I ran across the following article when working recently with a career transition coaching client who was experiencing a tremendous sense of grief as he was dealing with a recent job loss. I found the following article to be very helpful and highly recommend passing this article on to anyone you know who has recently lost their job. The author of this article, Jim Davis, also wrote The Job Loss Survival Guide, which provides additional insights and perspectives on the job loss grieving process. Information on Jim can be found on his website - The Family Corner Network.
Understanding and Coping with Job-Loss Grief:
Grief is perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of human life. We treat grief as an enemy. We fight it, or we try to pretend that it doesn't exist. The truth is, however, that grief is a healing process that is just as vital as the physical healing of cuts, bruises, and broken bones. And just as a severe physical injury can take a long time to heal, the death of a loved one, a divorce, or even a job loss normally means a substantial period of grief. Just as it is important to know how to take good care of ourselves during the recuperation from a physical trauma, we also need to understand how grief heals and what we must do for the healing to be complete.
Grief is usually associated with the death of a loved one, but there are other areas of life in which loss results in grief that is just as real. One of these is being experienced more and more often due to the current trend of companies to "down-size." The majority of today's working population are likely to experience at least one job loss in their career lives. Job loss can bring about a grief that is in some ways more difficult to deal with than when a loved one dies. This is because of the increased complexity of job-loss grief in today's society.
For many people today, there are two major phases of job loss. The first one is relatively new, and although it can be helpful it brings new problems, too. I call it the "pre-termination" phase. In past years, it was common for firings to be swift and merciless, but more and more companies are now providing a transition period. This is the period of time beginning with advance notification of job termination and ending with the actual job loss. It can last from a few weeks to several months. It often involves job retraining and outplacement services which are provided by the company. On the downside, it is similar to being told you have only a short time to live, or a kind of "death sentence."
The "terminated" phase begins with the actual job loss, and unfortunately is still the only phase for many people. Even though the impact of actual unemployment can be lessened by a period of preparation, the grief process is still different for this phase. Many of the emotions do carry over, but the grief is more like that associated with the loss of a loved one. A way of life has ended, along with the security it provided.
Job-loss grief is further complicated by the fact that either of the two phases may occur without the other, as well as in sequence. The "pre-termination" phase could occur alone in the case where the person finds a new and more desirable job before their current employment ends. That might be more like resigning to take a better job. The "terminated" phase may occur alone if the person is fired with no warning. Often however, even when a person finds a replacement job before unemployment begins it doesn't totally eliminate the next phase. The new job still means a new environment, new people, and possible relocation. This often involves a pay cut, reduced benefits, and starting over at the bottom of the seniority ladder.
The Job-Loss Grief Process:
Stage One: Denial
When a person is first informed that their employment is going to end, their first response is a stunned "this can't be happening to me." This stage may last only a few minutes, or it can last for weeks. Sometimes the person becomes convinced that management will change their minds because that has happened before.
Stage Two: Anger
After the person comes to the realization that they are really going to lose their job, they get angry. The anger is usually toward the company or the management, but often it is directed elsewhere. It is not uncommon for people to take their anger out on family or friends.
Stage Three: Bargaining
Not everyone appears to go through this stage, but at least some do. Usually, the bargaining is something like asking God to intervene in the operation of the company, or promising God all sorts of things in return for another job.
Stage Four: Depression
When it becomes obvious that termination is inevitable, depression sets in. The depression may be mild and allow the person to go on to the next stage, or it may be severe enough to inhibit normal functioning. Even when one successfully goes on to Stage Five, recurring bouts with depression are not uncommon.
Stage Five: Acceptance, or Getting On With Life
One may enter this stage before depression has completely ended. In fact, it is common for people to have to continually work to fight depression if it looks like job prospects are bleak. Those who have the most success in this stage are those who learn to manage their attitudes. They realize that success is usually the result of applying a positive attitude to keep trying, exploring alternatives, and building networks.
Stage One: Numbness
Whether you have gone through a "pre-termination" phase or not, you still experience some degree of numbness and disbelief that you have actually lost your job. This may explain why some people at first act as if they think they can continue their same lifestyle on unemployment benefits.
Stage Two: Yearning
Once a person has gone through the numbness stage, they often get "homesick" for the old job. Even if they didn't like their job, they may still miss the people, the routine, etc. This stage will also usually include anger toward the company or specific people, particularly if there was little or no transition period.
Stage Three: Disorganization and Despair
The person comes to terms with the job loss, but cannot seem to get on with life. They procrastinate about trying to find another job, partly out of fear of failure and partly out of embarrassment from being jobless. When they do begin, it is often a haphazard effort. They often become depressed.
Stage Four: Reorganization of Behavior
The person finally realizes that in order to possibly return to the quality of life they had before, they must make some changes in their life. They no longer blame anyone for the past. Instead, they focus on the future and its possibilities. They begin to plan rather than daydream. Then they act based on the plan. They develop a support network which includes family, friends, mentors, and job contacts. When they become discouraged, they then can avoid reverting back to stage three.
If a person has been able to go through an adequate and effective "pre-termination" phase, they can often minimize stages two and three of the "terminated" phase. This is particularly the case when they have been able to take advantage of support services or develop their own support group during the earlier phase.
Just as with other types of grief, a person with job-loss grief has three basic choices. They can stay at the same point and fixate, they can regress, or they can progress and go on to the next stage of living. Understanding the job-loss grief process can help them to get on to that next stage in a healthy and productive way.
These are quite similar to the symptoms of death-related grief. Some will be expressed in different ways, of course. For example, one problem that people sometimes have when a loved one dies is an inability to recall happy memories of the deceased. In the case of job loss the problem may be trouble recalling good memories of the job or career.
Family symptoms for job-loss grief may be considerably different from those for death-related grief, although there are some similarities. The two immediate tasks are the same, however. The family needs to be a primary support group and must adjust to the new situation by changing the way it operates.
Symptoms that are the same or similar:
A parent's diminished ability to parent. Parents who have lost their job often find it difficult to concentrate of the job of being a parent. They sometimes also may be afraid that their children, as well as other family members, view them as failures. This feeling can make it particularly difficult for parents to feel adequate as role models or authority figures.
Difficulties adjusting to new family roles and tasks. This can be a problem for other members of the family as well as the one who has suffered the job loss. For example, when Dad tries to take over some of the duties Mom has always performed, the kids and Mom may have as much trouble adjusting as Dad does.
Difficulties remembering the "good times." The tendency is to dwell on bad feelings toward the former employer and the negative aspects of the former job. The happy memories tend to get pushed back and ignored.
Increased family disputes. Stresses due to the new family structure, the changes in the family financial situation, and the emotional trauma of job loss often result in misunderstandings and arguments. Poor communication often results, which in turn can lead to further tensions.
"Scapegoating" and blaming others. It is often easier to blame others for our problems than to take responsibility for our lives. This can especially be the case when others are responsible for things that happen to us. The majority of job loss due to "down-sizing" has little if anything to do with individual job performance. Unfortunately, however, the feelings of frustration and helplessness over those things we have no control of tend to spill over into the areas where we do have some control. Finding fault and placing blame become a way of dealing with life in general rather than taking control and assuming responsibility for what we do with our lives.
Stress-related problems. Although stress can actually be helpful in carefully managed "doses", overwhelming stress often results in emotional or medical problems. Research shows that we become more susceptible to viruses, such as colds and flu, when we are under stress. Other physical problems, such as ulcers or high blood pressure, also often accompany prolonged stress. In addition, emotional problems such as depression can also result.
Symptoms that may be different:
Concerns and disputes about the financial future. Economic uncertainty is a natural outcome of job loss due to the loss of income. The family life-style often changes, sometimes drastically. This can result in concerns about the family's immediate future as well as long-term plans for the children's education or for retirement. These concerns, coupled with other stresses, often bring about family conflicts.
Concerns about having to move. This is often of greater concern to older children and adolescents than to their parents. If a move is necessary in order to get a new job, the children may feel that their lives are being uprooted unfairly. They may be unable to understand why the move is necessary, especially if they have been sheltered from the realities of the job loss.
Worries about what friends will think about unemployed status. Job loss is often accompanied by feelings of fear of how others will react. This fear may be enhanced by the reactions of former coworkers whose jobs were not affected. Many times those people will distance themselves from those who have lost their jobs because they simply don't know what to say or how to act. Unfortunately, this reaction is often perceived as rejection.
Be open about what has happened to you. Don't be afraid to say, "I lost my job." You may be surprised at how many people you meet have had similar experiences.
Become part of a support group. It can be especially helpful to talk to (and listen to) a group of people who are in your situation. Often just finding out that there are others with your same concerns and fears can be a great help in dealing with those feelings.
Process your emotions. Admit your anger, fear, and frustrations to your support group, your family, and your friends. When you allow yourself to do this you are taking the first step toward managing your emotions instead of letting them control you.
Affirm yourself. You may feel guilty for letting your family down even though you know your job loss had nothing to do with anything you did. Or you may have missed out on a job opportunity that would have kept you employed. Once you resolve this guilt you can move on.
Renew and deepen relationships. Your marriage and family, as well as your friends, can be a source of strength that is stronger than you realized. Having someone you can lean on and rely on can be crucial in times of trouble. Also, there may be times when you need someone to "give you a shove" when you become discouraged.
Maintaining or renewing spirituality can be just as helpful as your relationships with other people. Your personal beliefs and your relationship with God can give you support even when other people are not available for support. Your spirituality can help you develop your "inner strength" to deal with hardships, and it can also help you find an "inner peace" that can be just as beneficial.
Keep your sense of humor. Laughter is as important to your health as physical exercise and a good diet. Just as it is important to exercise on a regular basis, it is important to maintain your sense of humor on a regular basis. If you don't already read the daily comics, that can be a good start. Also, learn to look for humor in everyday situations, especially things that happen to you. Learning to laugh at yourself is one of the best ways to have a healthy self-image.
Although it is helpful to realize that there are other people who are going through similar feelings and emotions, there are always variables that make each situation unique. These variables also affect the severity of the grief, the time it takes to go through it, and the effect the job loss has on your life. Some of those factors are:
The person's age. Losing a job can be devastating at any age, but for older people it can be especially difficult.
Length of time with the company. When a person has been with a company for many years, there is a much stronger sense of loss. This can be compounded when retirement is only a few years or even months away.
Whether they have been through job loss before. This may have either a positive or a negative impact. For some people, having had "practice" with job loss enables them to look at it as something they can better deal with because of their experience. For others, subsequent job losses are even more difficult to deal with.
Their feelings about the job/company. If a person has been a dedicated employee who loved their job, the job loss will probably be much more traumatic than for the person who has been dreaming of a career change. However, just because a person dislikes their job or the company they work for does not mean they will take job loss easily. Often these people have the most difficulties of all.
Their family situation. This probably has more potential variations than any of the other "variables." For example, single, young people are often considered to be able to cope relatively easily with job loss. This can be true, but their emotional ties to their family, a parent's illness, or any number of other factors make one person's experience different from another. The list of different potential family factors is practically endless. Not only are there different kinds of relationships such as those between spouses, parents and children, or brothers and sisters, but other factors such as family traditions, beliefs, and values are also involved.
The person's emotional health. Emotional health problems are more difficult for most people to deal with than physical problems, and this may be intensified by job loss. Many people see emotional problems such as depression as a "weakness" that they must hide. An additional complication of emotional health problems often results in physical problems, such as ulcers or high blood pressure, as well.
The quality/availability of support services. A number of companies now provide transition assistance to employees whose jobs are being eliminated. This assistance may include counseling, training in interviewing and job search skills, or job placement services. The type and quality of these support services varies, and in some cases amounts to only token support. And, of course, there are still many companies which offer nothing more than severance pay.
One other important thing to realize is that the stages of the grief process are variable themselves. They don't have a set duration, and they don't always occur in the same order. The importance of understanding the stages is to better understand the process. When one understands what is happening to them they can find comfort in that understanding. Proper understanding and a good support system usually are sufficient for most people to successfully go through their grief.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that just as with other types of grief, the purpose of job-loss grief is healing. It is a natural healing, and it hurts. And just as with physical healing, grief usually leaves scars. Usually, though, the scars left by grief are invisible ones. Just remember that regardless of whether scars are visible or not, they can be badges of courage or marks of despair. We each make our own decisions about which they will be.
In addition to being a healing process job-loss grief is also a survival process. It isn't a new way of life that will go on indefinitely. It may seem to take forever, but it will eventually come to an end.
Of course, life may never be the same again. In some cases this change is for the better in every way. You may find a better job, develop closer family ties, and learn that you have abilities that you never even dreamed of. On the other hand, the new situation you find yourself in may not turn out to be what you hoped for. Finances may become strained. There may not be any jobs available that you are qualified for. The only jobs you can find may require you to move or to retrain. If this happens, you may find that the results of the healing of job-loss grief is somewhat like the healing which some people experience after a severe physical injury such as a broken bone.
For example, people who have had a broken leg often experience some pain or discomfort for years after the break has healed. In some cases a person even has to make some permanent changes, such as wearing a built-up shoe when the leg is shorter after it heals or giving up sports that involve running. And all this can happen even when they do everything they are supposed to do for healing to be complete. In a case like this, or with other losses such as loss of limbs or even job loss, successful survivors focus on what they can still do instead of their limitations.
Andy Robinson, Executive Career Coach
Co-host, Career Success Radio Show
A leading authority on career success; 15-year executive coaching veteran
Contact: Andy@CRGLeaders.com, 239-285-5575