscarriage, it’s this big terrible club that nobody wants to be a part of, but so many many many people are. It surrounds us all the time without even knowing.

  26. VictoriaHR*

    My dad died in 2012 and then one of our employees died a few months later (on the job injury, I was at the hospital when his wife was told he’d been killed, it was devastating). I definitely had issues at work due to grief and depression. All I can recommend is going through your company’s EAP if you have one and find someone to talk to, even if all you can manage is a phone call. Just having a disinterested 3rd party to talk to can mean the world.

    I also had trouble with an older relative who disagreed with my dad’s care while he was dying. It caused a rift that has yet to heal in my family. I still harbor some anger towards this person. I know how hard it can be. Hang in there.

  27. TheLazyB (UK)*

    I wish I had advice but all I have is ‘don’t react like I did’ –
    Don’t pretend it’s not happening, don’t think you’ll be fine in a week or two.
    Get whatever support you can. Friends, family, colleagues, counsellors, as much as you need.
    I kept trying to work but in the end I needed a lot of time off – I’m pretty sure if I had taken more time off at first I would have taken less time off overall. In the end occ health made me take 6 weeks off. I needed that. But for my DH work kept him sane. Know yourself there, I guess.
    I am so sorry you’re going through this. Thinking of you.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yes. Yes. Yes. Gear up. Do things to take care of yourself. Keep it simple, keep it doable. Hydrate, rest, eat fresh fruits and veggies in place of junk as often as you can. Invest in you, in ways that are meaningful to you.

  28. Dovahkiin*

    I’m sorry for what you’re going through, OP.

    Here’s what helped when I was 28, working in a mid-level job, while my was dying of Pick’s Disease:

    Going out for lunch (even better if you can schedule it with a friend outside of work) or a walk every day. This is a great thing that you can ask of friends who say “How can I help/How can I be there for you,” when you don’t even know yourself. A mid-day break to laugh, hear about dating horror stories, and hear about what’s going on with your crew can do wonders for making you feel like yourself again, and remind you about the parts of your life that are good and are waiting for you. A nice walk around the area near where you work is great for other days when you can’t take a solid lunch break. DON’T TAKE CALLS DURING THIS TIME. Let it be for you. If you need to sit on a bench and cry, go for it.

    Bring cooling eye gel (I like The Body Shop’s elderflower gel) for puffiness to work. Sometimes you’re gonna get a call, or a wave of emotion, and you’re just gonna need to go the bathroom or your car and cry it out in privacy. That’s normal and human and fine. But being prepared to get your work face on again helps so much with those probably-well-intended-but-you-don’t-need-this-right-now “are you ok?” or “where you crying?” questions from coworkers.

    Writing a work to-do list at the end of the day for tomorrow, and schedule blocks for working on projects in your calendar. This is something I usually do anyway, but it become totally necessary when my brain was awash in grief and medical details and confusion (like, catching yourself staring into space for the past 15 minutes). At least for 8 hours a day, when I came in the door, I knew exactly what I had to do. When my calendar reminder popped up, I’d change tasks. There was a lot of comfort in knowing that at least I had control over one part of my life.

    Asked my Dr for a prescription for anti-anxiety meds. Sometimes it was too much and I needed to take a half pill at work. Medication really helped me.

    Here’s what I wished I would have done:

    Taken more time off after my mom died. I was worried that I wouldn’t appear to be concerned for my job, and guess what? I shouldn’t have been! I wish I had taken more time off to heal. Even if you’re just wearing sweatpants in your house, listening to music and crying. You need that time.

    Not neglected my own health. For me, it started with yoga. 90 minutes a day seemed too much to spare when I needed all my strength to deal with my family. Then it spread to groceries – I’d be too exhausted to go shopping, so I’d come home to an empty fridge, and go to bed with an empty stomach, or worse, drink wine on an empty stomach. Love yourself at this time. Cook healthy food (or ask your friends to cook you healthy food – this is a great thing to ask of people who offer to help you out). Move your body and get some endorphins. Try to sleep well.

    Developed a canned answer for not getting into it with coworkers. I had some nice, cool compassionate coworkers. And I had some coworkers who just liked to amass knowledge, so they could share it with others at the water cooler, or tsk tsk to my boss that maybe I was unstable right now. I had some kooky coworkers who probably meant well, but showed their “caring” by giving me terrible medical advice “lie to your mom’s doctors and tell them it’s alzheimer’s,” “have you tried putting her on a paleo diet,” or by trying to involve themselves in my personal affairs. In the months before her death, I was ALWAYS caught off guard by those last 2 types. I wish I would have just practiced a tight smile and “thanks for asking, but I’d rather not talk about it at work,” or “thank you, but I prefer to handle it privately,” followed by an immediate subject changer.

    1. Chinook*

      “A mid-day break to laugh, hear about dating horror stories, and hear about what’s going on with your crew can do wonders for making you feel like yourself again, and remind you about the parts of your life that are good and are waiting for you.”

      And when you do find yourself laughing or enjoying yourself a moment, do not allow yourself to feel guilt and rob yourself of that happiness. Even during the darkest times, there are glimmers of light and you need to allow yourself to enjoy them when you can.

  29. Former OP*

    I’ve had to deal with a lot of pregnancy-related problems and griefs. These always involve many doctor visits, last minute appointments, daytime phone calls, and emergencies.

    My default is to be completely open about them. Not that you have to spend all day talking about it, but just truthfully share what has happened and any major development with anyone who may be affected, or see or hear you dealing with it.

    I know some people are private about these things, but I think we spend a little TOO much time pretending we’re not human at work in the name of “professionalism.” I think it’s the result of tantrum-oriented people ruining it for the rest of us, because we really don’t want to come off as the same kind of drama queen.

    But decent people who hear about your issue will be concerned and want to help you through your grief and stress. If the people around you don’t do that, then you will remember it when you have brain space to do so – and you’ll know they aren’t terribly compassionate people – that you may wish to move on/away from in the near future. But decent folks, if they see you in a fragile emotional state and know what is going on, will move to give you space or provide comfort, if they know what is going on.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Stuffing our problems in a closet actually causes them to grow bigger. I worked on place where I could not discuss a dying parent and after a while, people started looking strange to me. “What do you mean you are worried about a hang nail?”, I’d think to myself, “They don’t know what life is all about, yet.” It felt like I was being forced to live two separate lives concurrently. I had this fake happy life called my job, and then I had everything else. It got a little mind-bending. I got through it, though. When the next parent got ill, I decided to handle things differently.

  30. Mabel*

    When my close friend died of AIDS in the early ’90s, I was a wreck. I tried to keep it together at work, but I was a fundraiser, and I wasn’t able to have normal conversations with people because I was trying to hold everything in. I talked to my boss about it, and she was surprised that I had been trying to act like nothing was wrong, and she wasn’t surprised that it wasn’t going very well. She said that if I felt sad or upset during work, I should take a moment and cry or whatever I needed to do. That really helped because I was able to actually feel my emotions, which made it possible for me to do my job. OP, it sounds like your manager would not be as understanding, but perhaps you can excuse yourself to the restroom if you need to be emotional and then compose yourself before you go back to your desk. I’m really sorry that you’re dealing with a sick parent and a not-very-understanding manager.

  31. BadPlanning*

    When I lost my parent, I was fortunate that no one argued about care or battled over the estate. Talking about end of life type decisions can be pretty unpleasant, but if you can, get things ironed out and in writing with your parent. Then shut down nosy relatives with, “I’m following Parent’s wishes.” It’s okay to be blunt and even rude. Grief makes people do really weird things. I know that I did some weird things. Your normal relatives might even start doing odd things.

    Is there anything you can reduce? I’m guessing your school work is on a pretty strict schedule, but if there’s anything you can dump or delay to give yourself some more breathing room, it might be worthwhile. On the other hand, don’t dump so much that you don’t take care of yourself.

    As others have mentioned, sometimes you need to cry in the bathroom or your car. Or a good angry walk (once in awhile dealing with the aftermath of bills where services “were covered” and getting a bill anyway, I had would blow off steam by going for walk).

    Don’t be like me and “suck it up” for nearly a year before going to some sort of grief counseling. Or if you do, that’s fine too. I finally decided that I needed to talk to someone when I found myself crying while shoveling the snow off my driveway.

  32. Tate*

    I’m a hugger, so here are virtual hugs to everyone who is commenting today.

    It’s tough grieving as a working adult. People often ask me how difficult it was to lose my mother when I was 13…it was hard, but my “job” at the time was to go to school and grieve. No bills, no major decisions or worrying about PTO and no work stress. I really wasn’t prepared for that added layer of adulting.

    Another component that I’ve always found sort of cruel, but I also understand: life goes on. I’ve found myself in my office wondering what just happened (and how I’m going to get through it) while people are asking me if I watched “Empire” last night. Reminding myself that they don’t mean any harm has helped a lot.

    Life does go on–for them and for me too.

  33. John*

    OP, my advice — stupid as it sounds — is to focus on trying to get as much sleep as you can. You sound overloaded on all fronts. Sleep deprivation makes things seem even worse.

    Work can be a welcome distraction from the 24/7 upset. In fact, I think having a demanding job saved me from being overwhelmed during a rough grieving process. To the extent you can give yourself permission — and will yourself — to block out the personal stuff at work, it will help you cope better outside it, allowing you to come at it fresh at the end of the work day, if that makes any sense.

    Best of luck to you.

  34. Mando Diao*

    It sounds like OP’s manager is jumping the gun and assuming that OP will start bringing a lot of heavy emotional stuff into the office and taking a lot of time-consuming, loud, and intense calls at work. The manager is aware of what’s going on and might be preemptively hinting at how much leeway the OP will be given, which doesn’t sound like much. Which is good and bad; OP is human and deserves some flexibility, but she is also a care provider for others and absolutely cannot allow her personal life to affect how she cares for others. It’s lousy that management thought OP needed to be given this message in the midst of a real situation. :(

  35. Rachel B*

    OP, you have my sympathies. My mom’s brother died in a fire that was started by a neighborhood kid. It was devastating to my mom and my sisters, who struggled with survivor’s guilt. I was so focused on doing good work and being a good employee, that I swallowed up my feelings for a long time. I didn’t miss any work, but I didn’t do myself any favors in the long run.

    I wish someone had told me: there will be other jobs. Most managers are reasonable; if you communicate about the time you need, and you’re mentally present when you’re at work, you’ll be fine. Even if you’re working with 1 or 2 unreasonable people, most of your coworkers will be sympathetic and want to be as helpful as they can be.

  36. RedSonja*

    Oh, OP, you have all my sympathy.

    I lost my dad four years ago when I was 33 and my sister was 21 (and he was only 55). It was unexpected to learn he was so sick, and 2 months later he was gone. When we first found out just how sick he was, I was starting a zookeeping internship that was competitive and I had already had to put off from the previous year due to having knee surgery. But they were kind enough to let me drop everything to go home whenever I needed, and for however long I needed. My job did the same thing.

    My method of coping when I came back after his funeral was to only worry about doing the things I HAD to do. Eating, sleeping, meeting my work and internship obligations. Everything else I gave myself permission to let go. It freed up physical, mental, and emotional resources for me to not worry about folding the laundry or making a big meal every night.

    I also, at my internship, made sure that everyone knew that I was NOT on my A game. I specifically requested to not work with the carnivores or primates, because a mistake there is much more dangerous than with the amphibians and reptiles. I told whatever keeper I was working with on a given day that I was not at all offended if they checked behind me to make sure I closed cages/fed appropriately/whatever. For an overachieving perfectionist like me, that was really tough. But it was also realistic, and I think they respected me more for having the self-awareness to recognize I wasn’t myself and to let the people around me know it.

    I send you all the good wishes and strength, OP.

    1. Sara M*

      That’s a really great example of knowing your profession and where the hazards are. Kudos to you for recognizing it.

  37. Mimmy*

    OP – So sorry you’re dealing with all of this. You did everything right and you still get chastised. I think it depends on individual workplace dynamics. Other than that, I don’t have any real sage advice for you on all fronts :( About all I can offer are cyber-hugs.

  38. knitchic79*

    OP I am so sorry. This is an unbelievably difficult place to be. I lost my dad about a month ago to an extremely aggressive cancer. Going to work every day while my dad was dying (and now that he’s passed), dealing with the customers professionally, and not breaking down has been hard. I just try to take every day on its own, if it’s a rough day I give my supervisors a heads up and they’ll do whatever they can to help me get through. When I’m home I try to remember to be kind to myself. Carve yourself out time everyday if you can to just relax. Whatever makes you happy. You’re in my thoughts, hugs

  39. Soupspoon McGee*

    OP, I’m so sorry.

    You have a lot on your plate, and it’s important to know that you can take some things off, or add things, depending on what you need. If you just have one stress too many, it’s okay to ask to cut back on work hours or postpone graduate work for a year. Or, as other people have said, it’s okay to start going to the gym or joining a meetup to give yourself an outlet and a safe space.

    I think your manager was out of line, and it’s grossly unrealistic to make you promise not to take emotional calls at work. Even my jerky, incompetent bosses realized that personal crises happen and your reactions to them don’t make you a bad employee.

  40. KatSD*

    OP, I too, am so sorry that you’re going through this.

    I agree that your manager was being jerky.

    One of the most important things is first and foremost take care of yourself. Try and get plenty of sleep, remember to eat, and most of all don’t beat yourself up. You are under a great amount of stress and didn’t need to have to deal with a buttinksy relative.

    I think the suggestion that if at all possible take calls in your car. Take time for yourself, cry if you need to, take deep breaths, and a quick walk just to give yourself some time. Hopefully, your manager and co-workers will be a little more supportive.

  41. Laura*

    I’m sorry you are going through this. I think hour field is relevant here. During my graduate work, I was in training as a therapist. While your supervisors are technically your work boss in this situation, there is a lot of variability – some really approach it like another therapeutic relationship. If you are in a similar direct care field, hour supervisor might feel it is his/her role to address your personal issues (because it’s just what they do, because they think it might influence your work, etc.). It is fine to set boundaries around this. I have found people tend to respond well to statements about what you do want/need, rather than framing it in terms of what you don’t want.

    Best wishes to you!

  42. MommaCat*

    OP, I don’t have any advice, just virtual hugs; I’m also in my late 20s and my Mom was recently diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. My siblings and I are dealing with her debt, her unlivable house, and her changing personality. I just started a new job, and I haven’t told anyone there about it, so I’m reading this thread with a lot of interest.

  43. NJ anon*

    OP could you possibly take a break from school? My son’s best friends mom was dying of cancer while he was in law school. They let him take a year off and come back, scholarship and all. It was heartbreaking. He’s doing pretty well and graduated last year.

  44. themmases*

    OP, I’m sorry this is happening to you and your parent. I’m a health professional/student too, and actually I’m sitting in the airport right now to go see my grandfather who is dying. He doesn’t remember my last visit, rallied after I left, and got sick again a few days before inwas scheduled to visit. I look up to him more than anyone else in my life. It’s hard.

    I will say that I think as health professionals we are lucky. As professionals we have already reckoned with suffering and mortality, and probably found peace and meaning in helping others. We have practical skills, health literacy, and a knowledge of the system that ease many of the difficulties other families must face. And we have two opportunities to apply the lessons of loss: as family members and as professionals in service of others.

    During my last visit to my grandfather, I did my best to think about specific regrets that I might have or to name where my pain was coming from, and how I could address those now to give me peace later. I got to help feed and clean him and keep him comfortable when we moved him. I got to say exactly what was important to me to say. I’m going back now comfortable with whatever level of interaction we can have and just happy to see him one more time. It was a gift to him, but it was a gift to me too. I encourage you to think about what will make you feel better later, and just do it. It may help you sooner than you think. It will make you a better caregiver, and it will make you more capable each time you face adversity in the future.

    Chronic illness is so painful but it can also give you and your parent the gift of time to think through what you want, be truly honest, and eventually say goodbye with no regrets. That is the most important thing for you to get now. Being polite to a relative who just doesn’t get it, being a machine instead of a person at work, being an A student when a B or even an incomplete wouldn’t be the end of the world… All that stuff is only important right now if it is a source of strength and happiness to you. You’ll be OK. You’ll come out of this eventually hurt and missing someone precious, but also stronger, more compassionate and better. You’ll make yourself and those who do see you proud.

  45. entrylevelsomething*

    Does your grad school have a counseling and wellness center for students? Talking with a neutral party like a psychologist of counselor could help you- even if just to vent. I know when I started therapy, it helped me organize my thoughts and worries and make them easier to handle- so even though it probably seems like one more thing to shove into your schedule (again- same!) a 45-min session a week could help. I’m so sorry for your parent’s illness- best of luck with everything.

  46. LD*

    OP, I want to add to the sympathies expressed by the great comment group on this blog. It is absolutely normal to feel whatever you are feeling while you are trying to keep yourself, your job, and your education going while also handling the decisions and work that go into helping a loved one through a challenging health crisis. Do what you need to do to take care of you. Today is the anniversary of my father’s passing a couple of years ago and I got pretty emotional reading the comments last night and I had to wait until today to comment. Please do find someone you can talk to about your situation in a confidential setting and where you can really let your feelings show. It really helped me to have access to my employer’s EAP counseling service. I went in expecting to just share my situation and ask for guidance in how to handle myself on the job and how to handle communicating with family…and I fell completely apart crying in the counselor’s office. It was actually healing for me to be able to do that since I’d been keeping it all inside for so long. I don’t know what access you have to counseling through your employer, but often the health providers where patients are being treated will offer counseling services to family members of seriously ill patients. Again, do what you need to take care of yourself. And follow up with your manager when you feel stable enough to have a conversation about expectations while you have a family member who is so seriously ill. Alison and other commenters have given great advice about how to do that and also about working with your HR to get FMLA. Do that. You’ll feel less stressed if you can have the assurance that your job is secure while you are helping to provide care, transportation, and whatever else you are doing for your loved one. Best regards to you during this difficult time.

  47. voyager1*

    I have a question, is the workload the employees doing because you are not available because of this program?

    I wonder if someone went to your boss and said something, to get back at you. People are so petty about what they perceive as fair in the workplace.

  48. Shelby*

    Last year my father had a major health crisis (was in ICU for several weeks, an induced coma for ten days, organs began failing, etc.). I informed my boss, immediate co-workers and the office manager of his diagnosis and the fact that he was in the hospital, but I didn’t share the severity of the situation. I saw work as more of a distraction and I was afraid if people knew what was going on I’d have to talk about it. In that entire time I missed only a day and a half of work. In hindsight, I wish I had been more open about what was happening and taken more time away. I have no doubt they would have been supportive and flexible. I ended up causing myself a lot more stress by trying to be “normal” all the time. Thankfully, my father made a full recovery but if anything like this ever happens in the future I would be more open and take more time for myself.

  49. Rose*

    I went through something similar last year with my mother. In my case, we went from a normal life, to weeks to live, to days to live in about a month. I had some aggressive interactions over the phone with medical professionals and in one case I was on hold for more than an hour, so I ended up taking the call in my office, which I shared with 5 people. It was bad. Worse than what you did because I was literally surrounded by coworkers. But they were so supportive. You have my sympathies because dealing with something at such a young age is unimaginable (I lost my father at 20, my mother at 34). My parents were older when they had me, so it was always in the back of my head that they would pass when I was young, but living through it was something entirely different.

Comments are closed.