Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Stages of Grief in Job Loss

Around 30 years ago, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified the most common emotions linked to grieving the death of a loved one. By now many of us are familiar with the five stages, which she labeled as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She and others have further refined this paradigm, pointing out that these stages are not necessarily experienced by everyone, or in this exact order. Sometimes whole stages are skipped, and although progressive, they do not occur in a linear fashion.

The stages of grief, then, are really a guideline for what most of us will endure after any great loss, and unemployment is no exception. The loss of routine and identity is a shock. Suddenly there's no reason to get up in the morning, no good answer to the "What do you do for a living?" question. Thrust into home life all day long with no end in sight, you now have all the time in the world to mull over what happened. Goody. Twenty-four uninterrupted hours to pretend you're taking a personal day (denial), rant about the unfairness of it all (anger) and stare into the abyss, realizing you have to create a resume and start interviewing for the first time in 20 years (depression).

Rejection hurts.

Some job coaches advise against grieving unemployment, but to me this has been too big an experience to just "get over it."  The day I was terminated, I came home, took a blanket and my dog into the backyard and sobbed. We sat there in the grass on a sunny afternoon fit for a picnic, and it began to sink in that I had just lost not only a job, but a career. At 50 years old, there was every reason to believe I would never get back into the lay-off ridden, youth-oriented field of education. I would have to tell my husband, and we'd have to keep it from well-meaning parents who would only worry too much.

In a country with 11.3 million unemployed adults, grieving job loss is completely acceptable. Knowing your workplace goes right on without you hurts. Finding out that it'll take the average middle-aged person six months to find a new place to go to every day is mind blowing. Then there's the really personal parts of initial unemployment. Removing that work phone number from your list of contacts certainly makes it real. Many professionals, and teachers in particular, keep a lot of stuff in order to do their jobs. When you have to take it all home and deal with it, anger and resentment and despair and regret will flow with every workbook and professional tome you pack for Goodwill. Just move on? Just give me a minute!

It's going to be a bumpy ride.

You might travel through all five stages of grief in 24 hours, and still not have even scratched the surface of the healing process. A new normal must be developed against your will, and it will take time to accept that reality, let alone embrace it. Yesterday afternoon, for example, after filling out what had to be my 500th application, I flipped from hopeful to angry, and frankly I'm still there. I'm angry that I keep getting emailed job alerts unrelated to my search. I'm angry that I keep filling out reams of applications that seem to disappear into space. Friends and family give me pep talks, but sometimes they just make me angry, too. They don't understand. I can only pay for so much retraining. I can't get younger, and I can't make offers appear. Then I'm back to depression, hating myself for being in this situation. It's a roller coaster.

So what are the unemployed to do about this potent mix of emotions? Here are some tips from me to you:

  • Take a break from the job search once in awhile. Skip the rejection for a day or two and enjoy the time off until you are strong enough to get back in there.
  • Watch a movie about unemployment. Seriously, it will make you feel like somebody out there gets what you are going through. My favorite is The Company Men, a 2010 film about the effects of corporate downsizing on those who get sacked -- and those who don't.
  • Remind yourself that there is more than one way to live a life, and not all of it has to be about work.Your family mattered more all along. Plus, any work can glorify God if you let it. If you feel you need some new ideas about how to approach life in general, check out blogs like Tiny Buddha (linked on the right). Change from your choice is empowering, and anyone can change if they want to.
  • Try not to use excess alcohol or food as escape mechanisms. In the end they will only make things worse. Embrace healthy choices; it's a way to be kind to yourself when you need it most.
  • Finally, if you get really, really down about everything, seek counseling. The downward spiral of depression is real, and it can be truly dangerous. Likewise, anger that festers and grows has ended in more than one tragedy. No job loss is worth that.
We jobless are in this together. You are not alone, and neither am I. We just have to keep believing that we are worthy of kindness, respect, success, and eventually, maybe -- another job.

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