How to Set + Communicate Boundaries

Last week I noted that one of the gifts of grief is that I find it much easier to set and defend boundaries. Since then, a couple people have told me that my ability to set and defend boundaries has inspired them, which I take to be quite a compliment. A colleague told me they no longer feel like they need to respond to emails immediately and a friend credited my modeling for helping them feel like they don’t need to say yes to every social invitation during the holidays.

I wrote shortly after my late husband died about setting boundaries, but since then, I’ve gotten much better at it. I wish younger me had understood boundaries better; I think I would have been a lot happier—and I think the people around me who bore the brunt of my regular resentment would have been a lot happier. Alas, I can’t go back and change the past, but I can help you feel better about having and defending boundaries.

The best boundaries focus on what you can do rather than on what you want others to do and are clearly communicated to others. Here are some of the boundaries I have set and defended, along with phrases I use to communicate them to others:

  • I leave a meeting when it is scheduled to end. I do not apologize, I do not make up excuses, I simply leave. I try to minimize any disruption.
    • How I communicate this boundary: Before the meeting, if I suspect the meeting will actually run over the scheduled time, I say, “I’ll need to leave at [the scheduled end time].” I don’t offer excuses.
  • I do not attend meetings that don’t have either an agenda or a clear purpose.
    • How I communicate this boundary: If no agenda has been provided two days before the meeting, I email the meeting facilitator, saying, “My practice is to only attend meetings with an agenda or a clear purpose. Can you please provide more details about the meeting?”
  • I do not respond to emails before or after my work hours.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I state it in my syllabi and tell my colleagues who email me frequently.
  • I do not apologize for not doing things I wasn’t responsible for doing. This seems like a simple one, but I see people apologize all the time for not bringing snacks that no one expected them to bring to a meeting, or not dressing up for an occasion that wasn’t clearly communicated as dressy. This one doesn’t really need communicating in advance.
  • I do not wait to start meetings or classes until everyone is there. I start meetings and classes at the scheduled start time. I don’t shame anyone who is late, trusting that they have good reasons that are none of my business.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I tell people I start on time.
  • I do not attend social functions I do not want to attend. I have learned that declining an invitation is actually quite simple—all you have to say is, “Oh, that sounds lovely! I won’t be able to attend, but I hope it’s wonderful!” No apologies necessary—just heartfelt wishes that those who do attend have a great time. Very, very occasionally, someone pushes me about why I can’t attend. If I simply don’t want to go, I may say, “I have a conflict” or “My social battery has been running pretty low lately.”
  • I do not answer 95% of the phone calls I get. I just let most calls go to voice mail and then I return the call when I want to.
    • How I communicate this boundary: When people say they’ll call me, I usually say, “I’m not a big phone person. Can we do this by email or over Zoom?”
  • I do not respond to emails that don’t make it clear what kind of response is needed. If the email is from a student or colleague, I may reply by saying “I’m not sure what you are asking of me.” I delete emails from people I don’t know that I can’t decipher the purpose of.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I tell my students and colleagues to make the ask in any email clear by putting it in its own paragraph or in bold.
  • I do not take other people’s boundaries personally. Someone doesn’t answer my email quickly? OK. Someone doesn’t answer when I call? OK. Someone declines my invitation? OK.

I am polite about these boundaries and do not apologize for having them. Having these boundaries means disappointing other people, but I am not responsible for their feelings. If people are disappointed that I didn’t attend their meeting or answer their email, that’s ok. I’m sure there are some people who think I am demanding or hard to work with because of my boundaries, and you know what? That’s ok. If having reasonable boundaries makes me demanding or hard to work with, then I am demanding and hard to work with. As a white cis-gendered woman with tenure, I can afford to be demanding and hard to work with. I recognize that not everyone has that privilege. Because I do have the privilege to be seen as demanding and hard to work with, I think it’s very important that I do set and hold these boundaries because I hope that will make it easier for others with less privilege to do so.

These boundaries are all focused on what I do. This makes sense since I can’t control the behavior of others. I can’t say others must have agendas for their meetings, but I can say I will not attend meetings that don’t have agendas.

Let’s normalize setting and defending boundaries!

Grateful for Grief

In honor of Thanksgiving, I’m thinking about the aspects of grief I am grateful for: 

  • Feeling more connected to others who have experienced loss. I think everyone is experiencing loss now, whether it’s the death of a loved one, a job ending, or something less tangible like the loss of security or a vision of how life would unfold. Recognizing that everyone has experienced a tremendous loss helps me feel a sense of commonality with others and compassion toward them. It makes it easier for me to be patient and empathetic when others are difficult to understand. If I assume they are acting out of a sense of loss, I can give them the benefit of the doubt and attribute good intentions to them. 
  • Accepting my introversion. I spent most of my life embarrassed by my introversion, but since my husband died, I’m much more comfortable with acknowledging that I just don’t have much of a need or even desire for the social interaction much of the time. 
  • Being a better listener. I’m interested in hearing about people’s experiences of loss, which makes me more curious. Possibly related to accepting my introversion, I no longer feel any obligation to keep a conversation going, which actually makes me a very attentive listener. I used to always be one of those people who only halfway listened and was simultaneously formulating my response. No more. 
  • A reminder that everything is temporary. One of the foundational beliefs of Buddhism is that everything is temporary, but it’s easy to forget that and become attached to how things are in the moment and want them to stay that way. Grief is a reminder that everything does change, and often with no notice. 
  • Getting better at setting and enforcing boundaries. Recognizing when I need to leave a social situation to be by myself is new. Letting others know that I appreciate phone calls but am unlikely to answer the phone when they call is new. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 

Anticipatory Grief: Grief for Someone Who Isn’t Dead Yet

I mentioned Kirsten Johnson last week, in my post about Anderson Cooper’s podcast. Johnson is a guest on episode 5, which focuses on anticipatory grief—grief for someone who hasn’t yet died. Johnson’s description of anticipatory grief in the podcast is perfect: “It’s this crazy feeling of imagining the person dead while they’re in front of you and then all the feelings that that brings. There’s a lot of guilt in it. There’s a lot of just confusion in it because it’s almost sort of unbearable. The fact that they’re not quite themselves already and then the fact that it’s going to get worse, it’s like you’re on quicksand or something.”

I did not know that I was experiencing anticipatory grief between the time that my husband had his stroke and died. I knew that every moment was precious, and I constantly felt like I needed to be present, memorizing every detail with him because I didn’t know how long I would have with him. I began journaling during this time as a way to keep track of the details I knew I’d want to remember. Every moment felt precarious. He had profound sleep apnea brough on by the stroke, so we never knew if he would make it through the night. He was always at risk of falling. He was at risk for another stroke. I felt awful, thinking all the time that I needed to remember this moment in case he dies tonight.

The year was maddening because he was startlingly present in a way he hadn’t been before the stroke. I was, too. We were more tuned into each other’s emotional states, checking in regularly with each other about fears and worries. Because of my caregiving role, he had no privacy from me, and we chose to laugh about that—and he sang about it. The injuries caused by the stroke seemed to make it easier for him to be vulnerable with me. He began a tradition of ending each day by telling me what he was most grateful for about me. At the same time that we were experiencing this incredible closeness and intimacy, he was wasting away in front of me. He lost a tremendous amount of weight, he slept all the time, his memory was no longer dependable. There were times I felt like I could see him fading away and I mourned the loss of him even though he was still with me. That is anticipatory grief.

Johnson made a documentary called Dick Johnson is Dead, which is available on Netflix, that captures anticipatory grief with startling clarity. The Dick Johnson of the film’s title  is Kirsten Johnson’s father, and he’s not dead yet but he is in his 80s and had dementia. The film stages Dick Johnson’s death several times, using comic relief to help Kirsten come to terms with his eventual death.

I watched the film last weekend and laugh-cried all the way through it. It’s an incredible film, portraying the deep love Kirsten Johnson has for her father, and showing his aging and dementia without veering into pity. There is no sense that we should feel sorry for Dick Johnson. He is enjoying life to the fullest, getting lots of quality time with his daughter and grandkids. The film manages to show the joy Dick Johnson finds in his life, the joy Kirsten Johnson finds in Dick Johnson being alive, and the pangs of loss Kirsten finds in Dick’s fading away in front of her.  

One scene in the film is of a staged funeral for Dick Johnson, in which he stands behind church doors, listening to the glowing eulogies people deliver in his honor. Even though they know he is still alive, they get choked up expressing what Dick Johnson has meant to them. Dick Johnson himself gleefully listens to the eulogies and then enters the church to applause. While it’s an amazing and affirming experience for everyone, the image of Dick’s best friend sobbing after delivering his eulogy is hard to shake. That’s anticipatory grief: the person is still here, but you’re already trying to figure out how you’ll carry on without them.

In the podcast, Kirsten Johnson says how much it means to her that because of the film, people feel like they know her father. I have the same experience—I love when people tell me that through my blogging or through the obituary, they feel like they know my husband a little bit. That’s one of the ways I keep him alive.

At the end of the film, Kirsten Johnson says, “Dick Johnson is dead. Long live Dick Johnson.” It’s a reminder that a person dies, but their memory lives on. Tom DeBlaker is dead. Long live Tom DeBlaker.

Grieving or Not, You Should Listen to Anderson Cooper’s Podcast on Grief

I binge listened to 5 of the 7 episodes of Anderson Cooper’s podcast on grief, All There Is. Cooper’s openness in talking about his own losses—in these episodes, those include his mother, his father, his brother, and his nanny—captivated me. He shares intimate details of his relationships with those people, gets choked up or cries in every episode, and really dives into the messiness and ambiguity of grief.

It seems to me that a podcast like this from someone with a following and a platform is important because it normalizes loss and grief. In fact, Cooper talks about how although loss and grief are universal experiences, they make us feel alone and not talking about them makes it even worse. As I am learning, everyone is grieving. My grief experience actually connects me to others.

In addition to the message that grief is normal, a theme threaded throughout the episodes is the idea that grief is not bad. In several episodes, Cooper talks to someone who has found a way to turn their grief into something lovely. In episode 5, for example, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson talks about how even after a person dies, we can still have a relationship with them and even change our relationship with them.

Johnson says, “it’s never too late to get to know someone differently and even more deeply. We let the idea of death trap us, but we don’t have to.” She and Cooper talk for a bit about that concept of “letting death trap us,” that we think because a person is dead, the relationship is what it was when they died. But Johnson disagrees. She says that as we change, “we have new capacity to know someone,” which gives us an amazing opportunity to reframe our relationship with the person who died.

I am seeing that happen with my mom, who died when I was 12. For a long, long, long time, I had a 12-year old’s relationship with her, remembering her as she was when I last saw her. She was an alcoholic, which gave me lots of reason for anger and resentment toward her. When I turned 47, officially outliving her, my relationship with her shifted dramatically. I started understanding everything I was experiencing as something she would never experience and feeling both grateful for my experiences and sad for her not being able to have them herself. I softened toward her, feeling less anger and resentment and more compassion. My memories of her are different now because they aren’t framed with anger and resentment.

Episode 3 speaks more directly to the theme of grief not being necessarily bad. In this episode, Dr. BJ Miller says “sorrow isn’t an enemy.” He goes on to say, “[Sorrow and sadness] don’t poach my joy or my happiness in this life. In fact, as foils, they kind of set each other up. You don’t get life without death. These things must go together. They’re not at odds.” He and Cooper talk about how they are the people they are in part because of the losses they’ve experienced, crediting grief with helping them cultivate character traits they are proud of.

I can recognize my own sense of deep connection to others because of shared grief as a development in myself since my husband died that I like. I wrote last month about how hard it was for me to accept that I’ll never again be the person I was before he died. I can identify other positive changes in myself brought on by my grief experience: I am certainly more patient, more accepting and less judgmental of others and myself, and even more apt than I was before to find joy in nearly everything.

The podcast title, All There Is, echoes Oliver Burkemann’s 4000 Weeks, which my friends and family are probably tired of me weaving into every conversation. Burkemann’s title references the length of the average human lifespan: 4000 weeks. He argues that coming to terms with “life’s finitude,” as he calls it, is the key to really enjoying the time we have. That seems to be where Cooper is going with his podcast.

Even if you’re not grieving right now, you have before and you will again. Cooper’s podcast can help you feel less alone when that next time comes.

My Second Halloween as a Widow: Sharing Visible Grief  

I told a fellow widow recently that I was surprised that the build-up to Halloween was hitting me harder this year than last year. Last year was my first Halloween without my husband. Halloween was his favorite holiday. He started planning it much more in advance than any other holiday.

My widowed friend replied that the first year after her husband’s death she was too numb to really process all the “firsts” and that for many of those special dates, the second year hit her harder than the first. I think that’s what I’m experiencing. Last year, Halloween was on a weekend, so it was easy to just hole up at home and cry. This year, with it being on a Monday, I had to go to work.

I thought about not going. I had traveled to a conference the week before and just returned home Sunday night. Between the travel and Halloween, I felt physically and emotionally exhausted, and I suspect that my students and colleagues would have been understanding had I decided to take the day off. But I had already missed three weeks of the semester because of my brain surgery and felt self-conscious about canceling another class. I am also trying not to shy away from things I want to do because of grief, and I wanted to teach my classes.

I second-guessed my decision all the way to campus. Every time I saw a person in costume on the street, I thought of how gleeful my husband looks in every Halloween photo, how animated he got brainstorming costume ideas, how much sheer joy he conveyed to every trick-or-treater he interacted with. I thought of the annual raft-in Halloween party we went to every year, which was a highlight of the year for us, much bigger than Thanksgiving, Hannukah, or Christmas. It involved a few nights of camping, a live band, and a pig roast. Tom and I would dance together under the stars and every year, he would declare, “This is the best band we’ve had yet!”

By the time I walked across campus toward the building where I teach my morning class, I could feel tears sliding down my cheeks and my lip trembling. I knew I would have to acknowledge my visible grief to my students.

I begin each class by saying, “I want to invite you to be completely present for the next 75 minutes.” I then usually say something related to living with anxiety (most of my students seem to) and then the whole class takes three deep breaths together. On Monday, I told the class how special Halloween was to my husband, how fragile I was feeling, and that I was going to do my best to be present for the next 75 minutes but that I just wasn’t my best self at the moment. I heard my voice shaking and felt my lip trembling. I then asked a student to lead the breaths while I sat down to collect myself.

And class was ok. It wasn’t my best class but it certainly wasn’t my worst. A couple students stayed after to offer hugs and sympathy.

Back in my office, I closed my door and did some timed grieving.

For my second class, I repeated the confession of fragility and had the same experience of acceptance and sympathy my first class had offered.

Between classes, a colleague in costume came by my office, wanting to show off their costume. I was polite but said, “I’m sorry, I’m pretty wobbly today,” and they cut the visit short.

At home, neighbors invited me to join them on their porch for drinks and candy dispensing, but I declined, explaining the significance of the day. They understood.

This is the second Halloween I’ve lived through without my husband. It hurts to think of it in those terms—something to live through, something he isn’t living through. I woke up this morning very sad but full of determination to live life fully for those who can’t. The Muriel Rukeyser lineToday for the sake of all the dead      Burst into flower” is never far from my mind.