The Invisible Grief of Job Loss

Loss of any kind is followed by grief.  If it’s a loss of someone we love, there are rituals, ceremonies, public acknowledgment and acceptance of a period of mourning.   But there are other losses, large and small, that do not have ceremonies and that are endured privately.  The loss of physical capacity, the loss of a pregnancy, and the loss of a beloved pet, for example, are not usually grieved in the public arena.  Neither is the loss of a job.  This is what psychologists call invisible grief or disenfranchised grief, when loss isn’t recognized or validated by social norms or those around us.

If you’ve had an involuntary exit, processing this loss can be a harrowing experience.  We’re visited regularly by anger, sadness, and the worst blight of all on our emotional well-being, shame.  The pandemic actually allowed for collective public grieving, when nearly 15 million people were unable to work because of businesses closing.  Now, as employment rates continue to rise, which is a good thing, we have to be more intentional about self-care and seeking supportive communities.

It’s About Your Identity

When you lose a job, there are no ceremonies. People around you may view this as a blip or a financial problem, something easily solved by networking and updating your resume.  In the meantime, the role that gave you your professional identity is gone.  “Our job isn’t just about gaining resources,” says clinical social worker Megan Marzo.  “It’s about who we are, so when we lose that, we feel we’re failing at the purpose we decided upon.”

What You Could Be Mourning

Existing without knowing your purpose will send you reeling.  Here are some of the hidden losses you may be mourning:

Your Potential. You know what you’re capable of accomplishing but didn’t get the chance to finish the job.

Your Power. You used to be in a position of authority with the power to make a difference and influence other careers.

The Plan You Had for Yourself. You had your blueprint for success mapped out, and this was supposed to be a stepping stone.

Your Routine. You had structure that helped you organize your day and keep your focus.

Your Friends and Colleagues. You saw the same people every day for years and now those easy interactions are gone.

Your Sense of Belonging. You had a community where you were known, accepted, and appreciated.

Processing the Four Stages of Grief

John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, described the stages of grief related to attachment and separation.  His framework captures the experience of being severed from an organization.

  1. Shock and Numbness: “What just happened to me?”
  2. Yearning and Searching: “Why did they choose me and not him? How will they succeed without me? I wish things were like they were before.”
  3. Disorientation and Disorganization: “Who am I? What do I do now?  How do I tell people what happened?  I don’t know what to say that won’t make me look like a failure.”
  4. Reorganization and Resolution: “I get it. I’m not who I was.  I have a lot of options.  I forgot about that since I was working 24/7.  I’m resolved to start something new—to begin again as the person I am now.”

Nothing is Linear

Each phase is its own journey and has its own highs and lows.  You can boomerang.  You may try to get to Stage 4 before you’ve really processed your disorientation and find yourself in a job where you see threats that don’t exist.

The length of time it takes to move through each phase can’t be predicted.  But, if this is not your first time being let go, and many women have multiple exits throughout their careers, you’ll likely recognize the emotional triggers of each stage and move on more quickly.

Resolution

In my book, Involuntary Exit, I take you through the coping strategies that women have successfully used to accept the loss and begin again.  These include:

Practicing affirmations of their value every day, out loud.

Understanding they’re in emotional training and it will take time to rebuild resilience.

Joining or forming a community of people in career transition.

Taking care of their physical health so they don’t feel inactive, mirroring the emotional toll of having their work taken away.

Prioritizing their mental health by speaking with a therapist.

You’ll know you’ve assimilated the loss into your life when 90% of your conversation no longer is about what happened in the past.  You’re available to be present in life as it happens. You’ll still have baggage, but at least it now has wheels.

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