Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Grieving at work: A dear friend passed away somewhat unexpectedly a couple of days ago (she had been diagnosed with cancer in January, and although the prognosis wasn’t good, until a few days ago, everyone was still thinking in terms of years, not hours). I am sad, and my heart is breaking for her husband and daughters (both under 12).
My issue is how to manage my sadness at the office. There is no compassionate leave applicable to a friend’s death, so I can’t take time off (I am a lawyer and don’t have vacation time per se; if there is client work to do, I need to do it). On the one hand, I feel like I should be grateful that I am here to do my work; after all, it is better to be alive to field annoying requests from co-workers and clients than to be dead, or even to be sick and incapacitated with pain. On the other hand, I just want to scream that this work is NOT important, it is NOT life or death, so please just leave me alone. Clients are not necessarily people I share personal details with, so telling them “I can’t revise your contract today; I’m upset about a friend’s death and just need to cry for a couple of days” isn’t exactly proper work etiquette. I know how to manage my grief over time; I just need to figure out how to get through the next few days without bursting into tears on a conference call or exploding the next time a client sends me an email marked URGENT with the note “I need this back today!”
A: I’m so sorry about your friend’s death. (I’m also sorry your workplace doesn’t offer vacation time!) If there’s any chance you have some unused sick days, I’d recommend taking one or two just to give yourself a little breathing room after such a sudden bereavement. I think you’re right not to want to share this information with clients, who, unlike co-workers, don’t have an ongoing, in-person working relationship with you and might react awkwardly to the news.
If there’s absolutely no way you can spend a day or two out of the office, try setting aside a few times during the day to explode in the bathroom, the privacy of your office (if you have one), or an unused conference room before you have to respond to “urgent” emails. If you have to mute your end of the conversation on a conference call so you can cry before unmuting and answering a question, you should do that too. But if some of your stress is coming from requests from co-workers, I think it’s worth telling them, “Can this wait? I just found out that a close friend of mine died unexpectedly, and I’m trying to just keep my head down and get through the next few days. If there’s any way you could ask someone else for help on this until [a few days from now], it would mean a lot to me.”
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Q. My daughter’s secret relationship: My daughter “Michelle” is 20 years old and very naive. For the past two years, she’s been romantically seeing a 24-year-old man I’ll call JM. JM has a girlfriend in a foreign country (where they met when both were young) whom he hasn’t seen for the past four years. JM says he is committed to his long-distance girlfriend and has been with her for the past eight years. He says they plan to marry one day, and his entire family supports this.
Now my daughter is in a secret relationship with JM. He keeps her on the side and doesn’t let anyone know about her. He told her that she must keep their relationship a complete secret. His whole family thinks he’s committed to his long-distance girlfriend. JM even told Michelle he might choose to be with her someday, which is pathetic, but it kept her hoping, and she loves him. Of course it makes me furious to see her wasting her life on this guy. She has low self-esteem and has said in the past she would leave him and then she didn’t. My patience with this situation is nearing an end, and I’m considering taking action if she cannot end things herself. Specifically, I want to contact JM and tell him to end things with Michelle or I will threaten to tell his family the truth. Is this too overbearing? Should I just let my daughter continue to make her own mistakes and degrade herself with this secret relationship? She said they both know it’s wrong but continue nonetheless.
A: Oh, it definitely won’t make this situation any better if you contact your daughter’s boyfriend and threaten to blow his secret up with his family. It won’t improve her self-esteem, she won’t learn anything about self-advocacy or healthy relationships, it won’t strengthen your relationship with her, and I’m not even sure it’ll alter the dynamics of this love triangle. JM seems like the kind of guy who’s Teflon when it comes to criticism, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is able to get in front of this story with his family and circumvent you.
Your daughter is 20 years old, and she’s in a lousy relationship with a jerk. She’s not “wasting her life”; she’s doing what a lot of 20-year-olds do. Obviously I’m sympathetic to your frustration—I’d be upset if someone I cared about, especially someone I’d raised, was involved with such a thoughtless person—but you can’t force your daughter to have higher self-esteem. In fact, acting for her in this way would only reinforce her belief that she has no control over her own life. Find ways to become less involved in her relationship with this guy, not more. Make it clear that you love her no matter what, but you hope she can find someone who will treat her with respect and is willing to love her publicly and not as a secret. Then set limits in terms of how often you’re available to talk to her about him. The question facing you is not how you can make your now-adult daughter make different choices, but how you can enjoy your own life even if your kid makes choices that drive you crazy. Such a life is possible!
Q. How do I get people to stop asking about my job search? I’ve been unemployed for months, and it’s driving me crazy. I feel like I’m crawling out of my skin. The idea of writing another cover letter makes me want to lay down on the ground.
The problem is my friends and family won’t stop asking for updates. I send off at least one application almost every day. If I get a job, I’ll tell them! I’ve tried saying exactly that (“I’ll tell you if I hear anything. I don’t want to talk about it right now”) and it doesn’t seem to make a difference. I spend so long thinking about jobs every day, and the idea of having to see someone and be confronted with more job talk makes me want to stay home and never answer the phone.
My parents are the worst culprits. Even if I say I don’t want to talk, I get questions and questions about how I’m feeling about the job search and if I’m upset about it, all while I’m struggling to hold it together. Some friends get angry at employers when I say I haven’t heard back from them, and say I’m being treated unfairly. My partner has been wonderfully supportive, but I can’t just be with them all the time. How can I get people to understand that I don’t want to talk about this at all?
A: “I’ve asked not to talk about this before, and I know you’re genuinely concerned and want to help, so let me just reiterate: I’m really frustrated, I’m trying my best, and I don’t have any more updates than that. The most helpful thing you can do for me right now is talk about something else, because I spend most of my day obsessing about my job search. Can you tell me about a movie you’ve seen lately, or something that’s new with you? I’d be so grateful to talk about something that isn’t me for a change.”
Q. Disowned and disoriented: I am a 32-year-old trans woman who was recently disowned by my parents. It started with a phone conversation with my mother, where I tried to explain my discomfort with her and my father’s history of racism, homophobia, and transphobia. I tried to keep things focused on specific actions and comments and how they impacted me. I don’t know if I did a poor job of trying to communicate or if she was just unwilling to hear me. In any case, the message she told me she was hearing was that I thought they were terrible people.
That broke some kind of floodgate on her. All of the issues I thought were in the transition rearview were back with us. She hated my name, mourned her “dead” son, said I was not as likable as him, and began to deadname me. It was all too much, and we ended the call in tears and with a plan not to talk for some time. About 20 minutes later, I got a text from my father. It was headed with a photo of my crying mother. In it, he said that I was a typical liberal, I had a damaged personality, and he didn’t like who I had become. He also said that “we’re finished,” disowning me.
Prudence, I feel so lost and hurt. I think I was right. Challenging racist views and actions is the right thing to do. And I think I deserve to talk about how their homophobia and transphobia hurt me, even before I knew who I was. But at the same time, I miss my parents. I think about how I may never eat my dad’s jambalaya again or joke about my mom’s weird turns of phrase, and I just cry. I’m so angry and so sad, and I feel so betrayed. How do I mourn for the living parents who willingly cast me out of their lives?
A: Oh, I’m so sorry. Feeling hurt and lost makes so much sense to me; that was a pretty thorough and devastating rejection by your parents, and just because your parents have hurt you or acted in ways you think are wrong doesn’t mean you stop loving them or hoping for their approval and acceptance. Mostly I would say you should give yourself time to be really sad for a while. Talk about it with your friends, be honest about how much it hurts, maybe make an appointment with a grief counselor. You say you’re worried that you didn’t bring these issues up in the right way, but your parents sound pretty committed to their history of racist/homophobic/transphobic behavior—so committed to it that rather than try to re-examine it, apologize, or try to change, they’d rather throw anyone who acknowledges it out of their lives. I’m not sure that you could have brought it up in a way your parents would have been willing to hear.
Give yourself permission to miss them, even as you acknowledge that not speaking may be best for you. For all that’s wonderful about developing chosen family, that’s a long-term strategy that’s not going to assuage your very real hurt and rejection now. To whatever extent you can, share your grief with your friends (and maybe other relatives you’re still in contact with). Don’t feel like you have to stop talking about your parents just because they’ve hurt you.
Q. Office smells: I started a new job in January that I utterly adore and feel I’m genuinely really good at. But there is one thing driving me to my wits’ end: A co-worker who sits three rows of desks away from me smells absolutely foul, to the point where the stench regularly hits me from half an office away. She smells of extremely stale sweat mingled with an unbelievable amount of aerosol deodorant. I truly cannot describe it to you. It hits me in the back of my throat when I enter the office every morning, and has gotten so bad recently I’ve involuntarily gagged when walking past her on multiple occasions. I’m not the only one who has noticed this, as a few of my colleagues I have lunch with have commented on it too, and have actually been quite cruel about her, which I don’t like.
We’ve never spoken, so I don’t feel like I’m in a position to try and delicately say something to her. I’m also worried that the smell has a medical origin, seeing as she wears so much deodorant (attempting to mask a known problem?), and that maybe raising it with her through human resources or something will just pour salt in an already-open wound. That said, even if it is medical, I feel like she could be taking a little more care because the smell really is one of the most horrifying olfactory sensations I have ever experienced and I’m sure it could be toned down a little bit.
I really don’t know what to do. It is genuinely hard to get through a full day at the office because she just smells so, so bad that it makes me feel physically ill. But she seems really nice and I don’t want to hurt her feelings. I’m also worried that I’ll look like I’m just being really cruel if I raise it through HR and I’ll lose my job—I’m not exactly an established employee yet, and she’s been here a while, and I don’t want people to think I’m trying to cause trouble.
Please help—I’m seriously considering getting a nose peg.
A: If it’s bad enough that everyone in the office is driven to distraction and it’s affecting your ability to get your work done, I think you might have grounds to speak to HR—not to embarrass or punish her, but so that someone who does have a working relationship with her can say something kindly and in private. It is possible, as you say, that there’s an underlying medical condition causing this. While HR wouldn’t disclose that to you, if they did have that information on record, they’d be able to keep your request confidential and not hurt her with something she can’t control. In the meantime, I think you’re right not to participate in the excess cruelty of your co-workers; whenever it’s possible, I hope you can encourage them to dial back their disparaging comments.
Q. Re: Grieving at work: I’ve found that calling in sick and working from home can help. Don’t tell anyone at work you’re grieving, and stay home. You can cry on the couch, work a little, cry some more, eat some soup, take a nap, talk to the friend’s family, and cry some more. Let the tears flow freely while you type memos. When you come back to work, people will assume you look like hell from the flu, and you won’t have to talk about how much your friend meant to you to someone who’s just thinking, “Where is that file?”
A: I’m sorry that in your offices “calling in sick” still entails “working from home,” but I agree it’s a good last resort.
Q. How do I stay friends with another person’s monster? My husband and I have been good friends with another couple for years. One morning after they stayed the night, my husband “Bill” and our friend “Tom” got to talking early in the morning, and Tom confessed to Bill that he had sexually assaulted a younger family member when he was 14. The victim was 8. He explained that after the child showed signs of trauma, he told his parents, and the parents pressed charges against Tom. Tom was in the court system for two years as a juvenile, and after two years, the judge allowed his record to be cleaned. He had therapy, and, from what I understand, he still regularly sees a counselor. His wife doesn’t know about this.
My husband was a victim of sexual assaults in very similar circumstances. My husband never told his parents, so the perpetrators were never exposed and there was never a confrontation. My husband sought counseling later in life and has come to terms with what happened to him. Both Tom and Bill are in their 40s now, so it’s 30 years in the past. We would never have known of Tom’s past if he hadn’t told my husband. I have no idea why he did.
The problem is that now Bill has a hard time with their friendship. He cannot reconcile that he is friends with someone who is someone else’s monster. I understand why he feels this way. None of us has children, and we both believe that Tom would not hurt children now even if we did. Should we bow out of our friendship discreetly, or can we be friends with another person’s monster?
A: I’m so sorry for the pain and distress you and your husband are experiencing right now. Please don’t think of this in terms of what you are or aren’t allowed to do. The question isn’t whether or not you think Tom is capable of growth or deserving of compassion; the question is “Can I [Bill] stay in this friendship while also feeling safe and comfortable?” He may sincerely wish Tom the best, believe that he has made significant amends for the crime he committed as a teenager, and still feel like it’s too close to home to be close with someone who carried out a sexual assault that bears a striking similarity to the assault that he suffered himself.
This isn’t a referendum on Tom’s redemption but an opportunity for your husband to look out for himself, to acknowledge his own trauma, and to treat himself with a great deal of compassion. He also does not have to have a serious, in-person, face-to-face conversation with Tom about this if the idea strikes him as unbearable. He can certainly tell Tom that he needs time and space because his confession struck a painful chord with him, and that he’d appreciate it if Tom could respect that. If Tom has really done the meaningful work of restoration, he’ll understand that just because he’s sorry for what he did and no longer commits the same kind of harm he did as a teenager, that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t allowed to have their own feelings about it.
Q. Re: Grieving at work: Former big firm lawyer here. I understand the letter writer’s quandary all too well—though, to most of the sane world, having to make such a choice should not be an issue; you take some personal time and grieve. If you feel you can’t even take sick days (not vacation days), at least try to adhere to a 9-to-5 schedule with an hour off for lunch until you can get to a weekend and don’t work on the weekend. I don’t know what the letter writer’s position and seniority are at the firm, but if you can confide in a superior without retribution, consider it, if it will give you a few days of breathing room. It helps to remind those inside the billable-hour bubble that life—and, yes, death—goes on, and it touches the humans inside the bubble as well. Take care.
A: It’s been heartwarming to see other lawyers (with draconian no-vacation workplaces!) chime in with suggestions. Thanks for this.
Q. Surprise visits: What is your opinion on family members visiting each other, unannounced and with no particular reason, at a workplace? I don’t consider myself close with my sister at this point; I don’t trust her as a friend, and frankly I don’t like spending time with her either. She has always treated me as a backup friend.
Now that she’s pretty lonely, she wants me around again. Not only do I work full time, but I also am completing an online degree in my precious free time, so I am legitimately busy. I know she misses me, but I don’t want to spend time with her, and her response is to surprise me at work for no particular reason, and she stands there like I’m supposed to do the talking. This last time she even asked me for a hug goodbye! I declined because I don’t want her hugs at all, especially at my work. Although it’s not currently frequent (once a month or so), my office is moving to the side of town where she lives, so there’s a high probability of increased visits or chances for her to “drop things off.” I work at the front desk as a receptionist, so there is not a chance of politely hiding in my office. What should be my approach to stop these surprise encounters?
A: My opinion is that it’s weird and unnecessary! I mean, it’d be one thing if you worked at, say, Disneyland, and your parents brought your kid sister by to say hello, but hanging around your sibling’s reception desk at an office is not something most people do, and for good reason. Tell your sister that if she wants to get together, she can try to make plans with you after-hours (which you may or may not decide you’re available for), but you’re busy at work and can’t entertain her when she’s bored. If you need to, use your boss for cover and say that you’ve gotten reprimanded for having guests in the office. If she keeps showing up after that conversation, all you need to say when she comes in the front door is “Sorry, I can’t talk right now; I’m working.”
Q. Re: Office smells: Get a desktop air purifier. I have one because I’m allergic to perfume and it’s easier than getting into office politics. I’ve wanted to comment so many times (and miss the chat) on what a lifesaver it is.
A: Thanks for this recommendation! Does it actually help mask scents? I’ve never used one—I’m curious if anyone else has used one and found it effective in an office.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
“What is your take on expectations of women these days? I can’t tell if I’m a total dud or normal, but I feel exhausted by the expectations of me. I am a mother of a young child, and this is my main priority. I do all the parenting (literally), and my husband’s only expectation in this area is to say hello to our child when he gets home. You could argue that this dynamic is my fault, but among my friends it’s actually pretty common that the mom does the lion’s share of parenting. However, this task is apparently not supposed to slow me down at all because I’m also expected to work full time as a professional and excel, kick butt, and be a badass woman who earns a fat paycheck. And of course our house has to look good and clean and neat! Is it just me, or is it just too much?”
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