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When Grieving Job Loss is Interrupted

What-is-grief
A few days ago I posted on the need for us to allow ourselves time and space to grieve when we lose our jobs. Reader Tony Cannata left a fantastic comment on that post about how grieving for a lost job can be interrupted. He said:

I was fired last October, but because a former employer snatched me back up 2 weeks later I didn't have a chance to grieve. I was in a safe & familiar place. It ended up distracting me from a grieving process that I should have started. Here I am now, a year later in another new job (which happens to be with a FANTASTIC tech educator) feeling unsure and stuck.

I know I will be a rockstar at this new post, however I had better mourn for my past. Otherwise appear to be just another dud salesman who happens to interview well. 

I think this can happen to a lot of people. We feel fortunate for having found something quickly and move into our new roles without properly mourning what has happened to us.

But what we don't recognize is that we may have some residual anger or sadness to deal with about the loss of our previous jobs or about how things were handled in that loss. Our failure to acknowledge and grieve can come back later to haunt us, as Tony mentions in his comment above. 

What I've found is that our emotions won't be denied. They come back to us in ways that can be disruptive to the new life we are trying to build. As Avigail Abarbinal points out in this fantastic no-nonsense approach to grief:

The implications of un-grieved or blocked grief can be serious. I see a lot of that in my practice. People who do not grieve properly after one or several life changes, are blocking a vital process of adjustment and therefore do not acclimatise properly to their new reality. In other words, their mental ‘landscape’ does not keep up with their real life circumstances and their mind is out of step with the actual reality they live in. Such individuals can end up suffering from ongoing crippling anxiety, and they can subsequently develop real depression. The quality of their life can be greatly diminished and quite often they will suffer from physical symptoms, disturbances in their close relationships and in other areas of their life.

Grieving, as Avigail points out, is an important "bridge that our brain builds to help us move from the world as we knew it before the change to the world as it is now."

These are physical changes--new neural connections and pathways that our brains must build to move us from Reality A to Reality B as in the image above. We must honor this work that needs to take place in ourselves if we hope to reach a healthier place on the other side. 

To complicate the grieving process, I've found that most people carry within them a sense that losing their jobs was somehow their fault. Even if they were laid off for economic reasons, they question "Why ME?" There's shame, loss of self-esteem and loss of identity as a professional that goes with that.

Intellectually we may understand that losing our jobs is not a reflection of our competence or worth, but emotionally, most people I know still carry within them the sense that losing their job means that they are on some level "not good enough." 

So the grieving isn't just about loss. It's also about a blow to the ego and to our identity that can leave us feeling uncertain in our next role. We may find ourselves questioning our abilities and second-guessing the quality of our work. 

It's important that we take some time to acknowledge these issues within ourselves, to heal the wound that comes with job loss. For most of us, what we do for a living is a major part of our identity and losing our jobs is a blow to that sense of self. Again, intellectually we may recognize that being laid off has nothing to do with our qualifications or competence, but emotionally there is usually work to do. 

As I advised Tony, at a minimum, I would suggest going through the Pennebaker writing exercise I mentioned in my earlier post, as well as some of the other activities. Also, be sure to read Avigail's guide to grieving as it provides a much more comprehensive picture of symptoms to look out for and ideas for grieving in a healthy way.

I suspect that much of the dysfunction we feel at work and in our lives is a result of unresolved grief over not only the loss of our individual jobs, but also the loss of an economic world as we once knew it. What would happen if we recognized the need for us to grieve and began to move through that in healthier ways? 

Comments

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I wonder if it's a kind of Post-Tramatic Stress when there is a firing or unfair termination. You keep replaying the situation in your head (if I had only seen the warning signs, what could I have done differently, did I do the best work I could have, anger with supervisors/coworkers). You even get sleepless nights as it keeps replaying in your head. If you don't face that it was a stressful situation (repressing it), the feelings and emotions come back when you see some of the same signs.

I think firing/termination should be addressed with some stress release exercises.

Virginia, I think you're right that there can be a PTSD quality to it, especially if the company didn't handle things well. The horror stories I've heard from people about their lay-offs really boggle the mind.

I agree that providing people with resources and strategies for working through the job loss would be so much more effective than how we currently handle things. Not just stress relief, but really treating this as a grief process and providing people with opportunities to work through the grief.

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