We buried my mom on Friday, April 20th, 2018, three days after she died.
I’d spent the few days prior in full-on communicator mode, drafting mom’s obit, working with The Miami Herald on edits and coordinating with family flying in for the funeral. It wasn’t until after the service that the period of mourning truly began.
Jews call the week after burial shiva, which means seven in Hebrew. The ritual of sitting shiva encourages communication, conversation and dialogue between family, friends and loved ones of the deceased.
My childhood home was filled with familiar and unfamiliar faces alike, bringing platters of food, helping keep watch over the home and checking in on my dad, my brother and me while swapping stories and remembrances of Mom. Those remembrances give added meaning to a hallowed Jewish message of bereavement: “May her memory be a blessing.” The ritual of shiva is an exercise in empathetic communication, a mindful dialogue, a time-tested way to facilitate healing.
A week after shiva ended came Mother’s Day and with it the deluge of saccharine social posts, mawkish marketing emails and programmatic ads that simultaneously urged me to wax nostalgic with my mom and create new memories. Each digital sentiment held a mirror to my loss, creating a new inflection point for me to decide if I would project my new, deeply personal reality out into the world.
Opting out of Mother’s Day messages
This year, I’ve noticed a greater number of brands and organizations allowing me to opt out of receiving Mother’s Day emails. Whether my behavioral data profile has been updated to reflect Mom’s death or whether content marketers have grown more mindful, it’s a fascinating trend to behold.
The optimist in me is inclined to believe the latter — that as COVID-19 has disproportionately claimed the lives of older family members, as generational disagreements along political lines have sowed deep rifts between parents and children, communicators and marketers have grown more sensitive to the fact that their audiences don’t all have the same Hallmark-sanctioned relationship with their moms.
A colleague offered their Twitter followers this lesson: “A reminder that this is not a universally jubilant day for all. Be kind, be aware.”
They responded to my outreach by explaining that the situation they tweeted about happened in a work setting. They stressed that situational awareness is important for any communicator, regardless of audience.
Whether this is ultimately a good thing or not depends on who you ask. While floating the initial idea of this piece with the Ragan advisory board, one member told me that they lost their mom on Mother’s Day weekend itself. Though they understood my intention to communicate how losing your mom makes you think differently about Mother’s Day messaging, they also suggested that today’s society is rife with so many who are focused on ourselves and how we are offended, “we forget that it might be a kindness to others to let things that aren’t comfortable for us pass by.”
This perspective shook me up, reminding me that erring on the side of sensitivity and caution when communicating around something long considered to be a tradition can risk alienating audiences that still hold the tradition sacrosanct. When the merit of mindfulness and honoring feelings can’t make everyone happy, how should internal communicators address Mother’s Day in employee messaging? Do crowdsourced photo posts of employees with their moms belong on company-wide intranet channels? Is it even appropriate to celebrate mothers during allhands calls?
Situational awareness at work
The most engaging employee messages are composed and delivered to match each audience’s preferred medium, channel and messenger. When we aren’t sure what those preferences are, we look to data for guidance. In the subtle ways that data fails to illuminate the personal details of each employee’s life, we entrust managers with the soft skills necessary to communicate with each employee on a level that makes them feel supported by the company culture — both in and out of work.
Ideally, managers should be listening to their teams before these internal communications are drafted, then consulted by comms to determine if Mother’s Day messaging (or messaging around any specific holiday) is something that employees will positively respond to. If different teams hold wildly divergent cultural perspectives on the holiday, the same messages shouldn’t go to everyone. If there are divergent perspectives within a team itself, an opt-in approach to Mother’s Day might make the most sense. Tapping your managers to learn what you can about the team’s background will give you a fuller picture of who you are trying to reach—and sometimes make a case for rethinking the messages you send.
There may be instances when it’s easy to decide whether to craft Mother’s Day messaging for employees. If you work for a family-owned business that emphasizes traditional family units as an extension of your work community, your employees may expect such messages anyway — or at least understand that such communication is part of your culture.
On the flip side, your workforce may be populated by folks whose nontraditional maternal relationships merit a nontraditional approach to Mother’s Day messaging. Consider how a heavily-LGBTQ+ workforce might respond to Mother’s Day, when some employees may have fraught relationships with their biological family. If you work for a nonprofit that assists in suicide prevention or combats homelessness, consider how your employees are there to do mission-driven work because their family unit may have been upended by tragedy or misfortune.
Losing your mom is a reminder that every day is Mother’s Day. You don’t need to edify her memories in cards or chocolate to make them a blessing. And you don’t need to receive reminders that she’s gone from people at work, either.
To the contrary, when your messaging can provide a welcome respite from a moment in time that may trigger an employee’s profound grief, adjusting your approach is the best way to let them know you understand how they feel.