Widower Wednesday: Work and Grief

A New Jersey judge has ruled that a boss can tell a mother to remove her dead daughter’s photo and ballet slippers from her work cubicle.

Cecilia Ingraham's teenage daughter, Tatiana, died of leukemia in 2005, a few months before her Cornell University orientation. After a year and a half of keeping Tatiana's memorabilia in her cubicle, Ingraham's boss, Carl DeStafanis, told her it was "disruptive" and to please get rid of it.

DeStafanis told Ingraham that she could "no longer speak of her daughter because she is dead." Ingraham tearfully exited, filed for short-term disability after having heart surgery, and eventually resigned.

According to Ingraham's lawyer, Neil Mullin, this is a whitewashed version of events. DeStafanis was a high-level employee who Ingraham barely knew, and during the half-hour exchange DeStefanis was allegedly "relentless," as Ingraham fell apart before his eyes.


According to DeStafinis, several co-workers had complained that Ingraham's frequent mentions of her dead daughter made them uncomfortable. Mullin claims that he was able to prove that this was false testimony.

When Ingraham left the building, she started having heart palpitations and went to the hospital. There, she had a full nervous breakdown.

"She was in grieving before, seeing a grief counselor and getting to work everyday," said Mullin. "This was a shattering experience for her."

Ingraham decided to fight back. She got in touch with Mullin.

"It wasn't about the money," said Mullin. "As a father with children I was appalled that a high-level manager at a major American corporation would act in this sadistic way. To me, a grieving mother is a sacred thing."

Read the full article here.

I wish there was more information on this case because it sounds like both sides handled the situation poorly. That being said, from what I have read, I’m included to side with the boss on this one. My guess is that the real issue is that most people in the office felt uncomfortable being around her because she kept talking about her loss.

Most work places bring together people with different interests and backgrounds. It takes a lot of patience and tolerance from everyone to have a halfway productive and bearable work environment. That usually means subjects like politics, religions, and other personal matters are best left at the door or shared with those you know who feel the same way. I once worked in the same department with a guy who was going through a messy divorce. For months it was pretty much all he could talk about. Not only did his job performance suffer but so did his work relationship with everyone else. After awhile pretty much everyone avoided working with him, talking to him, or going out to lunch with him unless it was absolutely necessary. Everyone was so annoyed with his behavior that we were all secretly happy when wife took him to the cleaners.

At my current job a coworker recently lost an infant daughter shortly after her birth. He took a couple weeks of time off. When we returned, he was a little quieter than usual for about a month but soon returned to his normal workplace self. A photo of his infant daughter is pinned to his cubicle wall. As far as I know, the photo doesn’t bother anyone who stops by his cube but I also know he doesn’t constantly talk about his dead daughter. He’s done his best to put his life back together and move forward—at least from what I’ve seen at work.

Despite what Ingraham’s attorney says, a grieving mother (or father) isn’t a sacred thing. Loss doesn’t give one the right to impose his or her bereavement on friends, family, significant others, or coworkers.  Most people are sympathetic to the loss but only to a point. They have their own issues they’re dealing with and get annoyed when one person acts like they’re the only one with problems.

There’s a time and place for everything—including grief. If you need to create a memorial, it’s probably best to do it at home. If you need to talk about your loss, confide in a councilor, religious leader, or friend instead of a coworker. Try to make work a place where you can focus on something else for part of the day. Any loss can be difficult to deal with but unless you want to want to add the stress of being unemployed to your current trial, it’s in one’s best interest to find a way to make it though the workday one day at a time.

Hat Tip: Hitcoffee