Need Advice: My mother's grief makes me uncomfortable. She lost her mother more than a year ago and still cries copiously and frequently (in public and in private) when she thinks about it. She brings the death up in unrelated conversations with strangers (including cashiers!), acquaintances, and friends.
I'm normally a compassionate person, but these scenes repel me, and I have a very hard time being around her—and being understanding—when she is so terribly upset.
I don't know what to say or do, and I don't know why I'm feeling so annoyed by this. Can you think of strategies to help me cope so that I can help my mother?
Emily Yoffe: I understand that you mother's oceanic grief is disturbing, especially since, as wrenching as it may be to lose a parent, it ultimately is in the natural course of events for people in middle age to bid farewell. Your mother sounds as if she's stuck in what Rob Stein described in an article in Washington Post last year as "complicated grief." The theory is that some people get stuck in a loop in which the emotional reward center of their brain can't accept the loved one's death and keeps thinking about the departed over and over. Print out the article and encourage your mother to take it to a counselor who specializes in grief. The therapeutic suggestion is the bereaved go over explicitly the details of the death to help make the loss feel real.
Ann Arbor, Mich.: I'm dating a marvelous man, and we have been dating for five years. He has pulled himself out of very hard origins, attended a top-notch liberal arts college, and now holds a very high-powered job. He wants to keep his family, which has ruined other important milestones in his life, away from the life that we now have. My family is very different from his, and he has completely embraced my entire family. He has asked me to marry him, and wedding prep has begun. How am I going to handle the invites to his family? I think it would be super awkward to have my family's overwhelming presence at the wedding and for him to look like an orphan. What should I do?
Emily Yoffe: I'm assuming he has opened up to you about why he has found it necessary to be estranged from his family. If not, this is something you will want to know more about, without demanding he just give you the full story on what has to be a very painful personal history. But painful childhoods have a way of making themselves known over the years, even to those people who think they have put them aside—so be aware this may not be as closed an issue as you both think. That said, if you understand his reasons for wanting to keep his family away, then you don't have to make excuses or explanations to anyone. It is only awkward if you think it is. If you are comfortable and supportive, then remember you are avoiding the awkwardness of having your husband put in an emotionally wrenching situation. If people ask about it, you can say, "Bob has a very small family, and they send their best wishes."
New York, N.Y.: Unbeknownst to me, my boyfriend of 10 months went through my boxes during a move and read my old diaries. After that, he attempted to surreptitiously question me about people and events that he read about. We had a huge argument, as this was not the first time he violated my privacy. I forgave him, but I can't forget, and now I read double meaning into his comments. How do I move forward with him? Should I?
Emily Yoffe: Reading your old diaries?! You say this was only the latest violation. I say you should move forward by moving on.
San Francisco, Calif.: I'm really questioning whether or not to end my relationship with a local animal shelter due to a power-crazed volunteer coordinator from hell. She's incredibly hostile to longtime volunteers (I've been one for more than seven years), keeps changing the rules for us (usually there are more than five changes per week), and threatens anyone who tries to address problems with her with suspension. She also sends out several e-mails a week and requires us to reply to her within several hours or she pulls our volunteer shifts. Last month she sent out a two-page e-mail to all volunteers questioning our commitment to the shelter, telling us that there's a long waiting list to volunteer there and saying that if we were going to put work and family above our volunteer commitment, we should remember that volunteering "is a privilege, not a right." Then, when more than 20 volunteers quit, she sent another angry e-mail demanding that the rest of us up our hours because of all the "selfish" people who dropped out.
I don't want to be driven from an organization that I have such a long history with because of one person, but her attitude is having a major impact of my enjoyment of the work I do there. The one time I tried to speak to her about her communication, she placed me on a three-week suspension. I've since sent anonymous letters to the shelter's executive director and head of HR, but nothing has changed. Is there anything else I can do to try and resolve this?
Emily Yoffe: Get the e-mail addresses of the recent 20 victims and make a coordinated effort to euthanize this lunatic. Have as many current and former volunteers write a letter to the head of the organization, all the board members, etc., then ask for a meeting. If this does not move the top dogs to get rid of this pit bull of a coordinator, then it sounds as if you need to find another animal organization to give you shelter.
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