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Healing Words

Posted on December 07, 2007

By Joan Eiesenstodt

On Thursday, in "What's in a Name", I looked at 'hospitality' and 'hospitable', their definitions and applications for meetings.  Today, the last of my 'guruing' for 2007, is an opportunity to help all of us look more deeply at how we treat those with whom we work and with whom we interact on a professional basis, how we use language and what we really mean in the words we say.

If you go back to Thursday's guru and read about hospitality and hospitable, you will see that being inclusive and providing an atmosphere of comfort is part of the intent of those words.  Early in this century, I facilitated a session at an MPI (Meeting Professional International - www.mpiweb.org) meeting about working and living with illness.  At the time, two good friends, who worked in our industry, were living with cancer.  Our intent was to provide a forum where we could talk openly about the fears of 'outing oneself' to employers, clients, and colleagues when one had an illness.  Since then, we've done this session at MPI a few times, and in 2007, at the Exhibitor Show (http://www.exhibitoronline.com/exhibitorshow/) at which we will again have those conversations in 2008.

Taking these conversations further, I've looked at sick and bereavement leave policies in US companies and organizations.  Added to what I learned in the sessions from those who are dealing with their own illnesses or those of loved ones, what I learned was not encouraging.   


Most sick leave seems to be fairly generous in the United States if it is one's own illness and if it is not chronic.  Of course, like all things in the US, we do not grant nearly the time for sick leave (or for vacation) as other developed countries.

In conversations at these sessions noted above, I heard heart-breaking stories of companies that dismissed people with cancer, using "we're reorganizing the office" as a reason.  And though the sick leave policies might be good, there is fear of being exposed as 'the one' whose medical costs might be driving up insurance premiums.  This fear, for people with major illnesses, adds to the stress of an already stressful life.

Sick leave policies rarely cover care-giving.  There are maternity leave, and sometimes paternity leave, policies; finding policies that allow one to take paid time off - or even unpaid, not fearing a job loss - to care for a sick loved one is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Bereavement policies are astoundingly stingy and have so many caveats.  Leave may only be taken for "immediate family" often defined as a spouse, parent or child.  Some policies include a grandparent; rarely do policies include bereavement time off for aunts, uncles and cousins, and never for a beloved friend.  How difficult for the person who is not married and is, rather, partnered with someone of the same or opposite sex, or is related to someone with a partner: leave is not forthcoming.

For any of us who have lost family (no matter how one defines the term) or friends, the few days (usually 3 from what I've read) given are barely enough to deal with emotions and travel to and from a funeral or memorial service.  If one is an executor or executrix of an estate, no slack is given, officially, by employers.  More, one is expected back to work immediately after a death in one's life and to be on top of things as if nothing ever happened.  This year the mother of a valued colleague (and friend) died.  My friend said how difficult it was to concentrate at work as she dealt with horrible grief.  She said she was not nearly ready to get back to work when she was required to do so.


People mean well when they try to comfort someone who is sick or grieving.  We are, however, not taught how to talk about these subjects and how to comfort others. I only have to look to my own childhood when I would hear my (dear) maternal grandmother say, when a subject that was difficult arose, "See the pretty birdie" which meant for us to change the subject to something happy.

In the mid-'80s, when two friends were dying, I made myself learn new models.  Instead of expressing platitudes ("Oh you'll be fine." or "You feel good today, right."  or "How 'bout them Sox?!"), I listened and talked about the deaths they were facing.  We cried and we laughed and we shared memories. While they lived, we knew that our conversations were honest; when they died, it meant that there was nothing left unsaid.

When someone dies, express your sympathy or empathy.  Think about your language and the implications of it.  No one wants to hear "She lived a good life" or "He is in a better place."  It seems like the right thing to say; sometimes simply "I am so sorry for your loss" is better.

When I started this week, I promised questions about each topic and suggested you add to the questions:

How can we join policies and language - and practices - to be hospitable with those with whom we work and with anyone about whom we care?  When will we stop asking "How are you?" and not really want an honest answer?  How do we move beyond fear with employers and colleagues to be able to say "You know, I'm sick or I'm grieving and I need some slack on a project"?  At meetings, when many are attending a party, how will we make those who are in physical or mental pain, still feel included? 

There are no easy answers to these questions; there are questions to be discussed.  If you are going to be in Las Vegas for the Exhibitor Show in March and want to talk about these issues, join us as did two managers at the show last March who wanted to know what to say and how to act.

As I end my last guru of 2007, I add a personal story:  When I first facilitated the session at MPI some years ago, and in the sessions since, I was healthy and looked at the opportunity as a way to get issues out on the table.  This time, it will be different: in July of this year, I was diagnosed with Lymphoma, a word I, personally, prefer to the "C" word!  Currently I am undergoing treatment and hope, by early 2008, to be in remission.  I am one of the lucky ones.  I want us all to be able to be employed by those, or have clients and colleagues, who will understand that not all illness is a life-sentence; that we are still productive people; and that we may want to talk openly without fear of repercussion or of job or client loss, as we live with illness or grief.  I want, if any of us loses a loved one, for there to be compassion enough to allow us time to grieve.  And I want for our industry to take the word that encompasses what we do - hospitality - and reach out, appropriately, to others who may need the support.  Here's to a healthy and peaceful 2008.


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Lois Dornfeld

Dear Joan

You are amazing! Leave it to you to talk so openly & honestly about your illness. I have attended various meetings where you have led so many interesting and worthwhile presentations & discussions. You have been a mentor to me since I started out as a meeting planner in 1991. I have followed your career and enjoy seeing you featured in articles and reading everything that you write. Please stay strong and get through this illness. I am sending you positive vibes and will keep you in my thoughts and prayers. All the best, Lois

Kare Anderson

here is a way non-subscribers can see the article you mentioned at MiForum
Rock, Paper, Scissors Your ballot or your life.
by Jill Lepore

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