dealing with stress about the Australian fires at work

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. This week, it’s two questions, similar topics.

Here’s the first:

I have been living and working overseas for five years, but my hometown and family are very near to some of the fires that are currently burning in Australia. My colleagues are generally aware of this and someone will ask me if they are doing okay at least once a day. I have been saying that they are fine for now and we are just waiting to see what will happen with our fingers crossed.

It is coming increasingly clear that I am not fine at all. I am having trouble sleeping and I am overwhelmed with worry for the places and people I love. I know this is a valid way to feel given the circumstances, but it’s pulling my attention away from my work. My role requires focus and attention to detail, and my mind just feels incredibly scattered right now.

Yesterday morning I got a message from my mother saying that they have been put on alert to possibly evacuate this weekend, and I had a bit of a cry before I went to work, which made me late and I missed an important client call. As soon as I sat down, someone asked me how my family was doing, and I started crying again. I work in an open plan office. A lot of people saw. I explained that there was no bad news and my family were still safe, but the emotional weight of the situation hit me really hard, in a very public way.

My boss sent me home and told me that I could take some sick leave if required, or simply work from home if I wasn’t up to coming in. But it’s a very important time of year in my field, and not being in the office could impact the projects I’m assigned to, and consequently my visibility to senior leadership, for the rest of the year. I want to be promoted in the next six months, and I’m worried that taking some “time to myself” right now might be a drag on my career in the long term.

I’m also not sure how to approach any sudden time off with my clients. I have quite a friendly relationship with most of them, and it would appear very unusual for me to fall off the map during such a busy period that requires a lot of face time, especially if my excuse is “I’m just working from home for personal reasons”. Because it is such a large scale, global event, I am also dreading if/when they will inevitably ask me if I’ve been affected at all (my accent is still very strong, and I have had many conversations over the years about the rural area where I’m from).

Should I tell them that I have limited capacity at the moment because I am struggling to process what is happening to my family and my homeland? I don’t want to appear that my work on their projects will be subpar because I can’t concentrate. But at the same time I don’t want to leave them in the lurch without a good reason.

Should I take a deep breath and keep pushing forward, or take a break and keep my fragile emotional state away from the workplace?

Here’s the second:

I wonder if you and your readers can assist me. I am an Australian living and working in North America. As you likely know, Australian people and wildlife are suffering greatly with wildfires at present.

I am grieving this loss of habitat strongly. Generations to follow will not grow up with the experiences I did. In my private life I find myself sobbing inconsolably at unexpected moments. So far, I have not done so at work, but it’s close. Very close. I am good at compartmentalising, but it’s becoming difficult.

My peers and employees are kindly people, and many have checked in to ask if my family are affected. So far I’ve responded to questions thanking people for their kindness, acknowledging that my family are safe but many are not, and that I get very emotional about this, so I’d appreciate it if we can get down to business – then doubling down with ‘I really do appreciate you reaching out, that’s very thoughtful. Anyway, about that database …’

I have the impression that a fundraiser may be announced soon and even just thinking about that sends me over the edge, sobbing.

I am normally the calm, cheerful can-do/ you-got-this manager to all levels around me. How would you recommend navigating this very public change in personality while I grieve my homeland? I want to set a good example for my team, which includes looking after mental health. But this leaves me red-eyed, weary, tearful, and then I’m ready to start again in 10 minutes. Repeat all day.

Readers, what’s your advice?

{ 233 comments… read them below }

  1. Owl*

    For both of you, take a mental health day. Sob, cry, grieve, take care of you just as you would if you got the flu. Disconnect from screens, meditate, take a walk in nature, clean that scuzzy spot that’s been bugging you… Take another one if you need it. Missing 1 or 2 days of work is not the end of the world, your boss, clients, and co-workers will survive, and it might make you feel more ready to take on the world.

    1. Dragoning*

      It almost sounds like they need to think of it as bereavement leave–technically none of their family has died (yet, unfortunately). But their home is, in many ways, dying.

    2. Amber T*

      This. When you bottle up any negative emotions, they’re going to escape some how. When you plan to let them out as you fit, in the comfort of your own home, with a trusted friend, a therapist, a sappy Netflix movie, it’s easier to control. It sounds like you both have good managers and coworkers. I don’t think any decent person could think something negative (lazy, incapable, flippant) about an Australian abroad dealing with the difficult situation happening at home.

      Give yourself time to mourn and be in fear. It’s okay.

    3. Snoop*

      Agree with this, and if you can take a lot of time to talk to your family right now. I am sure that part of the reason this hits so hard is that they feel out of control about the situation (everyone is, even those in Australia obviously) but it’s so much more acute when you are away from home. You end up feeling very helpless. I think having discussions with family and getting to talk about it beyond the check ins of ‘we are safe’ might be good for the two. I also understand that maybe the family won’t be interested in continued talks about the fires, so maybe just having another topic, like their jobs can help take minds off of the grief even for a bit.
      When my mom passed, I really felt better talking about stuff that wasn’t mom related for a while. It wasn’t shallow to me because I got tired for just wallowing in grief. It was a nice distraction.

    4. Pippa K*

      I agree that taking a mental health day is a fine thing to do, but I also understand that this is likely the kind of traumatic situation that can’t be addressed like a passing illness or temporary circumstance. I do think you can rely on the sympathy of most people, who’ll at least have an inkling about how this must be affecting you. Everyone I know is appalled and most get that this is not a one-off disaster like a storm, for example.

      I have family in Australia, although in a part not currently affected by the worst fires, and I absolutely understand why this is hitting you as a national AND personal tragedy, and affecting your outlook for the future. It’s not only understandable but appropriate that this would draw your focus away from day-to-day life. There might not be any way to stop that happening, so maybe the best strategy is to let people know that it’s an ongoing circumstance that will be affecting you for a while. If this is the “new normal,” as they keep grimly reminding us, we’re all going to be doing some adjusting. Surely people will understand that you’re more affected than most people they know. You’ll probably have days when this is really pulling you down, and days when work is a respite from this constant worry. If you were my colleague, I’d have no problem with you being frank about that, and I’d want to offer any comfort that was welcome over time.

      I’ll keep my fingers crossed for your family and hometown, and for you.

    5. TechWriter*

      LWs, please be kind to yourselves right now. Your homeland is undergoing something unprecedented, so there are no mental maps of “how to deal with this” available to you. You’re both struggling to find a way to acknowledge and function through a grieving process that hasn’t fully started, because the fires are still going. Please give yourselves permission to be emotional yo-yos, because what is happening is *real* and *devastating* and to a scale that the human mind has trouble processing.

      As NotTheBoss says below, please reach out to your EAP if you have one. They have resources that can help you deal with both your mental health and your day-to-day.

      For both of you, it sounds like your companies are full of compassionate people who understand the impact these events are having on your mental health. Take the time offered to you. Work from home, where you can have your moments of grief in private – that may free you up to concentrate at other moments. Neither of you will see your careers suffer for taking time away / to work from home during these events, especially with offices full of caring people.

      Since both of you want to model good mental health hygiene, put it into practice for yourselves. If you had a teammate experiencing something similar, what would you do for them? Take that advice and apply it to yourselves.

      Best wishes and Jedi hugs for you both.

    6. Another Millenial*

      Agree. This is one of those things where, if you keep pushing yourself it may take a more serious toll on your mental health than if you took a day or two off. I deal with anxiety, and if not managed right it will pile up and continue to pile up until I take a break (or it will break me). And if it is affecting the quality of your work, that’s another matter to consider, because that will also affect whether you will be promoted in the next six months. Being able to recognize when you need to step back is an indication of good judgement, and I think most managers would respect that.

    7. Smithy*

      Here to echo the idea of taking off some time.

      Recently taking bereavement time was certainly helpful in mourning my parent – but it also helped in the concept of “I’m ready to go back to work”. Not that I was done mourning, but that I was finished with that kind of mourning. Maybe it would feel good to take the morning of a day off to volunteer somewhere? Or use that time to reach out a therapist, spiritual community, whatever feels right.

    8. Jules the 3rd*

      Agreed, strongly. Take the break.

      The helplessness is a really tough part of it, so maybe also talk to your families about whether there’s anything you can do remotely, like being the contact point for people in an extended family or group, and keeping everyone updated on status.

    9. First OP*

      Hi! I am the OP for the first question. I did take a mental health day on the day of my crying outburst, and spent the week working from home, and on the Friday I went to a climate action protest which made me feel like I was contributing something positive to a situation that feels like such a heavy burden. My family is out of danger and I’m now back at work, and I was lined up for an exciting 12 month project (and promotion!) while I was out of the office.

      1. EPLawyer*

        Yay. Glad your family is safe. Glad you took the time you needed. Glad your job still kept you on track while you were out. Good employers understand.

        1. Fikly*

          Ask them if they want to be asked about the topic/if they want to vent about it/how often, etc. Ask them how they would like to be supported, if they want to be supported, because everyone’s answer to this will be different!

        2. First OP*

          Definitely ask if they want to talk about it or not! For me it varies day to day – sometimes I want people to know how bad it is, and other days it feels like too much to handle. If you know that somebody’s family or community that is/has been directly impacted, I would ask if there are any local charities that they know of that need support, as opposed to some of the state/national charities that have been getting more visibility (they do great work! you should donate if you can! but one Facebook fundraiser has already raised more the two years worth of federal budget for the NSW RFS.) There are a lot of small community organisations that might have to wait to apply/get access to funds from charities such as the Red Cross. Direct donations to them will go a long way!

          1. Amy Farrah Fowler*

            Agree with this so strongly! (I’m not Australian, but I do live an area affected by Hurricane Harvey a couple years ago) and I saw so many local charities on the ground doing amazing work. I feel like your dollars get closer to the people who need help than when you go through giant ones like Red Cross.

          2. Glitsy Gus*

            I agree with this. Being a California native with a lot of family all over the state the last couple years had led to several stretches of time where coworkers sort of look at each other over the cube wall and just know that now is not the time to ask how things are going.

            It’s important to remember that while it’s great that you are concerned for a coworker and their family, and maybe asking once is fine, or if, like they suggested, they know of a good organization to support or something like that, go ahead, but this isn’t something that someone is going to want to address every day and you won’t be the only person asking about it. Asking if they want to talk is good, or keep your daily “how’s it going” light and directed at them personally, rather than specifically asking about their family. If they want to mention them they will. Or just maybe just keep in mind that it is a lot to handle and unless it come up on it’s own or the person brings it up just let things lie for a bit. Just pay attention to your coworker’s body language and mood, that can go a long way.

      2. Ace in the Hole*

        OP, I’m glad you were able to let out some of those emotions and channel it into a constructive outlet. I’m even more glad to hear your family is out of danger!

        I have the deepest sympathy for your situation. I’m from California, which has very similar struggles with fires. While I’ve been fortunate to not suffer any personal losses, it is impossible to overstate the deep emotional impact it has on the whole population.

        Wildfires are natural disasters – prolonged, agonizing, multi-stage natural disasters. No one would bat an eye if you asked to take a day off because a hurricane was headed towards your family’s home, or because a war broke out in your home country and you needed personal time to sort out your feelings. Likewise, any reasonable person will understand the profound stress you’re under and be accommodating.

      3. lorz*

        I’m a Kiwi currently living and working in Australia and just thought I’d pipe in with a couple of my experiences that may or may not help

        – Being overseas during a major national (and personal) crisis is WAY harder than being in-country and not directly affected. I found being in the US when the 2016 earthquake happened gave me excruciating anxiety because of the time difference – I was getting dire push notifications and seeing things on social media, but it was night back home and my family weren’t getting in contact (because they were safely asleep). My experience of the 2011 earthquake was quite different when I was in the country and able to watch things unfold with everyone else as a community grieving together. I’m personally finding the bushfires awful currently, but I’m not directly affected and there is a strong community response locally and I have lots of people around to commiserate with when the air quality is bad. Acknowledge that what you’re going through is REALLY hard because a) your loved ones are directly affected b) it is changing your home and home country as you know it c) you don’t have a community to support and be supported by and d) there is no end in sight.

        -Doing things to be part of community is important. Going to a climate action protest is a great idea, keep doing things like that (it’s all I feel able to do right now). Maybe find an activist group? Do you have an extended network of Australians you can catch up with? Even if you’re not close with them personally, having someone with a shared experience you can talk to does help. The afternoon of March 15 last year, as more and more horrific details were emerging and I wasn’t sure where my sister was (and people who knew me were asking about her), I pretty much just checked out, found a fellow office Kiwi and went for a long walk around the block saying “wtf?!?!??!?” over and over. The next day I made sure to show my support at my local mosque. It did help (and hopefully not just me).

        -let your coworkers pick up some slack. You can repay the favour later. It’s ok.

        -Be mindful of what news and communications you’re consuming. My office sent some pretty bad and insensitive comms after March 15 acknowledging the NZ community but not the Muslim community (it just felt awkward, like, this isn’t about me?). As someone who spent my entire childhood in active geothermal areas, I got extremely frustrated late last year hearing lots of weird and uninformed opinions on volcanoes in the Australian media. You’ll hear some ridiculous things about bushfires from people who don’t understand Australian bushfires. Find ways to contextualise and detach yourself from this as you are able.

        1. Sarah*

          I recently moved from California, and I completely agree with uninformed opinions about fires. People seem to think that comments about a large area being on fire or burning are funny in a way that other natural disasters clearly aren’t. It’s exhausting to hear light-hearted comments and respond “Actually, several friends and former colleagues of mine had really frighting experiences, evacuated, and are worried about their homes.”

    10. Mama Bear*

      Agreed. Take a few days to regroup if you need to, and call your company’s EAP (if available) to talk to someone. What happening is very distressing for those of us without direct links to Australia. Your reaction is understandable. Please take care of yourself. People take time off for any number of “family emergencies” and IMO this qualifies. Hope your families are OK.

    11. TootsNYC*

      also, perhaps our OPs can be very intentional about that mental health day or other mental health aspects of this.

      Think about what would strengthen you most; get ahold of a “mental coach” of some kind (a couple of targeted sessions with a cognitive behavioral therapy specialist or other more technical counselor) to develop some strategies to use when your emotions rise during the day.

      It doesn’t mean you’re supposed to “cure” yourself in one day, but use that day in the most powerful way, and don’t just lie in bed or wander around the house.

      1. First OP*

        I actually spent my mental health day just lying in bed watching Korean films, which was actually really relaxing, since I felt exhausted due to lack of sleep and reading the subtitles stopped my mind from wandering. I would definitely recommend for someone in my position who just wants break or a distraction! Parasite is very good.

      2. Gazebo Slayer*

        Do you know how to get a therapy appointment on such short notice? Where I live (midsize US city) I’m currently on the waiting list for a therapist and it’s *months.*

        1. Saturn Axolotl*

          If your city is large enough, I would go to psychologytoday, filter for location/insurance/your individual needs, and just start calling everyone on the list who sounds like a fit. Some people/places will have horrible waitlists, as you say, but often when generally looking for a new therapist, I’ll come across providers who ask me if I want to come in for my first appointment within the same week! It seems like I have better results when the therapist is self-employed, rather than working for a busy office with receptionists, but of course there can be risk involved with meeting any kind of therapist for the first time. Good luck!

    12. HerGirlFriday*

      Also agree.
      Both of you have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself room and time to grieve.
      If you need to take action – volunteer! There are lots of groups out there that responding with whatever talents and resources they have. Crafters Guilds (though some are currently being told to wait for an update or to donate to local wildlife rescue groups until further notice. Clothing donations. Money. Or direct that anxious energy to a local charity – Meals on Wheels, a food bank, library, whatever fills your soul.

      1. Meepmeep*

        I’m in California, and when I was really overwhelmed with all this stuff, I went to volunteer at a tree planting charity. It made me feel like I was doing something to address the climate issue. Maybe the 5 trees we planted that day won’t do much, but I did feel better.

    13. CatMintCat*

      Take the time you need. I’m in Australia, although inland and a long way from the firegrounds, but it is still hitting hard seeing places I know and love go up in flames (I have lived in those areas). Choose any donations you care to make carefully – there is so much being offered, and it may not all be able to be used as intended (The New South Wales Rural Fire Service is learning this now) – go with a well-established charity is the advice I have.

      And don’t forget, while the coast burns, the inland is dying for want of water.

      1. Working Mom*

        Yes! I came here to say this as well. In fact; some (the really good ones) will proactively send your company resources and information regarding the wildfires. It may depend on where your office(s) are located as to whether or not your company receives the proactive messaging though.

        Regardless; EAP is a wonderful resource for you right now! Not only can they help you talk through your emotions in the moment, but they can help you figure out to convey your current emotional state to your fellow workers, as well as identify resources that your family can use right now!! For real – EAP will be able to identify temporary housing options, emergency resources, and more for your immediate family in the impacted areas.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Plus a million to this. My job is really proactive with encouraging EAP use and making sure employees impacted by various events have access to it.

        1. Katie Richardson*

          I work in HR in Australia and wrote an article for our intranet encouraging the use of EAP and any other support means. It’s also important to acknowledge that people are being impacted by the smoke miles and miles away so I also put something on the intranet about staying safe if you suffer from asthma or any other respiratory condition (this was separate to the article I have copied below)

          On behalf of the commission, we would like to pass on our thoughts to anyone affected by the current bushfire disasters.

          Many people feel helpless in the face of the unfolding nationwide bushfire crisis. These unprecedented bushfires are devastating on so many levels that it is hard to know where to begin to provide support. What we are seeing is outside of our control and it’s entirely normal to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the disaster.

          Our natural inclination is to help. On Christmas eve, we had our annual family fun day and raised money for the bushfire services. But there are other ways you can help as well. If you are eligible, donate blood. With the numbers of burns suffered by firefighters and others, there will be a need for blood and plasma. Please let the Health and Wellbeing committee know if you’d like to donate blood and we will organise a group booking. All employees can access paid leave to visit the Red Cross Blood Bank as a donor once every twelve weeks.

          For those interested in supporting and donating to the bushfire relief, please see how you can help those in need here.

          If you would like to talk to someone, our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a free and confidential service for all employees and their families. You can access or get further information regarding these services 24 hours a day 7 days a week by calling 1300 687 327 (1300 OUR EAP).

  2. Harvey 6-3.5*

    First, my deepest sympathies to both of you and to all of Australia.

    Normal people will understand that the possibility of losing your childhood home, or the neighborhood in which you grew up, will trigger strong emotions. I like the idea of unscheduled work at home. Not only does that allows you the opportunity to express your emotions without worrying about your coworker’s reactions, but if you can only focus in patches, outside of client meetings, you can spread your work out over a longer period. So if it takes you 12 intermittant hours to complete 8 hours work, so long as you are not overworking yourself, you can maintain your emotional health and get your work done.

    1. MayLou*

      I imagine that people in the USA might be able to relate if they had any family who were, or might have been, affected by 9/11 – as an outsider to both situations, I see some parallels in terms of people feeling overwhelmed and shocked by what has happened. That might be a helpful parallel to draw if anyone isn’t understanding why it’s upsetting even if family are safe (not that either LW has said people aren’t understanding).

      1. Hats Are Great*

        I was (very, very tangentially) involved in a shooting situation — I was never in any danger, but it was INCREDIBLY traumatic, and I had a friend hospitalized with very serious injuries for the shooting, and for weeks afterwards I would suddenly get terrified or burst into tears without warning. I’ve been relating to that feeling of loss of home and safety that my Aussie colleagues are experiencing through that lens.

        And, I’m like, Jesus, why wouldn’t you be bursting into tears at random? It’s AWFUL. I can hardly cope with seeing pictures, and I absolutely 100% understand trauma reactions surprising you at work.

      2. Aunt Vixen*

        Yes. A friend of mine was thousands of miles from home when Hurricane Katrina was still in the Gulf of Mexico, and when she spoke to some authority-type person (I can’t remember who) about her general state and easy distractability and so on, and the authority person said yes, what *is* going on with you lately, she made it through “Well, I’m from New Orleans” before dissolving into tears – and the authority person got up and closed the office door and made sure everything they were able to control would be okay. People understand and sympathize and know that support goes inward through the rings.

        Hang in there, LWs. We’re all thinking of you and yours.

  3. EPLawyer*

    Oh my heart grieves for anyone dealing with this.

    I have family in California but I live all the way across the country. I had something similar, but on a MUCH SMALLER scale happen while I was in law school. My mom and stepdad had to be evacuated one night due to a fire. I didn’t sleep at all that night. I was a zombie in class the next day. The dean even noticed and asked me what was wrong. I had a paper due later that week. I flat out told my professor I needed an extension and why. It was granted.

    In summary: People understand if you need a little time when things like this are happening. You ARE affected directly even if you are not there. Just as with any other event that temporarily affects work, tell your bosses. Work with them on a solution that gives you space but gets done what needs to be done.

    LW1 — this will not have long term effects on your standing. Your boss has given you option, believe her. Figure out what options work, what projects can be temporarily shifted and follow through on that plan.

    LW2: Same thing, be upfront. EVEYRONE is grieving for Australia now. You being open about it will help others.

    1. Dragoning*

      Yes. LWs, people are asking if you’re okay, because they know you probably aren’t. They are already aware of this possibility.

      1. LaSalleUGirl*

        I think Dragoning’s point is a really important one. We don’t have a good way to say upfront to people who are suffering, “I *know* you’re not OK, but I want to signal to you that I’m thinking about you and hoping that the worst of this will ease for you.” And what comes out of our mouths is “Are you OK?”

        I like the ideas that people have posted elsewhere on these threads of posting some basic information outside the cube and/or asking a manager or trusted colleague to run interference, as well as having a tiered action plan already in mind depending on who asks (like: friend / very trusted colleague gets the the “I need you to distract me” plan”; acquaintance or client gets the “thanks for your kind thoughts; here’s are some places to donate if you’re able” plan; etc.).

    2. Type 2*

      My sincere sympathies to both of you and everyone who loves Australia.

      I feel like many Americans can understand a bit of what you are feeling because of 9/11. Even if we were not directly impacted, there was an overall grief for our country that might be similar to what you are experiencing. So please know that people understand – and take them up on that day(s) off.

      Maybe your managers or a trusted colleague could put out the word that frequent check-ins are not as helpful as perhaps a note or a donation in your name that can be left on your desk for you to digest later?

      I think it’s ok to be vulnerable at work from time to time. It reminds people that we’re all human.

      My prayers are coming for Australia and all of her people.

      1. MayLou*

        Oops I posted almost this exact comparison before seeing your comment. It’s good to have it confirmed that people were indeed affected similarly.

    3. Hats Are Great*

      Yeah, my sister had a baby during the really bad California wildfires two years ago and had to be evacuated with a newborn infant and it was a fucking nightmare. A lot of North Americans have dealt with, or have family and friends dealing with, wildfires, and we understand how awful they are. Australia’s are a LOT more apocalyptic, but I definitely understand and relate to what’s going on, and I remember vividly the heart-pounding terror while waiting to find out if my sister and her infant were evacuated safely (the infant couldn’t even breathe, the air was so bad, he had to have a respirator thingie just to leave town, and they worry about his long-term lung health).

      Honestly the fact that anyone with close ties to Australia is managing to get on with their day at all, ever, during this is a superhero-level feat. Burst into tears at work if you gotta, I will bring the tissues and chocolate.

  4. Putting Out Fires, Esq.*

    Hey, I started college a week after Katrina got my home town. The hardest thing was dealing with the people who wanted to help but really couldn’t grasp what it was like. For whatever reason, it would set me off even more (though the increasingly desperate emails from my dean that I didn’t discover until I got to school [pro-tip: hurricanes often lead to power outages and no internet]).

    My first advice is to grieve and allow yourself to do that. Schedule some time to just sit with your feelings outside of work. Be as gentle with yourself as you would with anyone after the loss of a loved one. The more you acknowledge your own feelings, the less likely they will be to bubble up at inopportune times.

    The second is action plans: have a ready to go “oh here’s where you can donate” or “yeah I’m feeling down, can I schedule lunch with you to distract me” or “yep, it’s really hard but right now I’m focusing on where I am, since I’m so far away.” People want to help, they just don’t know how (having your home experience a natural disaster isn’t a universal experience).

    But for me, that first one was truly key to allowing me to not feel blindsided every time someone said something to me.

    1. TC*

      For the “here’s where you can donate” — I also have a list ready to share that I took from a friend’s Instagram page. Low effort, high impact, I just share the graphic to anyone who asks.

      1. Dragoning*

        They might even just put it on a poster and hang it outside their cube, if seeing it would be less stressful than continually having the conversation.

    2. Chocoholic*

      “The more you acknowledge your own feelings, the less likely they will be to bubble up at inopportune times.” This is great advice in general and something I struggle with doing. Thank you for saying that.

      1. Anax*

        Absolutely – and not just during the fires, but later on, too. It’s common for PTSD symptoms to really crop up once the crisis is over, and it’s safe to do that delayed emotional processing. Slowly letting the emotional pressure out over time will help in the long-term.

        Ditto, it’s good to be prepared for depression, anxiety, and exhaustion, a few months down the road. Trauma isn’t over when the event is, and caring for yourself in the long-term is going to be really important here.

        1. Kaitlyn*

          This has been my experience. It takes about 5-8 months for things to really SHOW UP in my emotional landscape.

    3. First OP*

      I feel like this! I have a horrible little voice in my head hissing “your pain and fear is not the same as my pain and fear!” when people try and express their thoughts/condolences to me. I’m finding it really hard to deal with. I have been actively directly people to donate to wildlife charities and Indigenous communities already, but I hadn’t thought of asking people for help with distracting me when I want a break from thinking about.

      1. OlympiasEpiriot*

        It can help. People like to know directly what is of most help to you.

        (Be kind to yourself now, too.)

  5. TC*

    I am in a similar situation to the LW’s , and a big thing that really helped me channel some of my emotions was working with some people in my office to run a fundraiser to send money back home. I didn’t do a lot of heavy lifting for this fundraiser (we have a an office co-ordinator who did that) but it was a chance to feel a little less helpless.

    The other major thing is therapy — I’m a regular anyway, but it has done a lot towards being able to maintain some strength, at least during the workday.

    1. La Frambois*

      I second therapy for both letter writers, even if your loved ones are out of danger. Dealing with the post-event trauma is hard. I’m in therapy too, and it’s a great emotional boost to know that I can call my therapist during the day or evening if I’m having trouble coping with anything. I would wish the same sort of peace and strength to you, that therapy brings to me. My best to both of you, your family and friends, and to all of Australia.

  6. Ali G*

    This is such a loaded topic. What I am seeing very clearly in both letters is grief. Grief, for a way of life that is gone, grief for all the living things affected by this tragedy, and grief for the future – it won’t be what you dreamed it would be the next time you go back.
    I can’t tell you how to handle this in specifics because everyone is different. But think about what you feel like you could take on, if say, your longterm partner broke up with you suddenly, or you just lost your pet, etc.
    Give yourself permission and time to feel what you are feeling and get into a headspace where you can engage in daily activities for a while, and then take another break.
    I wish you and your loved ones all the best.

  7. Quill*

    Austrailians, I don’t have any work-specific advice, but please do look for resources to deal with grief and anxiety following natural disasters. It’s not only those affected and first responders who are affected, the sustained worry and helplessness take their toll as well.

    Do take whatever mental health days you require. Ideally employers would treat your family’s possible evacuation as seriously as they would in allowing you time off for any other family crisis, like an illness in your overseas family.

  8. WorkIsADarkComedy*

    Everyone makes their own decisions regarding how much and what to share regarding personal issues that affect the job. But this is a situation that many can understand and be supportive of. Also, having the koala in the room and not discussing it might add to the emotional burden.

    If it feels right and if it’s a coworker you trust, consider sharing something about what you’re going through. Not only might it make things easier in the short run, it can deepen your professional relationships by humanizing them.

  9. GiantPanda*

    Would it help if your coworkers stopped asking and you could try to focus without being reminded of the fires quite so often? If yes, please let people know.

    1. starsaphire*

      This, combined with the note-outside-the-cube mentioned above, might be a great suggestion.

      “I am OK. My family is, so far, OK. I do not wish to discuss the fires at work. Please donate, if you can, to XYZ…”

    2. Mary*

      Or even better, feel free to ask your manager to let people know! If managers are looking to support people who are grieving or dealing with any other kind of big personal-life issue, running interference and letting people know that something is going on with X and how they would like it handled is a A++++ way of providing real and meaningful help.

      1. pamplemousse*

        Yes, this!! Most managers would be glad to do this for a direct report or a colleague, even/especially if there are business reasons the fires might come up. I work in a field (media) where you really can’t avoid upsetting news entirely, but I’m still glad to know things like “We’re not asking Cora to copy edit anything about the hurricane; Jim on sports was a copy editor at his last job and will help out if we’re really shorthanded.”

        If you don’t have a manager you trust, a colleague would likely do the same thing. Especially if it’s someone who’s been very aggressive about checking in– they can feel like they’re being helpful.

      2. Elemeno P.*

        Absolutely this.

        I’m from the Caribbean and my home island was directly hit by one of the Category 5 hurricanes a couple years back. Power and cell phone signals are really spotty after a hurricane, and I didn’t hear from my mom until 48 hours later when she was able to clear the road enough to walk somewhere she could get a signal. I went to work the day after the hurricane hit, got through the only meeting I had that day, and then started outright sobbing as I asked my boss if I could go home. He agreed immediately and never held it against me.

        I asked my boss to please convey to my coworkers not to ask me about it because I was trying my hardest not to think about it. They respectfully stepped back and I volunteered information when I felt up to it. It’s so difficult because the natural inclination is to ask how everything is when there’s been bad news, but it’s so awful when you just don’t know and every well-intentioned question reminds you that something horrible could be happening and you can’t do anything.

        I don’t have family in Australia, but I get it. I get the anxiety and the despair and I can only hope you get good news soon and people will stop asking about it. Until then, it’s fine to delegate that emotional burden to someone else- it’s the best way they can help.

      3. Amy Farrah Fowler*

        Yes! I had a coworker suffer a miscarriage last year. We were notified and told that she didn’t want to talk about it, and just to let her focus on her work. As much as I wanted to check on her, I respected her wishes and just acted as though everything were normal. I think it helped for people to know “hey this is what this person wants” so you can adjust your actions. People just don’t know how to act in the face of tragedy most of the time.

    3. KitCat*

      I agree. It reminds me a little of my situation. My cat of 15 years is dying and has a few months left and it’s a very upsetting. A few of my colleagues/boss know, but I have asked them not to ask me about my cat/how I’m doing, or else it makes me start crying at work.

      1. sd*

        I’m so sorry to hear this. My 15yo cat is struggling a bit at the moment and I can’t imagine life without him, or what the end of life time will look like. But my deepest sympathies. I hope you can take the time to be with your cat when the time comes.

    4. kt*

      I agree with this. For instance, with clients, it could be appropriate to send a quick email, something to the effect of,

      “As many of you know, my family still lives in Australia. They are (…). My heart is heavy when I think of the devastation facing both the ecosystems and the people of Australia and the world.
      I’m committed to doing my best work for you and maintaining the high quality of our (…). I will also take some time off to cope with this difficult time. In order to be able to keep my focus while I’m at work, I’d like to ask that we not discuss the Australian fires while I’m at work. Thank you all very much for your support and sympathy. “

      1. Mimi Me*

        I think that is a great idea. I’d even go farther and send something similar to my co-workers adding “Many of you have asked if there’s anything you can do to help. Please see the attached links for ways you can help the people and animals of Australia.”

      2. First OP*

        I did end up sending emails to clients I had upcoming meetings/deadlines with but tried to keep it relatively concise:

        I.e. Hi X, would it be okay if we rescheduled Y to [a time next week]? I have been OOO for the last few days as my family are very close to the fires in Australia and it is a lot to process! I have the following tasks in the pipeline for you, which I can get to you by next week. If you have anything urgent you require for internal deadlines, please let me know and I will handover to my line manager/direct report.

    5. Tamz*

      For sure! I am Aussie in the UK and hosted a training day recently. After the obligatory OH&S fire safety chat, I cracked a joke about being spooked about fires and told everyone that I’d rather not talk about the bushfires at work.

      Most people respected that, and for those who didn’t, I felt no shame in being quite blunt with them when they did ask.

  10. cheeky*

    Feel your feelings, take a day off. See a therapist if the feelings of overwhelm and despair persist.

  11. Anonymous Poster*

    I’m so sorry you’re all going through this. I haven’t experienced anything on the scale of these fires, so I don’t know if this advice will help. If it’s not useful, please ignore me.

    However, when dealing with overwhelming things that affected my community in some way, I found that physical health and mental/emotional health were connected. Taking control of my physical health helped me deal with the mental/emotional stress just slightly more easily (the mental/emotional stress that wasn’t really possible to completely avoid). If you can ask a doctor for help with insomnia, for example, being less sleep-deprived might help you.

    I also think that it would be completely reasonable to ask people not to bring these subjects up with you. They probably think they’re helping, but they probably don’t understand the cumulative effect of people “helping” all day. If redirection isn’t working, and it sounds like it doesn’t always work, you could say that you’re having this conversation multiple times a day and you need a break.

    1. Anonymous Poster*

      BTW. I’ve lived elsewhere while there were hurricanes in my hometown. Somehow that was way more stressful than being present for hurricanes. I guess your imagination can get away from you, making you imagine worst-case scenarios? Sometimes it helped to only look for news a few times a day and ask people at home to call or text.

        1. AussieInCali*

          That’s exactly it, thank you for so concisely describing it. I now have a phrase for my coworkers who mean well and all I want to do is not think about it.

          I’ve lived in the US for a decade and all my family are back in Australia. I have strong memories of driving through bushfires as a child and enduring multiple floods. I’m loving all the suggestions here and glad this article has appeared.

      1. Elemeno P.*

        Oh, absolutely. I’m from the Caribbean and live in Florida. Hurricane heading toward me? Whatever, I have supplies, no worries. Hurricane heading toward my mom? Intense anxiety.

  12. Colette*

    Some thoughts:
    – you are allowed to not be OK. Take time if you need it.
    – If you are working, I would imagine you might want to minimize the talk about the fires at work. Depending on your environment, could you send an email saying “Thanks for your concern! Please help me by avoiding talk of the fires at work, as it is a very upsetting topic for me” or put up a sign with a daily update and refer people to that.
    – avoid the news about the fires. Keep in touch with the people you care about, but otherwise turn the channel/click to something else
    – if you’re feeling helpless, try to identify something you can do to help. (Give money? Make connections for people who have been evacuated? Do volunteer work in the community you live in even though it won’t directly help with the fires?)

    1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

      If I may add to this, particularly OP 1. Just think about today and maybe tomorrow. Don’t add to your emotional load fears about your job in the future. Today you are not well. Take care of yourself and tomorrow will follow.

    2. pamplemousse*

      I’d suggest asking your manager or (if you don’t have a good relationship with your manager) a coworker you trust to discreetly spread the message that you appreciate everyone’s concern, but that you don’t want to talk about this at work right now.

  13. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Absolutely, take a day or three.

    Then, from my personal experience and stories of how other people I know made it through extremely difficult times (family in an unstable refugee position, being in an intermittent war zone, etc. — disasters like Puerto Rico being hit by a hurricane and like this do fall along the continuum where those directly man-made disasters happen, too) make a point of having people, real, in-person, face-to-face people you are meeting up with for something that isn’t work where you all do something useful together that feels like you are making a difference. Note that i.m.e. it is not necessary to have the “useful” thing be directly related to the situation you are worrying about — although it is great if it is.

    Working with people to a common goal can be a kind of stress reducer and it helps us focus.

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      (It doesn’t have to be crazy hard work…I have one friend who is not an artist at all, but who with a group of strangers started doing theater/singing/juggling(!)/ in a clearing at a refugee camp for whoever would show up as something to give structure to their day aside from the UN people distributing supplies. It became their support group.)

  14. Amber Rose*

    If it’s doable, this is one of the best uses of a therapist there is: specific coping strategies for what is essentially the grieving process. You are both grieving death right now. Not of family members, but of places and creatures and ways of life that have been a huge part of your life. Please understand that this is what grief looks like, that it’s normal to be scatterbrained and upset, and that just like if a loved one had just died, it is understandable to need some time and maybe some help to process.

    LW1, only you know your company and how they are around things like bereavement. If you trust your manager, or if there’s some mentor at work you trust who would know, maybe ask them what they think about you taking a few days off if you’re worried about the promotion thing. But my argument would be that being around and visible to senior management but screwing up is worse than not being around to be visible.

  15. Genny*

    LW 1, it sounds like your boss is being supportive of your circumstances. Maybe you could raise the concerns you listed here to her? Tell her you’re worried what taking time off would mean for promotions, the workload, client relations, etc. and see what she says. She may be able to help you strategize how to handle things or otherwise assure you that some time off isn’t going to have a long-term impact on your career (you may be surprised by how supportive of self-care and counseling/therapy your company is).

    1. Bostonian*

      Oh, I like this suggestion. In addition to helping you prioritize or offer a different perspective on whether some time off/WFH would be that big of a deal, your boss may also be able to take some less important things off your plate so you can focus on the high-profile stuff, or otherwise help you redistribute your workload temporarily.

    2. First OP*

      I planned to do this on the Monday I returned to the office but she beat me to it! She had already assigned me to a great project and we are figuring out how/when I can fit in time off for me to fly home.

  16. Dadolwch*

    My heart goes out to the LWs and all the people, animals, communities, and habitats impacted by these terrible fires. Just seeing short media bites of the events over there is enough to upset me, and I have no personal ties to Australia.

    I do wonder, in the case of both LWs, if allowing your coworkers to help you shoulder some of this emotional burden might be cathartic. Both of you have said you are struggling to contain your emotions at work and are concerned how coworkers and/or clients might react, but I personally believe that there are some issues that are simply beyond our capacity to deal with as individuals. This is one of those times. Maybe it would help you both process your emotions if you allowed your coworkers to do something helpful, like start and run a donation campaign or an after-work candlelight vigil. There’s strength in community, and having something concrete to do – even if it’s more symbolic than practical – can be a really powerful way to share and connect with other people in your life who want to help but aren’t sure how. At the very least, it will be a good way to allow yourself to feel okay about grieving for what’s being lost.

    1. Tamz*

      That’s a nice suggestion but I think it’s hard unless you’re with other Aussies.

      For example, I’m an Aussie in the UK, and my friends asked me if they could run a fundraiser for the fire service… but it was the wrong one, for an area far away from my home. After trying to explain for half an hour that we don’t have one fire service but about 20 that perform different roles, cover different areas, and are funded differently, I felt more isolated and homesick than I did before.

      It’s actually really upsetting to me when I see friends and colleagues share well-meaning but misunderstood news about my home. I’d prefer they just stayed out of it.

      1. First OP*

        Yes exactly! Australia is so hard to explain to to non-Australians, especially in the UK when they think they know more than they do because they used to have a flatmate from Sydney or they tried Vegemite once. They want to make you feel better by proving that they’re paying attention and they care about a horrible situation, but so often it misses the mark in such a small way that is so much more frustrating than if they were just plain wrong.

        We’re from a special place with special people and they want to be a part of it – I find it helps thinking about it like a compliment, and you get to share a special little part of Australia with them. If they’re still wilfully misunderstanding, well, that’s out of your control. All you can do is your best, to show them how special we are.

        1. Tamz*

          OMG yes. They try but it can make it so much worse.

          If it helps, here are some practical things I’ve been doing to cope:

          • mum sent a whole bunch of lollies and BBQ shapes, and even random stuff like chicken salt and eucalyptus oil. I’ve got a little emergency box of treats for days where it’s all a bit overwhelming

          • my boss gave me permission to work flexible hours without asking, so if I stay up all night watching news, I can sleep in, or call home before it’s night time there

          • I’ve been listening to ABC radio rather than reading news because it feels a bit more human to me, like I’m talking to people

          • I’m going to some bushfire gigs in London just to be around our people for a bit

          • I hid things like the Celeste Barber fundraiser and other bushfire appeals of Facebook so I’m not seeing them over and over

          • I’ve come up with some easy metrics to shock people into shutting up – like at the moment the burned area is fully 1/2 the area of the UK – which I think gives them enough perspective to see why it’s so distressing and to give me some space

          That’s all I can think of right now! I’m lucky to have some really good mates here who have been really supportive.

        2. There's probably a cat meme to describe it*

          If I were on the other side of the planet while this were going on, even though my home area isn’t directly affected, I think I’d be homesick to the point of a physical ailment. People just really don’t get how far away Australia actually is. There’s something about times of celebration and despair that make you want to go home so, so, SO badly and just *be* there. Even if you can’t do anything. Even if it changes nothing. And if I were in your shoes, getting reminded that I’m NOT home several times a day during this, even if it’s well-intentioned – I would get the bloody irrits.

          I don’t have anything that can help*, just sending you big interweb hugs from Aus.

          *Maybe the drop bear vid, but that’s small biccies for a situation like this.

  17. So long and thanks for all the fish*

    I’m so sorry. It strikes me that while the specifics of your situation are a little unusual, it may help to just acknowledge to yourselves that this is very real grief you’re feeling. We will all grieve something in our lives, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In that vein, resources on handling grief generally at work may be useful. How would you handle it at work if you lost a relative? While it’s obviously not the same, I feel like those strategies would apply here- let your manager or someone you trust know how it’s affecting you, ask them to be your messenger in how you’d like people to handle it, and use whatever coping strategies you need, for as long as you need to. Taking a day or a few off as Owl suggests above may be helpful, and/or asking someone to get the word out that you’d prefer people not ask how you’re doing. It’s an unimaginable tragedy, and people will understand.

  18. Pidgeot*

    Do not be ashamed for feeling this way – as another commenter said, you are grieving. It does not make you weak or unprofessional that you are dealing with these emotions. It seems like you are also struggling because you are isolated from your families and your home, and that isolation is probably also contributing, especially when it looks like you have to present a stoic face to the people who are not involved as intimately. If you are able to, you may want to lean on whatever support network you have here so that you feel less alone. I suspect that part of the problem is that you feel like you have to keep this bottled up, which is causing it to burst out when you don’t want it to. If you’re able to relieve that pressure a little bit, to make it less taboo, it may help you keep those feelings from overwhelming you at work.

  19. Aunt Piddy*

    I’m so sorry. I was in law school when Katrina hit, and I spent months watching the devastation on TV from another state. It’s so important that you give yourself time and space to grieve and feel your feelings. Just take it one day at a time, and take breaks if you need to. People will understand.

    1. Catwoman*

      Yes, this. Some of the subtext I’m picking up from both letters is that they might feel like they don’t have the right to be upset because others have it worse or that it’s not affecting them “directly” enough. LWs, please know that your feelings are valid and ok to feel.

      I was halfway across the world when I heard news that a tornado was coming straight for my hometown. I felt a lot of helplessness, guilt that I wasn’t “in the trenches” too, a lot of anxiety around what news I was going to wake up to the next morning, and also very lonely because no one around me was going through the same thing.

      If there are any other Australians in your community, it may help to be a support group for each other during this difficult time. I also agree with the other commentators who have suggested talking through your concerns around optics and workload with your supervisors and the suggestions for maybe making work a refuge from the fire talk and asking people not to talk about it with you. If you go with the latter, then I would suggest just taking some time to sit with your feelings when you’re not at work about this: journal, do some yoga, just something to acknowledge that this is hard and you need some extra care right now.

      1. Jess*

        This. When I was a teenager, there were missiles being targeted regularly at a foreign country where extended family lived. It was SO awful being helpless and out of touch with news during all my class periods (I brought a radio to school so I could check news in between classes), and my classmates just didn’t get it — one of them was outright mean and I hate him to this day for that. In college I went abroad to that country, which was supposedly ‘safe’ again, and just as I was getting used to it there were some bombings. I actually stayed, partly because I remembered how awful it had been in high school… it was scary being there, but easier than not being there yet worrying about everyone else.

        Let yourself feel the feelings, and know that most compassionate adults can understand, even if they are able to guard their own feelings about this particular disaster.

      2. Anax*

        Absolutely. This is classic survivor’s guilt – a really common response to natural disasters and similar events! – and it’s important to get counselling and self-care now to prevent PTSD from developing in the future. Just powering through can be really damaging in the long-term, and that would have more long-term implications for work and life than self-care now.

        (Speaking from experience – I powered through, and it was a really bad decision. I’m okay now, but it was really rough for a few years, and I went from being a straight-A student to nearly failing out of college, despite my best efforts.)

        Of course, it’s not anyone’s fault if PTSD does develop – but give yourselves the best odds you can, and take care of yourselves, LWs!

  20. londonedit*

    I’m wondering if there’s a way to let everyone know how you’d (in both cases) like to handle things at the moment, to head off any potentially upsetting conversations. Maybe you could send an email to your team, or if you didn’t feel comfortable doing that, maybe your boss could send one (and not copy you in if you feel that would be more helpful). I’ve worked with a couple of people in previous jobs who ended up dealing with traumatic things in their personal lives, and the team lead or immediate boss would send an email to the group saying something like ‘X is dealing with an upsetting situation at the moment; here are [brief details] but they have asked me to let everyone know that they will be taking a couple of days off, and when they come back to work they would rather people didn’t bring it up in conversation. Please treat them kindly and give them space to talk about things in their own time, should they wish to’. It worked really well because people were given a bit of basic info, so they weren’t going on second-hand news or digging for details, and everyone knew how X wanted to handle things when they came back from their leave. I feel like one of the worst things about being in that sort of situation is the dread of people asking questions or wanting to pry about details.

    1. A Canadian*

      I second this! It would put everyone on the same page, and spare the affected folks from a lot of emotional labour when they’re already feeling stretched thin.

    2. AussieEngineer*

      I’d definitely recommend doing this – Getting help managing the interactions you are struggling with can help give you the space to process everything… I asked a previous manager to do this when I split with my ex after over 10 years together, and I realised I wasn’t coping with everyone asking if I was ok.. I’d be relatively ok until they said those words, and then I’d lose it.

  21. Combinatorialist*

    My family lives in Houston, my mom was there alone during Harvey, and many of the people I grew up with were still there. Every morning, I would wake up and see all the posts on Facebook from the scary stories of weathering the night before. My mom and I discussed her plan for getting onto the roof if the flood waters forced her to need to be rescued. It was horrible, and knowing that I could do nothing but watch from afar was extremely painful in a way that I don’t think you can anticipate. Everyone ended up more or less fine, but it was scary and stressful in a way that was hard to quantify.

    These posts made me cry bringing back those memories, and Harvey was much smaller scale and much less permanent impact than the current situation in Australia. So you have my deepest sympathies and it is very scary and the feeling of powerless is overwhelming.

    Some advice:
    1. Decide what you want from the people around you and let them know. Everyone wants to support you right now — but they might not know how. Do you need people to ask you how you and your family are doing? Would you prefer they not? Do you need comfort when you get upset? Do you need everyone to pretend you aren’t upset? Decide what is the least bad option (I’m not going to pretend there is a good option) and communicate it. Send an email to everyone you might interact with. Have your manager/a friend do it for you.

    2. Cancel/postpone EVERYTHING that isn’t essential. Make as much space in your calendar and life for self-care. New Years Resolutions — throw them away unless they are making you happy. Wear your favorite clothes as much as you can. Eat your favorite food. Read your favorite books. This is about you right now. Anyone less impacted by the fires than you — they can wait/listen to your feelings.

    3. Become super organized at work. List everything that has to get done that day/week and then work on plowing through. You will feel numb. Now is not the time for low-priority, challenging projects. Figure out what the minimum is and aim for that. When that starts to feel in control, add a little more gradually.

    4. Be realistic about what you are capable of. Sometimes it feels like you “should” be able to do more and so you try to do it all and then crash and burn. Don’t push too hard, communicate with others on what you can do. People want to show you grace — make it as easy as possible by doing what you say you are going to do, even if it is less than what you would normally do.

    OP1, talk to your boss about your concerns about being out of the office and your projects for the rest of the year. OP2, it’s totally understandable to be less cheerful during this time. Tell your employees that you know you aren’t your cheerful self, but that you are committed to being their manager. Tell them how you want them to handle this, it is okay to be upset, and push forward as best you can.

    1. Elenna*

      Re deciding what you want (Combinatorialist’s first suggestion): If it turns out that what you want is for everyone to not talk about it and pretend everything is normal at work, that’s 100% fine and valid, but people may be more willing to leave you alone about it if you provide some other way to help, e.g. “donate to XYZ (and please don’t tell me about it)”.

    2. Just Me*

      Yes to all of this, especially number 2. In the past year and change, I’ve gone through a couple of major injuries and was in the worst part of recovery from the first one when my town was hit by a really bad hurricane that just… lingered for days. It’s been well over a year now and we’re still nowhere close to rebuilt. Everyone was just shell shocked for months. It’s a smaller scale yes, and we will recover faster yes, but the feelings are very similar. All of the tactics listed above helped us. The one other thing that I’ll add, which is kind of related to number 2, was reading the good stories. The neighbors who helped each other out, the strangers who took people in, the recovery teams that came from out of town and volunteered to help get us back to something like normal. Yes, those stories made me cry, but it was a good and helpful cry. And it gave some glimmer of hope.

      I will also say that my job was OUTSTANDING. I’m remote, so I was the only employee affected, and they gave me every bit of time I needed. They understood when my performance dipped, and they did what they could to keep my load light for a little bit. People want to help.

  22. RUKiddingMe*

    Other than a vacation several years ago I have zero connections to Australia, yet…when I think about it I break down.

    I cant imagine how both OPs are feeling. I mean sure I can *imagine,* but I know that doesn’t do justice to their realities.

    I know this is a work/job/career blog but I’m gonna give some ‘not-in-the-best-interest-of-long-term-career-prospects’ advice.

    To wit: the work, busy seasons, clients, etc. will always be there. Your family, “home,” memories, will not.
    That’s true fires or no fires.

    If you can…take a LOA and get your head together and maybe go and be with those most important to you.

    There’s an old cliché saying that goes something like, “no one’s headstone ever said ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work’.” Tis true…

    All of that said, do what you feel you must/can do. At the very least though I would suggest a couple/few days of PTO … with zero work or thoughts about work.

    Allow your coworkers to give you the gift of stepping up to take care of your stuff for a few days. Let your clients be “understanding.”

    Likely most of them *want* to do something for you. What they can do is limited. It’s a gift to them as well as to yourself.

    OPs you, your families and friends, and all of Australia are in the thoughts of the people in my house.

    I’m an anti-hugger but I’m sending tons of internet hugs if you want them.

  23. Admin4Life*

    I’m in the same boat as both of you. All of my family lives along the East Coast in Australia while I live in the US. I found it helpful to start with my company’s EAP. I’ve also been working parts of the day from home and I took a mental health day this week when I found out my family lost their farm. I find time to grieve and have scheduled time on my work calendar to take breaks.

    I can’t avoid the news because the company I work for is global and is being affected by what’s happening but I have asked people not to bring up the personal side of it because it pulls me away from my work. My script is “thank you for your concern. It’s hard not to focus on it when I think about it so I’m trying to put it to the back of my mind while I’m at work. Thank you for understanding.”

    It’s been working somewhat and making use of the counseling services through my employer’s EAP has helped lift the emotional burden of trying to stay so professional.

    1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      I’m very sorry your family has been hit so hard.

      I think you’re right to express your wish not to talk about it. You don’t owe anyone else your emotions.

      We’re hearing reports today that there has been widespread rain in Australia, quenching perhaps a quarter of the fires. I hope it continues to fall in the right places in the right quantities so this nightmare can be brought to a close.

      1. Tamz*

        A friendly note in case there are any a Australians in your life – I personally find comments like this (about the rain) quite unhelpful. Rain is not necessarily a good thing right now… it will bring added worry and complication. Comments like these are well meaning but bring out an anxious response in me because they are founded in a misunderstanding of the situation.

        (See also: comments about insurance, about international firefighters, about heartwarming pictures of koalas drinking water… these are all complicated matters!)

        1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          Yes, I’m sure – that’s why I qualified “the right amounts in the right places”. But I apologise if my clumsy comment upset you – that was not my intention at all.

    2. It's business time*

      I too am living in the US with all family / friends back home. It is very difficult to watch any of this and feel like you cannot do anything to help. I try not to watch anything about it anymore because it is just too upsetting. I am checking the emergency websites daily to make sure my family are still OK, though sometimes you see a fire starting close to their homes and terrifying.

      I am so sorry about your families farm, what a painful situation for you to be in.

      Reach out to any support people, I like the support network in the many Aussies in the US facebook pages, as we are all feeling the same sense of helplessness, there are many fundraisers and other things that we can do to help if we can

  24. I'm A Little Teapot*

    First, recognize that you’re a suffering a slow motion trauma/grief inducing event. Don’t beat yourself up because of your very human reactions to what’s happening, including recognizing that you may have different reactions at different times. You’re not abnormal here.

    That said, I would imagine some of the techniques that are helpful for grief or anxiety may be helpful. No, they’re not exactly the same, but they’re close enough that it’s worth a try. Taking advantage of an EAP, short term therapy, or grief support groups might be a good idea. I wonder how much cancer support has in common as well, so maybe look into anything they recommend.

    Letting others know that you’re having a hard time and would really appreciate other topics might be appropriate. Perhaps work can be a refuge. Perhaps it can’t. Depending on the circumstances, taking time off, working remotely, delegating certain tasks or simply going part time might be appropriate.

  25. Erykah Badu*

    I’m so sorry that you both are carrying this heaviness and grief for your homeland. If you can, find a quiet/private place at work where you can go when the feelings become too much: an office no one uses, a closet, an empty conference room, some places even have a “quiet room”. It can be a small relief at work when you need to cry, call a friend for comfort, check in on family, meditate/pray, whatever you need to do to get you through a hard work day.

  26. Nat*

    Oh no, it me :( I’m an Australian living in London right now & I was dreading coming back to work after Christmas because I knew people would start asking me about the fires & while most of my friends & family live in the big cities & aren’t going to be actually caught in fires, I know they’ve all had trouble with air quality & I’ve had more than one sobbing panic attack over the idea that my severely asthmatic mum might end up in hospital just from going outside or that we’ve lost wildlife & culturally important places we can never get back, & discussing it made me inevitably start crying again. I’m lucky that I work with pretty decent people in my dept who asked me once & when I said “yeah it’s not great & it’s making me very anxious so I would prefer not to discuss it too much” they listened to me & left it there, but unfortunately I HAVE had it from people I run into in other depts, I’ve found the best reaction is just to give minimal answers & change the subject if possible. Also like…go to the bathroom & have a cry if you need to! Better out than in! The whole thing sucks so much! I had to up my anxiety meds this month to function like a human! Normal, not shitty people will understand that you’re a bit stressed at the moment & will cut you some slack, I promise!

    1. Jessie*

      No advice, but I work in the UK for a huge Australian company. A lot of my colleagues here in the UK are Australian, and I also work closely with people in Australia.

      I’ve been one of those people checking in with the people I have friendly relationships – like everyone else, I’m completely horrified by the fires and am worried about my colleagues and their families. But this has made me realise that I’m one of dozens of people checking in and (maybe other than the couple who seem to welcome the opportunity to talk) it’s very likely not helpful in the slightest and I should be much more mindful of that.

    2. empsk*

      Hey Nat. I’m a Kiwi in London. Boy, we’re both a long way from home and sometimes it’s really, really hard. Sending you antipodean love from across the city. xx

  27. littlelizard*

    I don’t have a personal connection to Australia, and I still had to stop interacting with the news coverage because it was too distressing. I’m in California and had a winter of seeing gray skies and a red sun, wearing a mask outside with my eyes watering, and generally feeling like the world was ending, and the Australia news brought a lot of that panicky distress back. I don’t think anyone would blame actual Australians, including those living abroad, from being affected. Taking some time off seems like it could really help.

    1. Dragoning*

      I have no connection to Australia and little to California, and even reading this letter is making me close to tears myself.

    2. AussieEngineer*

      Your point about the news coverage is a good one – I live in Australia in Victoria near where the Black Saturday fires happened in 2009, and I found out that people I knew well had died in the fires through the news coverage while at work, and that has left some lasting impacts. I don’t follow the live reporting of the fires in Victoria or NSW, as I know too many people that live in the areas impacted or that are working/volunteering as firefighters.

      To both OPs – you are not alone in feeling helpless, and distance doesn’t make it any easier. As many have pointed out, you don’t need permission to grieve or feel loss, and you need to find the best way that works for you, whether that be by being distracted by interesting projects at work and using your down time to process and grieve, or by taking time off to process in your own space.

  28. 404UsernameNotFound*

    First things first, my condolences.

    I concur with the other commenters here: you both sound to be grieving. Treat yourself and the situation the exact same way you would for a great personal loss. Because it *is* a great personal loss. If you haven’t already (I think LW1 has, but LW2 might not have? Please, correct me if I’m wrong), apprise your boss of the situation – I think it extremely likely they’ll be understanding. After that, do whatever’s necessary to cope. If you need to distract yourself with work, do. If you need to sit at home in comfy pyjamas crying and eating icecream, do. If you *think* you need to do #1 but realise halfway through the day that you actually need to do #2, let your boss know – if I may go OT for a moment: when my grandmother died, I thought I would cope best by distracting myself with work. By twelve, I was in a fog of crying and generally feeling crap, so I said to my lovely boss “look, this isn’t working, see you tomorrow if I can, but probably next week.” I feel like this would apply to your situation. Admittedly, I’m erring on the side of a good boss here, but I feel like the average person would be more sympathetic since you’re native Aussies.

  29. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    When Louisiana and Mississippi were devastated by Hurricane Katrina, my (very large) employer relocated a bunch of staff whose offices had been wiped to their other locations & contracts around the US. Our office took in two, one of them on the project I worked on. We were on-site at an Air Force base, but nearly 100% contractors, and we were pretty tight-knit; did a lot of pot-luck group lunches, had monthly all-hands for employee awards, and the 2 bosses were very good at supporting us.

    The guy who moved here was originally from New Orleans, and one of the ways he dealt with the situation was by introducing some of his local cultural things to the rest of us (I remember the King Cake in particular). He said it helped him both keep a connection to his roots and also express hope that the region would one day recover.

    Not sure that that would help in the immediate term, but something in the same spirit might give the OPs something to hold on to for the future.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        King Cake amateur tip…. chew every bite carefully until someone finds the figure.

        1. Pants*

          The really good bakeries still put the baby in before baking, but most out here (Houston, not New Orleans) put them to the side so you can “insert” them yourselves. They don’t want anyone choking on the baby. Which is my favourite seasonal sentence. First: I’m always afraid I’m going to break a tooth on the baby.

        2. Pants*

          Also, eat it with a fork and smash every bite with it before it goes into your mouth. See previous re: breaking a tooth on the baby.

  30. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    I’m so sorry that you’re both in this awful situation. What has worked for me when I’ve felt emotionally fragile is to combine working from home with time in the office. It got me out of the house when I might otherwise have stayed in bed until tea time, but also allowed me some pyjama days where I could cry as much as I wanted to. Alternating office/home days works, as does going into the office for 3-4 core hours and being available before and after.

    It also helped to let people know that work was a welcome distraction and that it helped me not to have to talk about the situation too much. If you can say this to a few close or trusted colleagues, they can let others know.

    Wishing you and your families love and courage in this really difficult time.

  31. Nicki Name*

    LW1, there’s no “just” about working from home for personal reasons. If you say, “I’m working from home for a while for family reasons”, most people will immediately get the message that (1) something serious is happening and (2) the details are none of their business. For the select few who don’t, just keep focused on work topics. “It’s a long story, but anyway, do we have all the information we need to move forward with Client X now?”

  32. Oof*

    I was just given the advice to give myself one full on freak-out a week. (different situation, but similar in incredible stress over what could happen to loved ones while others are suffering too) So I’ve been doing that and have found it incredibly helpful. So maybe translate that into working from home one morning a week. Schedule your non facetime work for then. And don’t forget your weekend freak-outs. I have found early afternoon on Saturday is good. Plenty of errands and housework in the morning, fall apart, but recovered in time for dinner. I did not do that purposely, but as I read what I wrote, wow! I have a grief schedule! I hope this helps you both. I am so sorry for your situations.

  33. Socrates Johnson*

    I’m sorry I don’t have much advice except to give yourself some time to grieve and cry. I’m an American living in America and I have been devastated. One day last week I cried at work. I’m just so sad and feel helpless. I’ve donated and will make a scheduled donation each month for the months to come. So I can’t imagine if this is your own country. I did feel better after literally crying for a couple of hours, and then just trying to see what I can do to support in any way possible. I’m so sorry is all I can say.

  34. Bunny Girl*

    You guys – your home is on fire. It’s completely okay to not be okay. It’s okay to cry and grieve. It’s okay to take time off. I’m from Oregon and I was really emotional when the Columbia River Gorge was on fire because of that little asshole. It’s heartbreaking to see something like this happen. Please, take some time for yourselves. It’s okay and I promise your work will understand.

  35. Massive Dynamic*

    I’m so sorry for what you both are going through right now. I live in what’s apparently now Fire Central, California, and we’ve been dealing with this for a few years now (deadly 2017 fire ripped through our area, 2018 up north in Paradise, 2019 my little town was evacuated as a massive fire burned around the edges of it – but the town was saved!). I drive through burn scars every day and know way too many people who have lost their houses/businesses in recent years. The stress of it all can be a LOT. My best advice is to be kind to yourselves, definitely take time off if you can, and to seek out counseling if needed. Also, getting involved in a fundraiser might also help you as you’ll be empowered to do something to help. It’s unreal how helpless a giant act of nature like this makes us feel.

    Something helping me greatly right now is planning for our new normal now, while it’s rainy, so we’re ready for the next fire season. Things like: which family would we evacuate to, how we’ll go about packing up the next time around and how we’ll take prized possessions, digitizing old family photos, making sure our fire insurance policy is comprehensive enough, purging through possessions in general so we only have things we use and need at home, etc. etc.

    1. Anax*

      Oh, jeez – I was watching the fire head toward your town, from down in the East Bay; we have friends up in your area too. I’m really glad you made it through.

      (And hopefully the PSPS events will be better this year – word through the grapevine is that they did stop quite a few fires, but obviously some fine-tuning is needed.)

    2. First OP*

      Bushfires have always been intertwined with Australian summers, so for as long as I can remember my family has had a “bushfire action plan” – this is pretty normal already for people from the countryside. But never before have so many people had to use their action plans all at once. Huge fires that decimate areas the size of European countries – this is our new normal.

  36. Miranda Priestly’s Assistant*

    Take time off and don’t feel guilty about it! It seems in the first letter your employer is sympathetic and willing to give you a break. Your mental health is more important than whatever is going on at work, and you need sound mental health before you get back to work.

  37. astronot pants*

    I’m so sorry for both of you, and doing what I can to help the relief effort. I want you to know that it’s ok if you don’t feel capable discussing the fires/your families at work, and that if you aren’t up to saying that to every concerned coworker, it’s ok to delegate that too! You can tell your boss, and maybe your most trusted people to spread the word, and that if anything happens that you want to share, you will tell them. I know how powerless this can feel (having been through many hurricane seasons stressing about a parent who has to stay behind while others evacuate), but this is a small way that you can decide how to manage your interactions about this. Thinking of you <3

  38. TiffanyAching*

    My hometown was recently in the path of the large Kincade fire in California, including spot fires 2 blocks from my childhood home, where my parents still live. My parents and brother were evacuated for 5 days, and everyone in charge basically expected to lose half the town. I was a wreck, crying at home and barely holding it together at work, checking the news and CalFire updates constantly. I got very little work done.

    LW1, I’ll echo previous commenters and say, if your boss is offering the ability to work from home, take it. It would have been useful for me to have that option, so that if I needed to cry, I could do so without the extra pressure of crying at work and dealing with other people’s reactions. You can be in your pjs, get comfort from pets if you have any, and generally just be more physically comfortable, which can slightly ease the intensity of the emotional pain. If you don’t have to tell your clients, then maybe don’t — if it’s a situation where you do need to let them know you’re working from home, I think your script is fine. Most people will understand. If they ask how you’re doing, I think it’s also perfectly fine to say “It’s kind of you to ask, but I prefer to focus on Work Thing. How’s the X project?”

    1. Anax*

      I’m really glad y’all made it through. I’m down in the East Bay, but we were refreshing CalFire constantly too, watching it head toward your town, and hoping the firebreaks would hold.

  39. AKchic*

    For the both of you:

    It is *okay* to not be okay. If you are looking for external permission to grieve, even though you aren’t personally affected in a “I’ve lost my home and physical possessions, or my family has lost their home and possessions” kind of way, we’re giving you that permission. What is happening is a disaster. There are ripples that will be felt for generations, and some that will be felt forever. It’s absolutely okay to not only acknowledge that, but to mourn the losses, both now, and later. It’s okay to be stressed, worried, and to say “yep, I am not okay and I need time to grieve”.

    You can’t focus on work if you’re focusing on keeping yourself together. You can’t focus on keeping yourself together if you’re trying to put out a good product. Take some time off. If it’s your busy season, it’s okay. Fixing any mistakes you might make will take longer than if they’d worked without you in the first place. And a week off during a crisis isn’t a bad thing. It’s acknowledging you’re human.

    I am sorry for what is happening and for how it is impacting the both of you, as well as how it will impact the world. I am sorry for how it is impacting people living there.

    Give yourselves permission to grieve and process this tragedy.

  40. Drew*

    Nothing to add to the excellent advice already given, but you both have all my sympathy; this is a horrible situation and being an entire world away can’t be easy right now.

  41. cactus lady*

    I’m from Northern California and two years ago my hometown burned badly. I live far away, and it was completely devastating. Nobody at work or in my daily life was terribly supportive – it’s one of those things that you don’t really “get” unless you are personally involved, I think. My boss and grandboss would make tasteless jokes, my colleagues were indifferent, and it was in general really hard.

    What really helped me was connecting with people in my community who were from my hometown/area, and I would encourage you to do the same. Those are the people who are going to be able to relate and be most supportive. When I was non-functional at work, I could message one of those people, and we could talk a little, and it would help me get through the day.

    Also helpful (I’m not sure if you’re already part of something like this) was joining a private facebook group for my neighborhood to keep up to date on what was actually happening. There were a few people who hadn’t evacuated who would post pictures of what was going on, and it was really helpful to see that even though my family was evacuated, their house was okay. The news wasn’t super helpful in figuring out what was going on in the immediate vicinity of my home, so I tried to stay away from it as much as possible and use that group as my information source. I even had one of the people posting photos go check on my parents house and send photos, which was very reassuring.

    Also one last thing to keep in mind is that evacuations happen to keep people safe, it doesn’t automatically mean everything is going to burn. After people are safe, they can focus on fighting the fire. I totally understand how upsetting and unnerving it is, but try to remember it’s to help the firefighters focus on the fire and not worry about the people.

    Good luck, sending lots of support.

    1. Daffy Duck*

      I want to upvote joining FB groups where past residents can connect. I have found it extremely useful to pass along information, help the community (albeit from a distance), and support fundraisers.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I’m sorry you had glass bowls for co-workers.
      (Hearing about them me appreciate my former co-workers even more, who were supportive when I was watching a slow-moving hurricane approach my far-away hometown.)

    3. Observer*

      I haven’t commented much, but this just got to me. While it’s true that people often don’t completely get it if they haven’t experienced it, what you describe goes well beyond that. I’m so sorry that you were stuck with a pair of jerky adolescents in Boss bodies. This stuff is hard enough, no one needs callous idiots making things worse.

  42. EmilyAnn*

    These questions remind me of how I felt during Harvey. I live on the east coast, but my entire immediate family was in Houston, except for one member who was dealing with a family death. It was a lot. Due to lack of sleep, stress and poor coping I did become very emotional at work, though that manifested itself in impatience and anger. Any small thing would set me off. Constantly trying to keep it positive by responding to inquires with “everything is fine” (because no one close to me had a flooded house… yet) was difficult. Worrying every day if this was the day one of my family members would need to be rescued from their house by boat was awful. My family was very lucky in the end, but many of our friends and neighbors were not.

    Harvey was much shorter and over in about 10 days, while the Australian fires are longer. I’d recommend you take a sick day as suggested above. Also, if you can arrange for later starts to give yourself time to recover from late nights, early mornings and lack of sleep, please do. I’d also be very honest with a few people you are close with at work. I wish I would have been more open about how stressed I was so I could have asked for understanding and room. I just didn’t feel like I was a victim of the disaster because I wasn’t there so I didn’t feel like I could ask for any accommodation.

    1. Pants*

      I live in Houston and Harvey was madness. I was in the lucky group. While the streets around me flooded, none of them came into our condo complex, as we’re built up a bit and have a very low-level bayou behind us that took a lot of the overflow. (It also helped that I live near a consulate which is #1 on the grid to electricity restored, along with hospitals.)

      I found that Reddit was a great resource. People posting from phones could ask for help and those of us who could help did, or sent out a call for it. Lots of the lucky ones (myself included) offered our homes as places of refuge to other redditors, whether we knew them or not. (My place was also already well populated with friends who needed a place, so safety was not really an issue.) Volunteers at various shelters would post what items were needed most. People with kayaks would check houses for people or pets stranded.

      There are a lot of internet trolls out there and certainly a lot on Reddit; however, in a crisis I found it an invaluable resource.

  43. animaniactoo*

    LW1, this is a big national and international tragedy that is ongoing and fairly relentless with no end in sight. It’s OKAY that you’re having all the feels about this. And I would say that with that comes the awareness that even if you set your career back a little bit or even a lot bit, you will set it back even more by attempting to push through and mangling the attempt because you are in such an emotionally vulnerable state. You cannot help the emotionally vulnerable state (much). You can help how you manage it with self-care – which includes thinking through the risk assessment and probability of the paths that are in front of you right now. And then choosing the one that has the most likelihood to succeed or at least cause the least damage.

    I am so sorry for all that you are dealing with, and I hold out hopes for the country’s ability to recover and in particular for your family’s home and safety.

    For both you and LW2, I would say that it is fine to let people know that you’re struggling because of the situation and you’re doing your best to keep going. Give them the ability to help by knowing that you need extra space, so that they won’t think it’s unusual if you get back to them a little later than usual or are working from home that day or whatever it is that you need to do to be competent and still working while not visibly breaking down in front of other people on a regular basis.

    Also possible, if you need to cry to process and get the grief and the feels out, some people have had a lot of success with scheduling that on a daily basis. Giving themselves a half hour, an hour in the evening to just sit around and process so that it isn’t so built up and ready to pop out at any moment. Others have had success in managing the grief by focusing on things they CAN do – and I suspect that some of the issue for both of you is that you’re so far away and feel even more helpless than you otherwise would because of that. So – is there something you can do from long distance? Be a point of contact for anything? Organize a list of what’s needed to be packed in case of evacuation? Help where you are in the community that you live/work in as a way of helping someone in the way that others are helping back in Australia? Anything else you might think of?

  44. YarnOwl*

    A couple of years ago, my friend’s grandpa was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and basically just decided to be as comfortable as possible until he died, which was about six months later. During that time, she was an absolute wreck and was struggling at work a lot. It was hard for her to talk about and if she did, it basically sent her off the rails for a few hours and she couldn’t get anything done.
    Me and one of her colleagues were close, so whenever something major happened, she would tell me, and I would tell her colleague. Her colleague was deputized as the Person to Ask About Grandpa, and everyone in the office basically knew not to ask my friend because it was difficult for her to talk about.
    Could that be an option for you? Maybe just ask someone you’re close with to be your point person and start telling people, “I’m sorry, but this is really difficult for me to talk about. Could you ask Sansa in the future? When I get a lot of questions about it my day kind of gets derailed.” I think people will be understanding and want to accommodate you as much as possible.

  45. Not a Blossom*

    Schedule time to be emotional. I know that sounds weird, but if you make time to grieve, you will help get out some of the worst of it in private and will have somewhat better control in public. That’s not to say you won’t still be sad in public and that you’ll never cry in front of people, but it will certainly lessen it. Do what works for you: maybe take a whole day off and cry as much as possible (I literally have specific movies I watch when I need to do this) or know you’re going to cry for a few minutes in the shower every day or whatever.

    Also, maybe spread the word (or have someone you trust do it) that you really appreciate the concern and support but that you’d rather not be asked about what’s going on or how your family is faring. That might make it easier for you to concentrate at work.

  46. K in Boston*

    Very different situation, but wanted to add this in case it was at all helpful to either of you —

    About a week and a half ago, an acquaintance of mine passed away. At this time, no one knows how or why it happened, since he wasn’t struggling with any particular illness or condition that might have foreshadowed it (at least none that anyone was aware of — his family is going to have an autopsy performed). All anyone knows right now is that he took a nap and never woke up. He was 27.

    His family lives in Texas, so the funeral service was held there, but he had spent the last ten years here in Massachusetts, so there was a memorial service held in Boston. He had been in college band, and the college band program provided the space for the service. The band director was one of the people who gave a eulogy. I’m paraphrasing a lot, but a small snippet of it was something like this:

    “I want you to take the time to grieve. Even if it’s just an hour that you spend with all the screens off really just thinking about this and processing it. I lost friends in my 20s and 30s and I can tell you, if you don’t take the time to grieve now, sometimes it comes out in other ways you can’t control later on. Do whatever you need to do to grieve. Talk to your friends, talk to your family, talk to a professional, whatever you need. Just make sure you grieve.”

    I’d suggest taking a day off to just grieve, and go from there. I hope you find what works for you. All the best.

  47. Minocho*

    I went through something very similar – I was an American teaching English in Japan during 9/11.

    It was very difficult. I watched everything after the initial plane hitting live on television – the 10 pm English translated news came on at 9 am New York time, so I saw everything from that point forward live. The translators usually worked until about 10:20 pm, but they kept live translating the news until about 1:30 am in the morning. I didn’t sleep that whole night, and about 4 am I got on my bicycle and furiously (and aimlessly) bicycled around my rural little Japanese countryside, lost as with what to do.

    My coworkers were wonderful and sympathetic – but as with most things, since there was little personal stake, also not as deeply affected as I was.

    I moved back to the States in July of 2002. The first anniversary was EXTREMELY emotional for me, as emotional as the day itself. I think it was because I didn’t get to grieve along with everyone else at home until then.

    My advice would be to take time to allow yourself the grief and mourning this event deserves. This is painful – don’t try to suppress it all the time, because that will make it leak out through the seams (or explode past your barriers) in ways you don’t have as much control over. If you can, hang out with people you can trust and share your emotions with – preferably people as affected as you, or affected because of their care for you – so you can grieve and mourn and feel your feelings in a safe, supportive place – hopefully this will take the edge off.

    Talk about it at work when: 1. You feel you can in the way you want to and 2. Whenever coworkers express interest. People do care – even those not directly affected. They may not have the depth and breadth of feeling you have, but you can still share some of this with them. My teachers let me tell the latest news and updates about 9/11 that first week. There were so many uncertainties – we thought upwards of 10,000 people died in the towers alone at first, for example – and sharing it in a limited way with my students and teachers helped me as I worked through it – and I think it helped them understand the impact better. I never got any negative feedback for that. I imagine a lunch conversation or a water cooler update on things you worry about
    or your family’s situations might help be a release valve for you, and would allow your coworkers to be involved and informed about something so important happening in another part of the world.

    I’m so sorry for this, it has to be so hard. I hope you find yourself and your country supported and treated with love and compassion.

  48. Fire Survivor*

    I live in Sonoma County in California. We experienced fire in October 2017 and again this past year in October 2019. Fall used to be my favorite time of year, and now dread sits in the pit of my stomach all season long. The fires were deeply traumatic experiences for me and so many others that live here. I started crying as soon as I read your letter because it took me right back to it. I don’t have any advice that will stop the stress hormones from flooding your body, because I don’t think that is possible right now. Survivors guilt is a thing and my guess is that you are experiencing a bit of that as well. You are safe but your loved ones, including the land that you love, are in danger. The thing is, you are also experiencing the trauma, but you don’t have the benefit of your community rallying around you. You might feel so very alone right now and that could be a part of the struggle. There will be a lot to mourn in the coming days, months, years while you process all of this. My only piece of advice for you is to allow yourself to be human. You are splitting yourself in two trying to be a good employee while your world feels like it is falling apart. You are not a robot and absolutely no good human being will expect you to be one right now. My guess is that if your managers and coworkers are decent human beings, they will not use this against you when you go up for a promotion in six months. Let go of that worry for now so you can get yourself through this.

  49. Laura H.*

    It’s a delicate balance to appreciate the concern, but at the same time not want it to be a BIG DEAL in your workspace. I agree with the sentiment that maybe asking others to help intercept and direct urges to help to low-key endeavors that will still make an impact but give you an out/ spare you from a direct obligation or connection to that effort.

    Also echoing the be gentle with yourself. That’ll be different. Me, that’s having something nice to eat, in comfortable clothes, and maybe getting a very small task done that I need to do, or a lunch or coffee date with someone (or sometimes just me).

  50. Daffy Duck*

    Just want to say my heart goes out to all Australians. Take some time for yourself, it is important you self care. Having a go-to charity you can post is a great way to deal with those who ask if they can help.

    Everyone else: Seeing your hometown community devastated rocks your world like you wouldn’t believe. It was harder than when either of my parents died. Don’t expect them to “get over it” because they no longer live there. In a couple of months the news cycle will have gone onto the next big thing, but people will still be hurting. Years down the road your are trundling along and a memory jumps out and the loss, while not fresh, still hurts. We know friends and family who were impacted more than we were – and we hurt for them also. Just…be kind.

  51. Jennifer*

    Use your banked PTO days and take a mental health week. Use it to catch up with your family, cry it out, and do whatever else you need to do to heal. Come back to work as refreshed as possible in this circumstance. “Taking time off for personal matters” is all you need to say. As to the repeated questions once you return, say that you appreciate the concern but it’s difficult to talk about and you’d rather keep the focus on work. Hopefully after you say that a few times they will get the hint.

    If you aren’t okay, confide in someone at your level or higher that makes you feel safe, or talk to HR about resources. Hugs to both of you.

    1. First OP*

      My boss told me to use sick leave instead of my personal leave (we don’t have restrictions on our sick leave), and subsequently offered compassionate leave if I wanted to fly home to see my family (my parents want me to wait until the fires have been put out and the smoke has cleared). My office culture is friendly and people are kind, so I haven’t experienced any overbearing or invasive questions. What I found was that people checked in to ask if I was in an okay place (which is a natural thing to want to know because they saw me crying!), but then just left me to get on with it.

      1. Jennifer*

        I hope you take the leave. I think it would do you a world of good. I’m glad you have a kind and friendly office culture.

  52. Peridot*

    I see a few people have already mentioned Katrina. I grew up in New Orleans and my family still lives there. At the time of the storm, I still had two elderly grandparents and a great-aunt alive, and my parents were responsible for taking care of them as well as themselves.

    For me, the absolute worst was not knowing. There was a period after the storm hit where cell towers weren’t working and the power was out in Mississippi where they had evacuated to. After that, the worst part was not being able to do anything concrete because I was at a distance, and for weeks there was really nothing to be done.

    Even though it didn’t happen directly to me, it was still a trauma. You should take time if you need it. Your clients will understand, your coworkers will understand, and your managers will understand. If there’s anyone who would penalize you for this, their opinion isn’t worth anything (and that’s a good thing to know too).

    If you need work to be a place where you can get away from this stress, I’d see if you can find someone to be your proxy. “Garnet is fine, and her family is fine, but it’s obviously a stressful subject, and she’d rather spend her time at work focusing on work. I know she’s very grateful for your concern.” Or if you feel that’s too impersonal, maybe send out an email to certain people and ask them to disseminate it to people who need to know.

    And again on the trauma topic — definitely use your EAP if you need it. Get therapy if you need it. Get pharmaceutical help (short-term or long-term). Your hurt is real, and it’s okay to treat it like that.

  53. Orion*

    Not the same as what’s going on, but my sibling is unstable (addicted, mentally ill, ran away at one point, etc) and I haven’t been able to reach them for a few months now, so pretty much break down every day. Here’s my advice for something that doesn’t really have a “get better by” date: Take a day off. Go for walks during lunch if you can. Try to find a new podcast to listen to that you can really dig into. You have to take care of yourself to be able to take care of your family. Volunteering helps. So does animal therapy, light therapy, flotation therapy. When you need to cry, try going outside. Sometimes it feels better not to show anyone (I find it’s easier to forget I broke down). If there’s one person you can confide in at work, maybe ask them to tell people not to bring it up. Though sometimes it’s not better if no one asks at all. Really up to you.

  54. Jenn G*

    It is okay to be human at work. I am going to focus on some practical things to try in the face of a system where even though we all know it’s okay to be human at work, many of us are in jobs where we have to try to do our best to stay productive anyway. This is not an endorsement of having to do that.

    1. Before you leave work each day, jot down 2-3 things that you want to start on tomorrow, just on a sticky or a piece of paper. Grief short-circuits executive function, so making those links when you don’t know what emotions you’ll have in between is key. Same thing with ongoing to-do lists. Writing these things down physically can help.

    2. If your time zone or life means you get hit with news/family news early in the day, get up 15 minutes early, look at that first, then turn your devices off to shower and eat. On your way to work plan 5-10 minutes along the way or at work to go for a quick walk to re-group.

    3. Get as much sleep as you can, turn everything off that you can. Make sure you take breaks, best if you have a minimum of 9 hours a day where you are not at all looking at work things.

    4. Get backup where you can from coworkers, your boss, etc. Loop your boss in with quick summary emails. in case you need to miss a day. Clients want to know they will get the best of your work, but really they want the best of your company. If you need to take a break or will be less responsive, let them know who to contact. This could even be someone who just “runs interference” for you and just contacts you to get the information. Use email where you can if that’s easier – say “I’m a bit stretched personally right now so I will be emailing you X information before our call and hope to focus on Y.” In other words, move any work you can to being managed when you can do it rather than on-demand.

    5. Even though it will be tempting to work through any down time in your day/schedule to catch up, take those opportunities – if a meeting is cancelled, go for a walk. If you can leave a little early and go home and cry/snuggle up, do.

    6. Put together a little care kit. Mine is: A playlist of songs that lift me up, a set of fairy lights around my desk, a snuggly poncho I can pull over me, and first-rate cheese and crackers in my lunch.

    7. It’s okay to have human moments. Remember that for everyone, you are the sum of their experience with you – not just yourself on a bad day. Anyone who does not get this is just lousy.

  55. Existentialista*

    I am an American who lived in Australia for a long time, so I was there during 9/11 and here for the fires, and have felt a bit removed from both as a result. But I do remember the school shooting at Columbine High School which is in the same school district as the high school I graduated from and felt very close to home when it happened. I was on my way to work and remember stopping in my tracks and buying a newspaper, and sitting down to read and process the events. As a result I was quite late to work, and my boss greeted me with a jaunty, “What happened to your train?” I could tell she didn’t really get it, and in retrospect I wish I’d been more open about what I was feeling and claimed a bit more space for myself to react and grieve. The emotional life of the ex-pat is always going to be complicated.

  56. Eve Polastri*

    Take the time. The situation in Australia makes some of us who don’t have any connection there weepy.

    When i get caught up into thinking that work is more important than life around me, I ask myself “In one month, 6 months, or 1 year, will anyone remember me not being available this one week?” The answer is always no.

  57. DuskPunkZebra*

    It sounds like both LWs have supportive management who endorse time off or away as needed – take them at their words and use it.

    I think you can reasonably say to your clients and coworkers (heck, possibly all at once in a group email) something like “As you may know, I am originally from Australia and much of my family still live there. I appreciate so much your concern for my family and my well-being, but discussing the situation at work is becoming increasingly difficult as the situation progresses. I may be in and out of the office over the next week or two, but I will still be available to work on X project. [Or if you’re taking off, “I’ll be taking some time away from work for X period, and Sasha will be covering for me or coordinating my work across the team.”] For now, my family are safe, but the alert status can change at any time. If major changes happen, I will keep you posted, otherwise I would prefer not to bring the subject up. If you’d like to help, I’ve included a few links to donate to the various needs brought on by the fires. Thanks for your consideration.”

    I also second the proxy suggestion if you can have someone act as a buffer for you.

    Take care of yourselves.

    1. Fish girl*

      This was going to be my exact advice. When I’m dealing with grief or trauma, I find that I feel better if a) other people are aware (at least generally) about what’s going on but b) that I don’t have to talk about. I’m a terrible liar and my face shows all my emotions (even ones I don’t realize I’m having), so I can’t handle the stress of “keeping up appearances” or “pretending everything is okay”. Letting my coworkers know that I’m having a rough time means that I don’t need to worry about policing my face and making up excuses for why I’m teary.

      And email is the perfect venue for delivering news like this. It really helps to have a few action items/ dos and don’ts too. Edit for your needs and for your particular people:

      -Please talk/treat to me like normal, but don’t bring up X right now.
      -Asking “how are you?” is okay, but I’m probably going to answer “fine” no matter what.
      -If I look upset, I’d prefer to be left along at that moment.
      -If I look upset, I’d prefer to be asked about work to distract me.
      -I’m going to need to discuss X sometimes, but please let me bring the topic up first.

  58. Rockin Takin*

    My husband’s from Nepal, and the majority of his family, including his parents, still live there. In 2015 there was a massive earthquake. Thousands of people died, and the country is still recovering from it. In those first couple days we couldn’t get through to family and it was a traumatic, emotionally fraught time. Even though none of our family died/ were hurt, some of our friends had family members who did. Many houses were destroyed, and my in-laws were terrified of sleeping in their home because of the after-shocks.
    My husband’s coworkers gave him a sympathy card and I had all sorts of people start calling me (like people I hadn’t heard from in years) to ask if we and our family were ok. I didn’t take any time off work, and my husband couldn’t.
    It is devastating to know that you cannot do anything but sit and watch the news and wait. I remember hiding the the bathroom crying because I felt so useless and unable to help his family. When I went to Nepal a year later, it was heartbreaking to see all the rubble and the cracked buildings. While my situation was not exactly the same as yours, I totally understand and feel for you in this difficult time.

    If people ask you why you need time off and you don’t want to give details, simply say you have a personal family matter to deal with, and leave it there.
    You are allowed to be upset by the fires. No one would fault you or think that you are weak for being upset by this.
    Use an EAP or other source to talk about this, if possible.
    Hang in there.

  59. Seeking Second Childhood*

    Former New Yorker here. I’ve been through some big natural disasters, the human-made one where I knew family & friends were working in the World Trade Center on 9/11, and personal sorrows like terminal friends & family.
    I found it best to quickly admit things are rough right now — and speed right ahead to “Staying focused on work is the best distraction. Let’s dive right into this meeting ok?” Only a few times did I have to cut off a well-meaning person by saying something like “I can’t talk about it at work, or this meeting will be over before it starts.”
    For me, I did best when I steered clear of news during the day. For me that meant avoiding the company cafeteria, having audiobooks or podcasts for the car ride to work, and asking co-workers to turn down their radios.
    When it got really bad? Yes, I’ve signed out of work early.
    Good luck to all affected in Australia, and to all those affected by other situations like the ongoing earthquakes in Puerto Rico.

  60. Rosalind Montague*

    It is emotionally taxing–and unhelpful emotional labor for you–to be fielding these questions all day when you are upset. In effect, your office(s) are asking you to bear that load for them, not thinking about the fact that you may have to have this conversation dozens of times a day–for them it’s a drive-by and a way to connect because you know. It is totally understandable to take time and to have normal human emotional reactions.

    Here are a few thoughts, coming from someone who works in an organization that just recently experienced a terrible and traumatic loss and has been spending hours each day working with others on how to move forward–

    – be honest with how you are, and be vulnerable if your office culture will support that. Be OK with saying, “I need to have an Australia-free question day today; thanks for understanding.”
    – let your colleagues know that a way they can support you is by letting you have a normal work day without questions about Australia. Some people are helped greatly by lots of questions and care; others need a bubble around them. Be clear with your colleagues about what you need.
    – if it’s hard to do this, find an office ambassador / friend who can politely pass the word that this is overwhelming to you. Your boss may be able to help here.
    – figure out if there is a different way you can communicate that feels OK to you and your colleagues. Maybe you could send an email when there is a change, and otherwise ask folks to give you some space. “I so appreciate how concerned everyone is about my home and family. I’m sure you can understand it’s difficult for me to focus on work with lots of questions, though. I’ll send an email every so often to keep everyone in the loop, and the best way you can support me is by letting me have work be my “normal” space during this difficult time.”
    – DO take time off and DO reach out to your EAP or see a counselor if you have the ability. Being able to spend 45 minutes talking something through with a person who is not at all involved in the situation, or whom you don’t have to have a brave face in front of and can just break down–that is invaluable. Do other self-care activities that will help you–exercise, eat well, get sleep, spend time with friends, get a massage, etc.
    – be ready with a very generic answer for clients. “It’s been hard, but my family is doing OK right now–now about those self-sealing stem bolts…”

  61. atgo*

    Grief is a complicated, messy thing. Especially while the toll is unknown and you’re still waiting to see the fallout. LW1, your letter resonates a lot with me. Maybe my experience will be helpful to you…

    I went through a grieving, anxious time recently at work. I’d always been a high performer, and so when I wasn’t able to show up fully present and shine, the anxiety and insecurity of my grief compounded. I thought for sure everyone I worked with saw me as a failure and I was paralyzed in making moves to change my situation. In the end, it turned out that I was still carrying most of my duties, even though it didn’t feel that way, and folks understood that I was in a hard time and trusted the previous years of my work to know that I was a strong, solid member of the team. I see now that I was latching onto my performance at work as something I could theoretically control while in the midst of something truly bigger than me.

    I have found that taking the pressure off of myself and finding ways to slow down and be present did a lot to keep me grounded. I changed what I do with my free time from heavy socialization in large groups to walks in local gardens, organizing my space, low-key time with close friends, etc.. I bought a bunch of houseplants and soft, comfortable, clothing. Find things that are easy and comfortable for *you* and go back to them, even if that’s a big shift from your normal. Make space for self-care as much as you can… I found that going for walks at lunch or coffee breaks was helpful to let myself decompress and get present again. There were times I booked myself a conference room just to be sad in, sometimes with a supportive coworker/friend.

    You will probably drop some balls at work – that’s ok. If you can, take some time to think about systems for yourself that help you track the things that are hard now. Maybe a new to-do system, or tagging urgent emails, or an accountability buddy, or whatever will help you with things that normally are easy for you that just aren’t right now. Making rituals around the things that are important to you will help you feel more normal and present, and give you something to go back to when you get waylaid by feelings.

    Grief is so isolating. Even when coworkers and friends asked how I was doing, it could set me off. Whatever your internal reaction is, it is OK and normal. This is going to be a confusing and hard time. I hope that you can find space to take the pressure off of yourself while all of this is going on.

  62. Chris*

    Canadian here. Deepest condolences to all Australians, and to anybody affected by these horrible fires.
    Nobody expected Americans to be perfectly happy, mentally ok, and concentrating on their careers during and in the aftermath of 9/11. Nobody expects this of you!
    Most people believe the severity of the fires have something to do with climate change. This isn’t a suggestion for *right now*, but I think if I were in your shoes it might help a tiny bit if I thought the company for which I worked, and my colleagues, took a look at the company’s carbon footprint and tried to reduce it. I might bring this up to the managers.

  63. TootsNYC*

    Also think about what would help you most at work.

    You mentioned that colleagues will ask you how your family is, and it seemed to me that you find that stressful. (I would, and boring too.)

    Decide what you’d like people to do, how you’d like them to treat you. Then find two or three allies in the office (sensible people, not necessarily those you know best) and ask them to spread the word.

    Or even send out an email (“I know that you are all asking about my family in order to show concern. However, I’m going to request that everyone stop asking; I can feel your concern and support without your having to say anything at all, so don’t worry that you’ll seem callous. But I find it very stressful (and of course I get asked it by multiple people, whereas you are only asking once). The best way you can support me is to keep business running as usual and perhaps to be patient with me and to overlook a few tears or other manifestations of emotion.”

  64. Stephany sp*

    I live in a wildfire zone and was evacuated in 2017. The evacuation order came while I was at work. I had just started the job less than a month before, it requires phone/window coverage and there was no-one to cover for me, so I sat in the office for 90 minutes watching the news and fretting. It was torture. The mad dash home was a nightmare, I had to take back roads and talk my way pass road blocks. Even though my ID showed I am a resident, the firefighters didn’t want to let me in, and who can blame them. I had to show one a picture of my dog who was at home alone. Long story short, my house was spared but I was out for 5 days and have been jumpy ever since. I wish I had been more upfront at work, I now know my boss would have supported me. Fire = trauma. Losing your home = trauma. Take care of yourself, take some time if you can, stay in close touch with your family, take care of yourself

  65. Khlovia*

    I’ve got nothing for the Aussies except “what everybody else said” But for my fellow Yanks and others, if you want to help wildlife after the fires are out, google Zoos Victoria. They’ve got plans and programs in mind; they just need juice (aka $$$$) (and don’t wait until the fires are out.)

  66. Observer*

    For both questions – therapy. You’re both dealing with a situation that is really beyond the normal stuff that most people need to deal with and just curling up in a ball for the duration is not an option. So, finding someone who can help you cope is important.

    Take some time off. Not all at once but intermittently to give a bit of space where you don’t have to be on top of your game and where you can deal with your emotions, or let go as needed.

    #1 – I would not worry too much about the impact on your career. You’re basically under water right now, and people understand that you are dealing with something totally out of your control. On the other hand, I would think that taking time off but being focused and working well when you ARE in, is better than coming in and regularly crying.

    What I think you can tell clients is wither a REALLY brief version of what you posted here eg “My mother and the rest of my family is in the path of the Australian fires. I’m reducing my hours a bit to deal with fallout of the insane levels of worry and stress. But, I’ll be giving my usual level of attention to your projects when I’m at work.” or a vaguer version of this – skip the background and just say you’re taking a bit of time to deal with a health issue.

    #2 – Taking some time to deal with your emotional health IS setting a good example for your staff.

  67. RG*

    I’m sorry OPs. I understand what you’re going through – I live in Houston and grew up in Beaumont, and so watching so many families and friends deal with Harvey and Imelda was hard.

    I promise, unless you’re working with the worst person ever or at the most toxic company ever, no one is going to think twice about you working from home or even taking a day or two off. Grief is a weird thing in and of itself, but especially in the midst of a natural disaster that still has yet to fully play out.

    At work, I think you can be a bit more direct about what you need – I don’t think it would come across as rude or ungrateful, if that’s a concern. OP #1, maybe your boss could send out a message on your behalf to clients and/or coworkers giving a very brief explanation that you’re doing what you can to support your family during this – hopefully that would cut down on questions. And OP #2, maybe you could send out a message explaining that while you are of course grateful that they are conducting a fundraiser, you’re too close to the subject given your family and will stay back from participating for your emotional health – or something like that.

    Please, do whatever y’all need to take care of yourselves and your family at this time. Keeping you in my prayers.

  68. LadyGray*

    For both: I am so sorry. This is an awful event and it is devastating and I’m sure it’s hard to be away when this is happening near those you love.
    1. Give yourself space to feel what you feel and acknowledge it. If that means taking a day or two to retreat from everything, it’s OK.
    2. Do something concrete that gives you a way to move your concern in a positive direction: Put a jar on your desk and tell your colleagues you’re going to collect donations for a charity you think will make a difference. Connect with others from your home online and create a message board of support. Make a plan that will let you be involved in the recovery in a way that makes sense for you.
    3. Ask your colleagues at work for what you need – whether that’s a fresh box of tissues, or ten minutes to talk about a project, or a break from having to talk about what’s going on.

  69. Woodsy*

    Hi: It’s truly heart-wrenching what you folks (and all the survivors here in CA, USA) have gone through. I’ve got nothing to add to the excellent advice above. I work in emergency services mapping to give the public and agency teams an accurate picture of the danger area, evacuation alerts, and links to preparedness sites. I’m hopeful they’re keeping up with the latest in public and responder information maps where you could check on more detailed fire perimeter and other public information.

    Anyway, I’ve been following day by day using NASA Worldview map and including satellite heat sensing imagery (VIRS). In emergency services, we’ve found that getting some level of information does help a little with a feeling of at least some control and knowledge. Here’s the map. You can follow it day by day and click back through time as well. The VIRS is only updated twice a day and the earth image only once. Today, for instance, most of the extent looks calmer so maybe that’s some reassurance. Hope this helps at least a little. Good luck to you, your family and friends, and your country’s citizens.

  70. Lost Oregonian*

    I am so sorry. I experienced something two years ago, that while obviously on a much smaller scale, was similar. I’m from Oregon, and spent most of my summers in the gorge. An area that burned badly two summers ago. I live and work on the east coast, and had just returned back after an extended visit home to care for my sister and her family as they welcomed a new baby. Leaving them and coming back to work is always hard, but this time it was almost unbearable as I watched my homeland burn. It was during the two busiest weeks of my year and a time when my job involves a ton of public speaking of the camp counselor variety. During that time my family, while not in immediate danger, were not allowed to go outside because of air quality issues, and it quickly became clear that this place I loved would never be the same.

    Here’s how I got through those two weeks: I gave myself permission to cry, even at work (I realize this may not work for everyone, but my workplace is very supportive), When I really needed to focus or be present at work, I stayed off social media, it was really the only way I could compartmentalize enough to do what needed to be done, I asked people to stop asking me about it — I told everyone my family was okay and that I would update if necessary but that in order to do my work, I needed to create some space. Finally, I took two days off when I could and I booked my next trip home.

    I realize that this my situation was much more finite, the fires raged for only a couple weeks, and devastation and life lost far less, but I would recommend taking time if you can, and asking for what you need if it’s not. I think sometimes it’s hard for people to understand how deeply this kind of thing can impact us when our people are not immediately in danger. But, when the land that you love is burning, it’s hard to express how deeply that wound is, it’s almost primal. And being far from home somehow makes it harder I think. I’m so sorry this is happening; I hope that you are able to grieve however you must.

    1. Thaleia*

      Alison gives a lot of great advice about having trusted colleagues disseminate information when you’re grieving in other situations that you could easily repurpose for this. Find your local Californian, Athenian, or other person whose home region has experienced devastating natural disasters and deputize them to gently steer people away from talking to you about the fires. Maybe they can help your office take up a collection for the fires, so your colleagues can feel like they’re helping without them having to help at you.

      And of course: be kind to yourselves, even if it means not being the perfect employee.

  71. Good Grieving*

    Just reading your two posts made me emotional. I think the planet is grieving for Australia. The suggestions about asking for whatever balance of sympathy and support is right for you have been stellar. I feel like there’s so much I still just don’t understand about grief in general, and my ability and permission to experience it in particular.

  72. Sonia*

    Living through this the hardest thing is that this has been going on since September. For 6 weeks I never knew if I would make it home or if the roads would be closed. Heading interstate I had to make a 400km detour one way and a 600km the other to avoid road closures. During the time away I was constantly asked how my house was (I only finished building a week before xmas). It was only after I decided to view this as “house is insured and if it burbs there is nothing I can do about it here” that my stress disappated. As long as your family have a plan there is nothing you can do to help them. In fact the constant asking “Are you ok” might be adding to their stress levels.

    With regards to the wildlife…be assured that locals are already in there making food drops creating water delivery systems. Whilst the fundraising has been going well they are now in a situation where they are having trouble distributing the $$$ to where it is needed.

    A major storm cell hit this week on the east coast so those fires may be reducing in risk…not sure about the ones in SA or WA.

  73. blink14*

    Echoing all the comments to take some time off if you can – even if its just a day – to grieve and sort through your emotions. Maybe set a time, or times, each day to check in with your family and friends, and ask them to keep to those times unless an evacuation order has been given or something else suddenly occurs. This might help keep the panic feelings in check, knowing that you will receive a message at a given time. You could do something similar at work – let your colleagues know that you are in touch with family and friends, all is fine, and if something arises, you’ll let them know. Taking charge of that conversation at work will probably help a lot mentally.

    Long term, things might be tough. I was away from my family on 9/11, and not being able to get through on the phone was so terrifying. I was always kind of paranoid, but after that I instituted a policy with my family (we’re spread out and travel a lot) that I need to be contacted when someone travels to let me know they made it to and from their destination safely. I still do that almost 20 years later, and it puts me in control of the unknown. For most people from NY state, especially the metro area, there is an intense relationship with 9/11, even if you were not in the city on that day. Talking about it over the years with people from different parts of the country, they of course were impacted as well, but being from a place where something so catastrophic happens, it binds you to that event in a deeper way.

    On the flip side, I live very close to an area that had a major terrorist attack several years ago, and my family lives further away. They drove me absolutely nuts calling at all times of the day, and I had to kind of use my own policy to calm it down – I checked in at regular intervals and never shut my cell off in the aftermath.

  74. Nee Attitude*

    For both of you, please take time off. You will regret it if you try to gloss over this time in your life in favor of advancing at work. Work will always come; you need to grieve. I say this as a southern Californian who has been experiencing fires very close to where I live on multiple occasions. Of course, life goes on, but you have to put yourself first and your family first. You don’t know how many other people at your job are also trying to hold it together and might be looking to how their coworkers and managers behave to give them confidence to also take time for themselves.

  75. bluemonday*

    Thank you for posting this, struggling with the same thing – 6 years as an expat in Europe. I had to shut a few people down making tactless comments (questioning the loss of animals in detail etc), and I actually ended up in bed for a week with a really bad stomach bug. Reading through all the responses carefully

  76. Lana Kane*

    I am unfortunately familiar with this situation. I am from Puerto Rico and watched from afar as Hurricane Maria decimated the island, and am now feeling equally impotent as earthquakes continue to hit the island. Much of my family is there and I worry constantly.

    Some thoughts for you from my experience:
    My boss sent me home and told me that I could take some sick leave if required, or simply work from home if I wasn’t up to coming in. But it’s a very important time of year in my field, and not being in the office could impact the projects I’m assigned to, and consequently my visibility to senior leadership, for the rest of the year. I want to be promoted in the next six months, and I’m worried that taking some “time to myself” right now might be a drag on my career in the long term. – This is going to be a very personal decision for you, but I’d like to say that it’s ok to choose to keep working. If you feel that taking time off will have an impact that you are uncomfortable with, make sure you are surrounding yourself with support. Family and friends can lend an ear and a shoulder to cry on, and hopefully you can establish with a therapist so that you can unburden yourself from these heavy feelings with someone who can show you coping mechanisms. Also, if you are able, involving yourself in relief efforts may help these feelings of impotence that so often arise in those of us who are watching our countries go through hard times from far away.

    Should I tell them that I have limited capacity at the moment because I am struggling to process what is happening to my family and my homeland? I don’t want to appear that my work on their projects will be subpar because I can’t concentrate. But at the same time I don’t want to leave them in the lurch without a good reason. – Here’s where you really need to be honest with yourself as to whether you can indeed afford to not take some time off. Can you work to develop coping mechanisms? Will your clients be able to tolerate a slower pace of work from you? Do you think you can avoid mistakes? If not, it may be best to postpone any promotion plans for now if you feel that working through this might impact your reputation. But people may be more understanding than you think.

    I am normally the calm, cheerful can-do/ you-got-this manager to all levels around me. How would you recommend navigating this very public change in personality while I grieve my homeland? – I am also a manager and my answer is, you tell them. You don’t need to go deep into the matter, but it’s completely ok to let your team know this is a difficult time for you. Also, if participating in a fundraiser is too much for you, also be plain about that. This isn’t the time to dance around other people’s feelings. My best approach is to understand that people are being well-intentioned, and acknowledging that, but still being clear about your boundaries. Someone may raise an eyebrow but who cares, they probably haven’t lived through something like this anyway.

    Much solidarity to you both. I understand this pain all too well and am also deeply saddened by what is happening in Australia.

    1. Minnesotuh*

      Lana, thank you for sharing. I searched this thread to see if Puerto Rico would come up. (I’m not Puerto Rican but my partner is. Same deal, all his family is there and it is – at best – very stressful for him.) I wish the media had done their job and not ignored Puerto Rico but there is only so much we can control. Honestly more people are personally impacted with Puerto Rico than with Australia in the US I think. Best wishes to you and your family!

  77. RedinSC*

    My colleague went through this exact same thing during the CA wild fires. Her family was evacuated, she was here, in our city safe, she was a mess.

    I think if you can, take a bit of time. But if this continues (these fires are raging for months!) maybe just let a few people know to not ask. Have them spread the word that it’s easier if people just don’t check in.

    My colleague was able to drive up and see her family and see the damage the fire did (only a few hours away) but maybe you can plan a trip out to see your family and just be there in person to hug on them for a bit?

    I’m sorry, I heard a bit of good news today that it is dumping rain over the fire region. I hope that helps some and doesn’t cause other problems.

    1. Mary Whitney*

      This is a good idea. Get a few colleagues to run interference if it’s easier to not talk about it. I lost my home in one of those CA fires and definitely went through a few months where the only people I wanted to talk fire with were other fire survivors.

  78. Jessie Hunt*

    Hey there! I’m from Australia (the far south coast of New South Wales, one of the worst affected areas). I think it might be even harder to be a long way away from home when you know something terrible and dangerous is going on there. It’s harder to get information and you worry about loved ones without being able to do something concrete.

    Keep in mind that some of these fires are predicted to keep burning potentially until mid-March, and they started in early November. Mental health days are great, but in a long-term crisis like this, be prepared for a day or even a week to not feel sufficient. Also, figure out ways to avoid the constant bad news cycle if you do take time away from work. An EAP or therapy is also really useful. This fire is completely unprecedented for us, so it’s no wonder we’re all finding it so difficult to focus. We need regular, ongoing support and plans on how to manage the totally natural and normal surges of anxiety we are going to feel. I really believe participating in protests and actions with other people, and sharing our grief and our anger, are the equivalent of 100 therapy sessions! Being alongside other people in this struggle reminds us we are not alone and we can shape the way we get through this.

    Lots of folks in Australia have been reporting difficulty focusing at work given all the devastation going on, and the 24 hour news cycle means there are constant updates (also given the highly hazardous air quality from all the smoke). Keep in mind that some of the media coverage is a bit suspect– clickbait-y, panic-inducing, exaggerated or whatever. I would really recommend that Australian expats use the Fires Near Me app made by our Rural Fire Service. You can set ‘watch zones’ and be updated about fires approaching those zones, like family homes or hometowns. This cuts down on a lot of news searching and scanning, because you’ll know you’ll get an alert from a reliable source as soon as you have anything to worry about.

    For OP#2– though there have been really dire predictions of some areas where the fire has been most intense not regenerating, NSW has been hit by a huge amount of rain over the past few days and it is truly amazing to see the incredible regeneration of Australian plants and wildlife (there’s a great book called Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe about the relationship between fire and our ecosystem). Some parts of our ecosystem may not regenerate, but we are seeing beautiful and positive indications so far.

  79. Skeeder Jones*

    I find that the more I run from my emotions, the more they come for me. When I am going through something that evokes strong emotions, I have found my best course of action is take a few moments out to really feel them. In an office setting, this may mean going to my car for a spell. Fortunately for me, I work from home so I can take those moments in privacy. I also have found it is helpful to verbally acknowledge them to myself with something like “I am feeling X because Y. This is part of being human. It’s okay to feel this way. I won’t feel this way forever.” (or I am not sure what I’m feeling/why I’m feeling this but I think this is what I’m feeling/why I’m feeling this” if that is the case). For whatever reason, this really gives me power in that moment when my emotions are just trying to take over. If I’m with other people, I can just jot a note to myself that says that, or write some quick thoughts on paper. But acknowledging them in that moment usually allows me to move past them.


    I am so sorry you are both going through this and so far from family, too, which is always extra hard. I’m sending you my best vibes and cat purrs. :)

    Please don’t make the same mistake I did after 9/11. I am a native NYCer who lost family and friends in the WTC that day, as well as working in an office literally across the street from the Pentagon. I pushed through, being numb, and ended up having a literal nervous breakdown a few months later. Let it out – take time off, go to therapy, take meds if you need them. Unplug from the media coverage. (I still do this every September.) Our tragedies are now televised and “internetted” and the constant barrage can get even more overwhelming.

    My workplace and colleagues were immensely supportive – I lost nothing by needing time to heal and they would have been the same had I taken care of myself immediately. You’ll be a better employee and better at any future roles by taking care of yourself first.

    Virtual, non-creepy hugs and kitty head boops!

  81. Kendra*

    I live in northern Arizona, and we’ve had some massive wildfires over the past 20 years (the Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2002 burned 468,638 acres, people I know lost their homes, and my entire hometown was evacuated; the next closest to us was the Wallow fire in 2011, which burned 538,049 acres. The high school next to the public library where I work was the main evacuation shelter for that one, so we were one of the communication points for the evacuees), so I have some inkling of what you’re both going through. It can be gut-wrenching to watch on the news, and there’s a sense of helplessness and dread that hovers over everything. A fire that large is, quite literally, all-consuming.

    Some good news: nature does, eventually, recover. It may take decades – even centuries, in some cases – but plants and wildlife are extremely tenacious, and will find a way to bounce back. Our pine forests were devastated, blackened, and the hillsides were bare of even weeds for a long, long time after Rodeo-Chediski, but now, 18 years later, you can mostly only spot the fire damage if you know where to look. In another few decades, it’ll be completely invisible. I can’t imagine that Australian plants and wildlife are any less tough!

    The affected humans, too, will eventually get their lives back in order; not without loss, but in the long term, homes can be rebuilt, and it’s only lost lives that can’t be replaced. Help your neighbors, and let them help you; if you know any other Australian expats in your area, check on them, see how they’re doing, and tell them how you’re feeling. I was away at university during Rodeo-Chediski, and it was immensely comforting to talk to other students whose families were also evacuating.

    For your family and friends in the affected area, find out what they’re planning to do in the event of an evacuation. If you can, set up a family communication hub, with one or two relatives near the affected area (but not in immediate danger of being evacuated) for everyone to contact. People who are evacuated can let them know, and tell them once they’re in a safe location; other family members outside the area can then call or email them for updates. You want as little traffic on the phone lines as possible in the evacuation zone, because a) emergency services need to use them more, and b) it’s highly likely that at least some phone lines and cell phone towers will go down.

    Above all, find out what official sources of information you have access to, and listen to them; try not to worry too much about rumors (I know it’s hard!). It will feel like the official news is lagging far behind events, and like there’s never enough of it, but it’s still more reliable than the rumor mill.

    Don’t worry too much about work right now; if you’re having trouble, tell your boss, and let them help you. Absolutely nobody will hold that against you; they’ll just remember that even when your home town was on fire, you were still showing up and doing what you could.

    1. Ines Jah*

      HI Kendra,
      I apologise in advance if I cause offence but as an Australian living in smoke-choked Melbourne, this kind of statement about ‘good news, nature recovering and everything will be fine!’ is well meaning but infuriating and quite frankly, a bit patronising, because you are completely missing one of the key points of concern to Australians – our wildlife is actually NOT tough, our ecosystem is actually incredibly fragile. It’s why we have such stringent quarantine laws, and why introduced species like rabbits, goats and cane toads have caused such devastation in the past. These fires are not normal (although it seems as though maybe they will become the new normal, as the OP1 pointed out above). While many people speak about how the environment will recover after fires, they are really only talking about the larger trees that typically regenerate after fires, and only vegetation in certain parts of the country. In many parts of the 5 million + acres that have burnt so far, the smaller bushes and ground cover is gone for good. This is the environment for so many of our beautiful and unique wildlife which unfortunately now do not have a habitat. This ranges from the insects and reptiles, to the birds that feed off them, to the larger mammals. There are rainforests in Queensland near my mother that haven’t burnt for over a millennia, which are now blackened. They won’t recover. Ecologists and park rangers are saying that feral species like cats and foxes are going to move in because the terrain has been altered so much. These fires are far, far bigger and more intense than our wildlife and flora can recover from. It is not simply that we have lost so many lives and so many people have been left with nothing – we Aussies are seeing our beautiful and unique wildlife being destroyed. Many, many species are now extinct. Even our beloved koala population has been decimated and in many parts of the country, is functionally extinct. Nothing will be returning to how it was before. Nature will NOT be returning to how it was before. THAT is why Australians are feeling so helpless and angry.
      Sorry to dump on you but it is very real for all Australians both at home and abroad at the moment. I understand what you are saying about your experiences with your bushfire experience, and know you are trying to be empathetic, so I feel bad for being critical. But Australians know very well how to deal with bushfires, they are a regular feature of our summer since European settlement began. We know how to keep in touch with people and listen to emergency broadcasts and so on and so on, that’s not what the OPs were asking about. It’s the fires on this scale that are new for us and that’s what we are all struggling to cope with.

    2. Tamz*

      I believe you mean well but comments like these are exactly the problem that OPs 1 and 2 are talking about.

      To give you a sense of size:
      • These fires have now burned 46 MILLION acres. That is 100 times bigger than Rodeo-Chediski fire
      • The fires started in September… it has been nearly 5 months of constant threat

      Australians are familiar with bushfires, similar to those in Arizona and California, and yes, normally things heal with time. But these fires are different – things will never be normal again. The smoke inhalation will cause more deaths in the years to come. Many species of flora and fauna are now extinct – nature cannot heal as it has in the past. Many people will never return to their home towns due to the cost of rebuilding and the threat of future fire.

      This is what people abroad are failing to understand, and this is why it’s so distressing for many of us who are away from home right now.

      1. Ines Jah*

        Exactly, Tamz, thank you. I hope your family and friends have come through it all alright. All the very best.

  82. All Outrage, All The Time*

    From a fellow Aussie, your emotional and mental well being are more important than what clients might think, or even a promotion. If you were suddenly ill and off work, things would still be managed. If you need to take time out, things will still be managed.

    Also, there’s nothing wrong with being emotional at work when you are faced with disaster and danger, even from a distance. It mightn’t be usual, but it’s not wrong.

    I suggest that therapy is what is needed as a good therapist will give you strategies for dealing with overwhelming emotions and grief, and how to interact with people in the workplace while you go through it.

  83. Mary Whitney*

    I’m going to repeat what a lot of people have said – take time off, work on self care, and get with a therapist early if you can. I lost my home/town in one of the CA fires last year and I’m still not really okay- emotionally/financially – a lot of people aren’t. A big reason for that was my own attitude right after it happened… I bottled it all up and was the “rock” for my SO and inlaws. It took me over 9 months to really grieve. Don’t do that to yourselves!

    I also liked the suggestion of having a few colleagues run interference to keep the questions at bay. And to take mental health days as needed. Natural disasters of this scale are really above and beyond what you can normally be expected to weather at work.

    If you can, try to support your families and see how you can help with the recovery process (god forbid if they do lose anything). Dealing with FEMA, getting documents replaced, insurance, lawyers, etc has all been a nightmare. That’s where we needed support the most.

  84. Waving not Drowning (no longer Drowning not Waving)*

    Fellow Australian here. Our state is not being hit as badly by bushfires as Victoria/New South Wales, but we are all hyper aware we’re about to hit prime bushfire season here.

    Last year our state, and specifically my home town were seriously impacted by bushfire – the worst I’ve ever seen. We spent days trying to convince my parents to leave (bush town, one way in/out, limited water supply), I thought once they left I would feel less stressed, however, when they were under an evacuation order, my stress levels escalated, as I realised that even though I knew it was a big deal, it finally hit me it WAS a big deal. I think it was when my dad was telling me in a matter of fact way what that he’d gone around taking photos of everything, and what he’d done to prepare the lifestock, it really hit home at that moment that our childhood home (and my mothers childhood home – she’d never lived anywhere else) was really in danger. I had heart pounding anxiety, and I felt so guilty being so stressed, as there were people doing it so much worse than we were. There was grief that our community was suffering, and guilt because I knew that I was safe in my area. I would wake through the night multiple times, and check the websites to see if the situation had changed. I didn’t take any time off work because I felt guilty to do so, because it wasn’t me that was facing the emergency, but my parents – in hindsight, I should have.

    Things calmed down after a few weeks, the house/town was alright they lost houses in the outskirts, and a significant amount of bushland, but, I ended up having a breakdown 6 months later – not directly because of it, as I had some pretty significant other stresses in my life, but, it certainly didn’t help. I ended up seeing a psychologist (and, I was sceptical, but it really helped!) and it was one of the things that I spoke about.

    My advice – take advantage of workplace EAP programs, it can help talking to someone (I didn’t think it would, but, it did!). Work from home, or, take some mental health days off, or half days if you can’t do the full day.

    I’ve also limited myself as to what I watch/read about it – not because I don’t care, but, because I know I will be spiralling back down the rabbit hole again.

    I know its a cliche, but, look for the helpers. The ones making pouches for injured animals. Making cooling neckerchiefs for the firefighters etc. Celebrate the resilience and spirit of your community, and know that while we are all hurting now, we will get through.

  85. Mary Whitney*

    I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I have a lot of empathy, and I think you’ll find that A LOT of people in the US will! Especially if you’re anywhere near CA, ha. My family got evacuated two years ago after a fire threatened their city (they turned out okay), then a year later I lost my home in the 2018 Camp Fire.

    My advice is to reach out to a therapist NOW and take the time you need to practice self care. I didn’t do that – I tried to be the rock for my SO and my inlaws and it came back to bite when I had a nervous breakdown 9 months after the fire (and after all the fire sympathy from my employer ran out, ha). Don’t be me! Take care of yourselves so you can take care of your family better.

    If you’re able, and if they do actually lose their homes (fingers crossed they won’t, OP1, I saw you said your family is safe!!), see if there’s any way you can help with the recovery stuff. Insurance, essential paperwork, disaster recovery, lawsuits, housing, etc have all been massively stressful and hard to deal with.

  86. also grieving*

    If ever there was a time for public mourning, this is it. What’s happening–still happening, fire season is not over–is bigger than ecocide. One Australian scholar has coined the term omnicide. The world is not the same and will never be the same. If you can bring yourself to do so: Go to work, cry at work, rage at work, tell everyone you know–at work and elsewhere–what has been lost and how you feel about that. If doing so in any way helps to break the business-as-usual hypnosis that is allowing us to sleepwalk to collective suicide, then that may end up being more important than anything you ever do in your career.

  87. Aussie*

    I’m an Australian currently living in Australia, and it’s an interesting time to be sure. Luckly for me there have been no fires threaten our home, but we have had hazordous levels of smoke for over a month now. I think some of the other readers are right, it is almost harder to be far away because you’re not as connected to what is happening and that can make your imagination run away from you. I find that I’s reading the news a lot and it comes with a lot of heartwarming stories that accompany the bad ones, so that is uplifting. I’ve had to work from home as well, due to the smoke, and that helped a lot. I think you have either have to avoid all talk about it, or take the good with the bad.

    1. Aussie2*

      It’s been a really interesting time, also Australian working in Australia. It seems to me that everyone is taking on a huge emotional toll. My work seems utterly meaningless and pointless, productivity has slowed to an almost halt and generally everyone in my workplace is struggling on some level.

      Luckily we have great supportive upper management, who are encouraging people to use the EAP, work from home if they can and take mental health days.

      It wasn’t until I started discussing how I was feeling with other employees that I realised we were all feeling the same way. Helpless, stressed, and mourning a country and ecosystem that’s now gone.

  88. Snuck*

    I’m here, in Oz.

    The others are right, take the time to grieve that you need. We all are.

    When I moved interstate (West/East coast separation) it was very hard when Big Things happened, because the tyranny of distance meant I couldn’t just pop home for a visit. Take care of yourself and take time to read quality news on it – much of the media went into a hyperbolic meltdown, read ABC news (Australian!) or similar, not the or other more dramatising sites. Link into your parent’s FB communities and hear what is actually happening, but mute or unfollow them, so you choose when you can go in, and allow your home sickness a place in your heart.

    We are ok. This is huge, but the bush will regrow. The towns will be rebuilt (Yarloop WA is/has been, it will happen in NSW and VIC too), and the good old Aussie “get at it” and “we’ll be right mate” will survive. Some things might be gone, particularly if you grew up in a few specific areas and reminisce about a specific playground, or your childhood house is directly affected, but we are banding together, and we will be ok, and there’s is massive support to rebuild, regroup, and look after each other. We have survived this before, and will again. Maybe not quite on this scale, but… similar. Take heart in that. Take heart in the fact that the rains have started and while the fires will continue to burn it is mostly in Federal reserves now. Take heart that your parents and friends and family are well protected. And book your next trip home – it might not be for six months, but give yourself a lifeline to hold on to.

    And cry. Take a day off, head down to whatever Aussie watering hole you can, and have a few decent real beers with a few other random Aussies, and cry together.

    My heart goes out to you. I am safe, I am on the West Coast now, but my decade over east burns brightly in my heart, and my 20 something family I built over there, and ‘real family’ too are daily in my mind. It was probably a bit crass to send a bag of marshmellows to my brother 20yrs ago when Canberra burned… but that’s how family do things right? And now that part of Canberra has the most beautiful wild flowers growing in it. The bush was replanted, and it’s coming back. We rebuild. We regroup. We look after each other, even when we’re over seas. Go find some Aussies hon.

  89. LV426*

    Take the time that you need. We didn’t have the severity of your wildfires out here in the Pacific Northwest of the US but we had several devastating fires and the loss of homes and habitats of our wildlife was just heartbreaking and the loss of homes and domestic animals was just as bad. I can only say if your employer is giving you the time then take it.

    And just know that while we aren’t Australian, me and my family also grieve for the losses in your country and continent for the people and animals. It’s not the end even though you can’t see anything but smoke but life will always find a way. Peace to you and your family.

  90. Jonquil*

    As an Australian living somewhere not likely to be directly in danger, but affected by smoke/air quality issues and definitely prepared for an evacuation or loss of power, I have found that I needed to disengage a bit from social media and news, apart from the blander, more factual-based sources of information that help me keep my own home and family safe. I can only imagine how difficult it must be watching from afar, but try to stick to factual information about the places you are directly worried about and (if it’s in your budget) make donations to the areas where you would like your money to have an impact and try not to get into a rabbit hole of reading every heartwarming/heartbreaking story you see.

    I’ve been receiving a steady stream of texts from family members overseas checking in, which I really appreciate, although it’s also important to remember that between alerts, life goes on, and a bit of distraction in the down time doesn’t hurt (my friend and I were so excited when the Harry and Meghan story broke, because it gave us something non-serious to gossip about instead of worrying about how to protect our kids from smoky air and the tedium of keeping them entertained indoors for weeks on end).

  91. Beth*

    As an Aussie who has lived overseas and is now back home, this kind of stuff hit me so much more when I was overseas. In Australia everyone is kind of going through it together, so there’s allowances for you to feel certain ways. But overseas it feels like you’re in a glass case, and everyone is paying attention to YOU as the Australian who must be feeling a certain way. People can be kind, but it’s very different from understanding what it’s like to feel like your whole country is on fire.
    I don’t have a tonne of advice, unfortunately except to say – it’s hard. It’s ok that it’s hard. And it’s ok to prioritise your own mental well-being and that of your family. If there is ever a time to take a break or even fly home, this is it.
    But also – maybe seek out other Australians in your current country? Is the Embassy organising any events or fundraisers? I think connection with the Australian community may help you feel better/more supported.

  92. Elm*

    The first writer’s boss sounds understanding and I doubt this is promotion-ending!

    During my own worst times, when I just want people to stop asking or giving me concerned glances, one thing I’ve found that helps is “I need some part of my life to be normal. Can we go about our business as usual, basically act like this isn’t happening? I’ll tell you if anything changes or if I need anything.” Most people really do just want to be told how to act in tragic situations, but feel weird asking for that instruction.

  93. blackcat*

    Another native Californian chiming in here.
    The Rim Fire six years ago devastated one of the places near and dear to my childhood.
    Then the Thomas fire took my best friend’s house.
    Then the Atlas fire took my parents’ house (not my childhood home, but still).
    Then the Camp Fire took the lives of a dear friends’ parents.
    Then my parents evacuated again, from their new home, this past fall.

    I have some perhaps unhelpful advice: at some point, you grow numb to it. I found it helpful to use to work to ignore it as much as possible. I stopped talking to people not from California about it. I insisted everything was fine to other people. It’s just… to hard to explain.

    And, I think, one of the things that’s hardest is people saying things will regrow, things will be rebuilt, etc.
    The thing that breaks my heart is that this is what climate change has done to my home state. Yes, there have always been fires. Yes, forests normally regrow, even if it takes hundreds of years. But the frequency, intensity, and size of the fires is something new. Things were not this way when I was a child (and I am not that old). Struggling with the reality of wildfire in California, for me, is about struggling with the fragility of the planet. I’m sad to lose places, yes, and people, certainly. But what I mourn most is of a way of life. I mourn that I could not go back and raise a child the way I was raised, not without new fear and new worry. I get the sense that what is happening in Australia is similar. It’s not *just* about the fire. It’s about a dying ecosystem. It’s about a past that’s never coming back. The grief is real and profound.

    It’s okay to mourn. It’s okay to not want to talk about it. It’s okay to get angry when people say “it’ll grow back.”

    1. Scary20s*

      Blackcat, Australians already are used to fires and were, to varying extents, ‘numb to it’. But this is different and unprecedented in a country that is at least as used to wildfires (bushfires for us) as California and it has woken us from that numbness.

      We’ve lost over a billion animals. Some species will be driven to extinction. Precious habitat and very special areas of national park and world heritage areas are lost. Over 15.6 million acres has been burnt so far and the season is far from over. Major cities have been experiencing literally the worst air quality in the world and are choked in smoke.

      1. Scary20s*

        For an example of how bad fires in Australia can be look at the 2009 Black Saturday fires. 173 people were killed in that one. Many people have been impacted by the fires that happen in Australia every summer without fail. Although there was of course serious national grief after events like Black Saturday, the atmosphere is different this time around. The fires are so expansive and the cities so impacted by smoke that no one can ignore it. There’s a sort of panicky grief that I’ve never experienced before in this country.

      2. Snuck*

        I’m inclined to agree.

        We are well seasoned to bush fire in Australia, and we’ve had a long list of fires that have wiped towns off the map, or threatened to. We are used to fire fronts that span kilometres, and exploding eucalypts that toss fire balls three and four hundred metres (what’s that? 1,000 feet?) ahead…

        The Californian and other US fire fighters who have come to join us have readily admitted they have never ever seen anything like our fires, and they are here to learn… learn how to manage BIG fronts, which create their own weather patterns (yes, these fire fronts are creating thunderstorms etc within them), and learning how to manage in such complex and isolated terrain.

        All of that said… to the OPs… have heart. We will prevail. We have before, we will again. We are gutted with you about all we are losing, but we are strong, and we always will be. Find some Aussies… they will get it. Say to the others “Look, please can we not talk about it for a week or two, I’ll chat to you when I am ready, but right now, I just need to focus on work” and be done with it.


  94. ClimateScientist*

    I’m so sorry that you both are dealing with this, and to be away from home makes the grief worse and very very different!

    I recommend taking mental health days as needed, reaching out to a therapist and surrounding yourself with fellow Aussies. When people are being insensitive its okay to shut them down. You don’t owe them anything.

    Another thing that we need to remember is that natural disasters will only increase in size and frequency with global warming – use your platform as you are able to spread awareness and ask not only that people donate to help Australia but also participate in democracy to prevent future events (VOTE, climate protests, write to your representatives). Its great that this event has opened Australia’s politicians to doing more to meet the Paris climate agreements, but this is a global problem and all countries need to be doing as much as they can. These fires won’t only affect Australia now, they will result in long-term damage; the biodiversity loss will have effects on resilience of ecosystems to future fires, loss of agriculture, decimation of coastal waters, and huge human health impacts from the airborne particles. We cannot continue our business as usual. We must change NOW.

    1. Snuck*

      Voting is compulsory in Australia ;) It’s part of why our democracy is so strong. Everyone votes, or does a “donkey vote” (non-vote, but shows up and gets the paper, and scribbles rubbish all over it), but every HAS to have a say.

      1. ClimateScientist*

        Well if one is “donkey voting” then they aren’t really exercising their democracy, are they? :-)

        1. mazarin*

          Strangely enough, they ARE exercising their democracy- All votes here are paper votes, no ‘voting machines’ , you can WRITE on them. And all votes are counted by hand AND any candidate is allowed to have up to two scrutineers in the count room. And those scrutineers report to their candidate. I have been a scrutineer in many major elections. you can be sure that if we have a whole lot of donkey votes, or a whole lot of scribbles saying ” free beer for everyone’ – the candidates find out, and it contributes to policy changes

          1. ClimateScientist*

            Perhaps everyone can write in to fix the climate emergency and stop fossil fuel subsidies on the next election then, though I have doubts of how much write-in requests count – I still don’t see any free beer.

            But thanks for missing my point!

  95. MmeDefarge*

    coming a bit late to say – everyone: bookmark this thread.

    I am from California, living in the UK, under Saddleworth Moor, which burned 2018. I always thought living in the Pennines, I didn’t need to think about flooding. What I didn’t realise is that you can be uphill but when a month’s worth of rain falls in 36 hours, it will find you.

    The destabalisation of the climate is affecting everyone, we will all be impacted and experience events where we are or where we are from, maybe both at the same time.

    Solidarity with you both OP1 and OP2.

  96. Trixie, the Great and Pedantic*

    It sounds like you both have to have both a plan for grappling with your immediate/built-up stress/emotion/panic and a plan for the situation going forward. I have no truly comparable experience to offer either of you, only the purest of sympathy.

  97. Cherry*

    Late to the party but wanted to add that this is really hard stuff! I think its made harder by the distance – you’re both in and out of the experience. Please limit your media coverage, when the Christchurch shooting happened I wouldn’t look at social media or the news till after work – if something tipped me over it was okay because I was at home. I was also ‘stronger’ during the work day

  98. SRMJ*

    I think all of humanity recognizes the gravity of these fires, and therefore everyone will inherently understand any public breakdowns or crying. It’s the acute form of what any reasonable, feeling human being already feels. If you do cry in front of people, see if you can let yourself feel the empathy and comfort I imagine they would love to give. We’re social creatures, we want to and benefit from being there for each other. All right I’m gonna go cry now.

  99. ZucchiniBikini*

    Australian here, in the suburbs of Melbourne (ie not directly fire-hit but badly smoke-affected). It is difficult to explain to non-Australians exactly what we’re going through – the magnitude of the community anxiety, grief and trauma.

    The current estimate is that 500 million Australian native animals have been killed in these devastating fires, as well as 30 people. 18 million hectares of our country have burned. Yes, we’re a fire-prone continent, and I’ve personally lived through two large fire events (1983’s Ash Wednesday fires and 2009’s Black Saturday fires), but this? This is like nothing we have ever seen before, and the worst part is, we’re being told that “this is the new normal” – that such catastrophes are going to happen again and again, with increasing frequency. Effectively, it’s welcome to the apocalypse, ground zero – you.

    Everyone I know is suffering physical and psychological effects. I’m asthmatic, and on our Hazardous air days (of which we’ve had 10 since Christmas, which still makes us luckier than Sydney and Canberra which had *a month each* of unrelieved Hazardous-level smoke), I and my asthmatic daughter can’t leave the house at all. I’ve never been so thankful to be a primarily home-based freelancer. We’ve just returned home today after a few days’ respite away in an unaffected beach area, and this is the first day in 2020 where the air in my home feels and smells “normal”.

    For the two LWs, just know that as an Aussie still at home, we are all feeling this and we’re all together in this terrible, terrible thing. I ache for how hard it must be for you being so far away as this all unfolds, and I urge you to try to be kind to yourselves and find away that feels right to you to help when the time is right. It’s all any of us who can’t fight fires can do right now.

  100. LW #2*

    LW #2 here, chiming in after reading all your thoughtful responses. Thank you, all. Some commenters mentioned the emotional labour involved in fielding and responding to all these well meaning queries, and I had not thought of it that way. That has helped frame my responses nicely. I appreciate it. Our fundraiser is on Monday (a bakeoff), I didn’t sob relentlessly when it was announced, and my Big Boss (whom I don’t often work directly with, but she and I sit close to each other) addressed it perfectly by asking only if I knew of food limitations to factor in. This was perfect: something tangible, useful, and easy to answer.

    Now I just need to work out when I have the energy to respond to a former colleague whom I haven’t seen in 10+ years who just reached out via Facebook. Man, people are KIND. I just … I don’t have the energy for that.

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