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Ask Amy: My co-workers’ jokes about self-harm make me uncomfortable

Dear Amy: My little sister died almost two years ago by suicide after years of struggling with PTSD from sexual assaults that happened when she was a teenager.

I started a new job three months ago. I love all of my co-workers. We are prosecutors and victim advocates. This is difficult and draining work.

For my colleagues, this pressure manifests in self-deprecating statements about mental health, like: “I don’t think I’m going to make it to tomorrow,” “Hopefully no one finds me dead in the morning,” and after something annoying happens in court: “I guess I’ll just go kill myself.”

I’ve been forced to hide my discomfort with their jokes for the past months, resulting in many a quick run to the bathroom to express my emotions. This seems to bond them, giving validation that the job is hard. I feel awkward for not participating.

I’ve been silently waiting for jokes to be over, but honestly this happens almost every day. With the holidays approaching, my sister’s loss has been more difficult for me. I want to speak up but I’m unsure how.

Is it better to interrupt one joke when everyone is at the lunch table and accept it is going to be awkward? Or should I say that I’m struggling with the holidays approaching and it would help if those jokes weren’t said in front of me?

Or is there another option?

— Unsure

Unsure: I’m genuinely sorry for your loss.

I don’t claim to be the arbiter on humor, and yet making comments or jokes about violence or self-harm such as, “I guess I’ll just go kill myself” are tasteless and inappropriate regardless of the context.

Yes, because of your situation, you are sensitized to comments like this, but it’s safe to assume that others in earshot (clients, victims, fellow staffers) are also sensitive to this sort of comment.

You are in the trenches together, serving in very stressful situations. There are many other ways to bond and to blow off steam. I’m going to assume that because you’re relatively new at your job, your co-workers don’t know about your sister’s death.

You should react to a comment like this in the moment and in front of others: “I know you don’t mean it, but those of us who have lost family members to suicide have learned not to joke about it.” And then — let it lie. You will immediately get through to one or two people. Others will be inspired to think about it.

You’ve got some tough times ahead. More trips to the bathroom. The holidays are hard for people who have experienced loss, which includes just about everyone. Be both honest and gentle toward yourself, and others.

Dear Amy: My wife and I have been married for several years. She is from the Midwest but we now live on the coast, where I grew up. As such, I am often introducing her to new people.

My wife is a lovely and likable person. But when she meets a person for the first time, she occasionally opens up with: “Oh my God! Did you know you have a doppelganger?” and then goes on to describe an old friend, acquaintance, or regional celebrity from her past and how the two are so alike.

She always frames it in a positive light. Nonetheless, I tend to cringe because I do not believe that people really want to hear about how they are “just like someone else,” even if it’s meant as a compliment.

It seems to further distract from making good first impressions. My wife, however, does not seem to think this is an issue. I would like to hear your take on this.

— Concerned Husband (Anonymous)

Concerned: This “you look just like” phenomenon happens with some frequency to me — and occasionally the person I resemble turns out to be … myself. But, so what? It’s an opener.

Being told you resemble someone you’ve never heard of is not the most sparkling conversation starter in the world, but I suggest that this is not behavior that you should feel the need to correct.

Dear Amy: “Holding” wrote to you about how she met her husband 30 years ago — when she was a “part-time sex worker.”

I was shocked and disappointed that you didn’t call her out on her profession.

— Upset

Upset: “Holding” asked a question about her mother-in-law. With a mother-in-law in her life, poised to judge her — there was no need for me to pile on.

©2022 by Amy Dickinson distributed by Tribune Content Agency

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