Job Loss and 6 Stages of Grief

Text on the image reads 6 stages of job loss grief. Fear Shock Disbelief, Avoidance Avoidance Denial Confusion, Anxiety Anger Frustration, Depression Grieving Flight, Attempt Control Bargaining What If?, I'm Okay Acceptance What's Next?.

Has this ever happened to you? You quietly mind your own business, doing something you like or need to do, and a memory emerges. Along with that memory comes new, and uncomfortable, feelings – like anger or even an overall funk.

Suppose that memory is about a job “separation” (downsized, laid off, furloughed, redundant, position eliminated, early retirement, aged out, or just plain fired). In that case, it could be that you are going through one of the stages of grief that comes with a job loss.

Big Job Loss After Effects

I was in a yoga class trying to get my OM on. However, instead of peace & serenity, a wave of slow anger boiled up. Following my curiosity, instead of stuffing the feeling down, I let it flow through my body to see what came up. I admit it’s easy to let this fiery emotion spread being in a hot yoga class – no one will notice my red face!

What was the origin of that anger? Four years ago, that day, I had been among the 110 people downsized from one of the largest magazine/digital publishing houses. It was very unexpected – they had recruited me away from a nine-year job at a small competitor by offering me a tremendous salary increase. All in all, I had only been in that particular position for four months!

As shocking as it was, the story I tell is that I was probably the happiest person to be let go. The stress of the position impacted my health. I was unhappy with the unnerving high expectations of this position and – in a sense, the worst of all – the commute going through the New York City park where 9/11 happened. Most mornings, I felt like I walked through ghosts.
This job loss turned into a huge relief and a start of a new life.

While I told everyone, including myself, I was happy about the big job loss – the aftereffects of not properly going through the different stages of grief hit me four years later. Keeping such a hot emotion in for all that time wasn’t healthy for my body, and fortunately it came out in a non-stress environment.

Stages of Grieving for Job Loss

What are these stages of grief that you may go through when ‘departed’ from a job? Have you heard at some point about Kübler-Ross ‘Five Stages of Grieving when a loved one dies? After a long discussion with a friend, who is dealing with cancer as well as having been “separated” from her high-powered advertising job, we realized that these stages apply to the loss of a job/career too!

Kübler-Ross created five stages, and others made it seven. How many you go through all depends on your interpretation.

Based on our experiences and those we subjectively surveyed, my friend Karen and I decided on six: 1) Shock/disbelief, 2) Denial/Avoidance, 3) Anger/Frustration/Anxiety, 4) Grieving/Depression, 5) Bargaining, and then 6) Acceptance.

It’s more like spaghetti.
Tangled, messy, ups,
downs, and squiggles
you don’t expect.

A myth is that since it’s phrased as “stages,” each person must go through each one to reach the next. We discovered and confirmed with others who also came suddenly to the end of their career, that it is not as simple as a linear progression. It’s more like spaghetti. Tangled, messy, ups, downs, and squiggles you don’t expect.

Going Through the Feelings

In a short span of time, I went through all the stages of grief- except anger and grieving. I hit the other ones – shock (of the news), denial (I was happy about being forced out), bargaining (I attempted control of the situation by arranging to still take an industry certification test as well as arranging a fun trip away), and a bit after that, acceptance.

Acceptance came later, during the Fall when I knew I didn’t want to return to the corporate world. A sign to follow my passion came from an unlikely source – the unemployment department! They sent me an application for a program to become self-employed. Instead of proving I was job hunting, I had to prove I was learning how to run my own business.

A few months after the big job loss, I felt lucky to have skipped the hard stages. I didn’t realize that my adventures after that marker-of-a-day in August would bring me back through ALL the stages. (Hint: Don’t become an entrepreneur unless you are truly ready to face fears you didn’t know you had!).

Feeling the anger four years later showed me that, eventually, one does go through all the stages.

Take Action

What I’ve learned over the years, and advice I wish I had been given the first (or second or third) time it happened, is that after any job separation, you set aside time for self-reflection. Go through the grieving process as best you can, even if you have a new job starting soon. Take that first baby step – identify there is something to grieve. It’s up to you to create movement into acceptance, where you explore your options and plan to follow your path.

What I’ve learned
over the years …
set aside time for

Brene Brown Advice:

Brené Brown advises acknowledging your discomfort.

“Too many of us build up narratives about our career journeys that skip over the bumps. I lost a job and then I got a new one, and I’m not going to acknowledge the feelings of helplessness and loss in between those points. We’re much better at inflicting pain than feeling and acknowledging it.

Acknowledging uncomfortable feelings means looking into what are the actions that “emotionally hook” us and why these feelings upset us.

We can avoid these feelings, but we can’t run from them. Bodies keep score, and they always win. Feelings that are pushed away will bubble up in our bodies’ physical reactions. We can lose sleep and build resentment and anxiety over feelings we repress.”

This happened to me. I built up an internal story about my last corporate position. I didn’t face all the feelings, the discomfort from what had happened…until something in yoga unlocked where it was stored in my body! Anger bubbled up, and I finally processed that stage of grief.

Fire Starter Sessions Advice

Leaning into your uncomfortable feelings is a challenge. Your brain doesn’t like dissonance and will keep attempting to keep you in your comfort, even if that place is filled with fear. Facing your fears and doing it anyway is the path to growth in your personal and professional life.

One self-help guru, Danielle LaPort, offers guidance through a program she calls “Fire Starter Sessions.” Her workbook helped me ask deeper questions and discover the areas I felt the most fear and resistance.

When someone at a party asks you what you do, what do you say? And how doyou feel when you say it? – Danielle LaPort, the Fire Starter Sessions

A huge part of my identity was created by working in the same industry for decades. Four years after the big career change, I awkwardly stumbled over the answer about what I do. Having been a high-level media sales director for years, it’s taken time to shift my outlook to my new entrepreneurial life plus new visions of my present and future. There was no straight path from
stage one to stage six. Awareness that there is a grief process? Immensely freeing.

What I ‘do’ isn’t about how I get paid; it’s about how I see myself as me and how I serve others. If you start to feel some funk take over as you weed out those power suits you no longer wear, remember there is a grief process. And there is no time limit or linear stage format you must follow to allow all those feelings to be felt – and released.

Job Loss Ritual Doesn’t Exist

These days it’s likely that either you, or someone you know, has experienced this sudden job loss. Culturally speaking, there is a stigma for not having a job. The unspoken “there must be something wrong with you” shame

For so many other life events, there are rituals. Wedding ceremonies, sitting Shiva, wakes, baby showers, and, when the time comes- retirement parties. But there is not anything for when you are downsized. Except maybe a phone call from an outplacement counselor, but that does nothing for your huge emotions.

Having some kind of established ritual would be soothing. Knowing that there are stages of grief for job loss can also bring peace of mind, and be an aid when the tough feelings show up. A tip based on my experience? Pick up a journal, and record your feelings around the job loss. You can create a ritual to go with your journaling. By taking this kind of action, you give yourself a way to allow and acknowledge your memories and feelings, and move through the stages of grief more readily.

Wouldn’t a yoga class be easier, without old emotions unexpectedly bubbling up? Take time right after a job loss and go through the six stages of grief.