Undercover Grief

I rarely watch reality television programs. (Right, I only watch PBS.) But one reality series has recently drawn my attention: “Undercover Boss.”

Each week a business owner travels incognito to a subdivision of the business and takes an entry-level position for several days. The employees know they are being taped by a television crew; they are usually told that the tape will be used as a training film. Constantly asking questions of the employees, especially the training supervisor, the owner can gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the firm on the ground. At the program’s end the owner reveals his or her true identity and doles out rewards (raises, paid vacations, scholarships) or punishments (remedial courses, occasionally dismissal) to the featured workers.

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The moral character of the workers quickly comes into view. The viewer easily spots the industrious and the slothful, the polite and the rude, the friendly and the hostile. That waitress has an attitude problem. That efficient electrician should be running the Pentagon. But what is especially striking in these interviews between the masked employer and the employee is how often the grief of the employee takes center stage.

One woman in a real estate network reveals the challenges she faces taking care of her mentally ill sister and processing her grief at the death of her aged mother. A short-order cook breaks into tears as he explains how important it was to obtain his job after being devastated by the murder of his father right outside their home. A subcontractor admits that worry over the illness and death of his child distracts him from his work.

Other griefs quickly surface: a painful divorce, a battle against addiction, a devastating bankruptcy. The disguised employers are often led empathetically into their own confessions of grief. The owner of a limousine service weeps as he recalls the pain of his failed marriage and the self-destruction wrought by his own years of drug addiction. A restaurant owner chokes up as she explains how a bankruptcy years ago had humiliated her.

At a distance “Under-cover Boss” would seem to be yet another of the “gotcha” surveillance series in which employers and detectives root out dishonest or incompetent employees. But there is surprisingly little of that in the program. There is also little expression of the emotion prized in our omnipresent pop psychology talk shows: resentment. Training instructions on how to drive a limousine, carve a chicken or dismantle an electrical socket abruptly pivot into revelations about a recently deceased spouse or a friend’s addiction or the bankruptcy when the family lost the house. Questions of work suddenly shift into the suffering, often courageously endured, that brought this person to this job and that makes this person want to stay at or leave this particular business. The program is an unexpected forum for the human soul to emerge in all its tragic memory, fear and hope.

Despite our claims to be a therapeutic society, the heartfelt expression of grief is rarely welcome. Our plunge into a lethal culture of opioid addiction is in part an effort to suppress rather than face and express sorrow over the death of a beloved relative or friend. In a voyeuristic culture, grief is quickly transmuted into anger and accusation.

As Catholics in a moment of ecclesial decline, how do we mourn the demise of a parish or parochial school? How do we mourn the death of an entire religious subculture? And how do we place such grief in a sober act of hope?

In the Catholic liturgical year, November is traditionally the moment to express our grief as a community gathered in worship. The liturgy of All Souls Day roots us in the compassion of Jesus toward the bereaved, the Book of Wisdom’s promise of immortality and the glorious hope of the resurrection. Baskets of petitions near the altar name the dead we mourn and intercede for in the prayer of the faithful. The private visit to the cemetery, the flowers on the tomb and the rosary at the graveside tie memory and grief to our great hope for the kingdom where tears are no longer shed. As the skies darken, it is also the season to share with other Christians our loss, made more than bearable by the fortitude and perseverance granted by the Holy Spirit. “Sorrow built a bridge.”

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