Grieving the Lay Off

By |2018-11-16T22:35:57+00:00October 15th, 2018|Mental and Physical Health, Thriving While Out-of-Work|0 Comments

Getting laid off is a loss. Like any loss, you need to grieve your layoff. If you need real psychological help, remember that mental health is about health, and there is no shame in getting help, just as there is no shame in getting help with a broken leg. So if you need it, get it.

The Five Stages of Grieving

Research on grief, and books on grief, are many. But, the people that literally wrote the book on grief can be found here. There are five stages of grief, and they apply to losing your job just as much as they do in grieving the loss of a loved one.

When thinking about the grieving process, and the five stages, remember this message from David Kessler, one of the authors of On Grief and Grieving:

The stages have evolved since their introduction and have been very misunderstood over the past four decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.

The five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order.

Key parts of that message include:

  • You may not experience these stages in the same order as others
  • The stages are NOT neat boxes, they are a framework to help us through the process

Grieving Stage 1: Denial and Lay Offs

Denial is not about saying “I didn’t lose my job”. It’s about denying the reality of what happened. Sure, for some, they might think they’ll get their job back, but for most? For most of us, it is about denying that our lives have really changed, and that we have suffered a loss. Some people say they are really better off (even if they aren’t). Or that that they were going to quit (maybe, but wouldn’t have another job first be better usually?) Denial is part of the process. But, it’s important to get out of denial at some point, so that things can get better.

This step can also lead you to avoid things, which is part of denial. Many people will avoid their friends or others, because they feel shame. There is nothing to be ashamed of, and your friends can help you through this process. Maybe people will deny their finances have changed, and keep spending in their old ways. For someone with significant savings, this might work, but not for most of us.

The keys for moving through denial:

  • Realize that things have changed.
  • You don’t have a job.
  • Other things have likely changed, like friendships and finances.

Once your realize this, it’s likely you will get angry.

Grieving Stage 2: Anger and Lay Offs

A special note here. If you or someone close to you is prone to violence, layoffs can be a trigger. Get help. Now.

Anger happens in loss. Pretending it doesn’t happen won’t make it not happen. How we react to that anger is key to how long it takes to get through this process, and how much happier we are sooner. According to research, anger gives our loss structure that it did not have in the previous stage. It gives us something to anchor on.

In job loss, you are likely to get angry at your former boss or company. Many of us get angry with ourselves, or our coworkers. Wherever your anger is aimed, it’s likely that person is not really the cause of your new situation. But that’s ok, the key is to recognize your feelings, even to embrace them some. Not by doing violence, or by yelling at people, but by letting yourself experience the feelings for a few days or weeks. Frankly, for me, I suppressed my anger for a long time, and it delayed me getting through the rest of the stages. For others I talk to, they waffle back and forth between anger and denial, often trying to deny the very existence of their anger.

Eventually, though, you need to get through your anger. According to research done by psychologist James Pennebaker, keeping a journal of your feelings will get you through the anger faster, and even help you find a job faster! Another important part of getting through this stage is reducing stress. Stress increases anger. Some suggest exercise. Others suggest meditation or other relaxation techniques. I know that I did both a lot when I first got laid off, and both really helped.

Most research also says that surrounding yourself with positive people and influences helps get you through the anger. It’s why we have Today’s Happy here at Laid Off Better Off.

They keys for moving through anger:

  • Acknowledge your feelings
  • Surround yourself with positive influences

Once you do that, most people start bargaining.

Grieving Stage 3: Bargaining and Lay Offs

Bargaining is an odd one, to me at least. It involves trying to make a deal with the past, to change the past. If only I had worked harder, or been nicer to my boss, or not moved to another state……We become lost is a sea of “if only” statements about the past, trying to convince ourselves that if only something had been different, none of this would have happened.

This stage is also where we tend to feel the most guilt. See those if only statements above, those are guilt inducing thoughts. Getting through this stage involves a lot of the same things the previous one did, in terms of taking care of yourself, and in surrounding yourself with positive influences. It’s also a stage that tends to move us back into anger, and even denial.

From the people that wrote the book again:

We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt. People often think of the stages as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another and back again to the first one.

The keys to moving through bargaining:

  • Realizing that the past can’t be undone, that you can’t negotiate yourself back to the way things were
  • Again, surround yourself with positive influences

Next up, depression. Not usually clinical, but sometimes.

Grieving Stage 4: Depression and Lay Offs

I can’t really recall getting depressed, so much as feeling sad and loss. Then, come 6-7 months later, I really felt it. I’m not sure what the trigger was, but I really began to miss work, and my friends, and to feel sad. I thought that was kind of weird at first, but then I looked back at my notes from the time period where I first lost my job. None of them ever acknowledge my feelings! I had been suppressing them, and so I never really experienced this stage. Well, a bit at first, then I avoided thinking about it for months.

Many of us have our identity wrapped up in our jobs. In the US, the first question we are often asked when we meet someone new is “what do you do?”. The fact that we identify who we are, by what we do, means that when we lose our jobs, we lose faith in ourselves. For me, that was the hard. I went straight to this feeling in my notes. Like I had let everyone down, from my dad who had high expectations for me, to my wife and kids who relied on me for money, to me, and to my coworkers. And, I had been laid off with over 1000 other people! I can’t imagine how much self blame and depression someone would have in a smaller layoff.

The biggest difference between bargaining and depression is that the first looks back, and the second is about the present and future. Where we tried to change the past in bargaining, we are trying to get through the present and envision a positive future in this stage.

You won’t be surprised by this….but the key here is to take care of yourself. We sound like a broken record,  but surround yourself with positive influences. Write down things you did well at work (this will also help with your future job search). Exercise and eat well. Volunteer and help others, which is scientifically shown to improve your mood (and, might be a good way to network, but don’t make that the focus).

The keys to getting through being depressed about your layoff are:

  • Realize you are depressed
  • Help others and yourself
  • Do some fun things, don’t deprive yourself of all fun in an effort to save money

Acceptance is the next phase (though, remember, we often go back and forth through these stages).

*once again, a reminder. If you are clinically depressed, get help.

Grieving Stage 5: Acceptance and Lay Offs

Acceptance isn’t saying life is great, and we are ok with how thing are. It is realizing that things have really changed. That we can’t/won’t go back to how things were. That we might have a lost of something, but that new things are going to happen in the future. In many cases, according to many people we’ve interviewed, life and work often end up better eventually. Acceptance comes when you are finally able to move on from the anger and depression. When you can talk about how happened with less emotion than you did.

J.T. O’Donnell has an interesting article on workitdaily. She talks about how some of us fake acceptance.

The best way to know if you are truly over your job loss and in the stage of acceptance is if you can talk about the experience with:

  • Objectivity: You can state the facts without adding emotional commentary.
  • Accountability: You can take ownership of your role in what lead to your job loss.

Trust me when I say hiring managers (and everyone else you talk to about your job search) can tell if you aren’t at the acceptance stage of job loss grief.

I read that part of that article two or three times before I realized I was that person. I had just moved straight to acceptance, which is possible, but not likely. After reading that article, I did some soul searching and went back through some of the emotions I had skipped. This was literally months and months after my layoff, and it happened when I was starting this site. Hopefully you don’t wait that long to go through the earlier stages, so that this stage can be more real.

Final thoughts on Grieving Your Layoff

That’s a lot to take in. I had to re-write this over and over to get to this point. Frankly, the mental aspect of losing your job, and of looking for another one, is the hardest part for some people. Hopefully thinking about job loss like any other loss, and realizing that everyone goes through five (some say more) stages of emotions, will help you with your processing of this time. Plenty more posts cover some of the advice here in more detail. From mindfulness meditation to journaling. From exercise to volunteering. Mostly from looking at your feelings and surrounding yourself with positive influences, it’s likely you can get to acceptance in a reasonable time, so that you can improve your job search efforts.

One last time, if you have clinical depression, or you or someone you are close to is prone to violence, get help when you are out of work.

About the Author:

Mike Sixel is the founder of Laid Off Better Off. Based in Portland, OR, he has first-hand experience in being unexpectedly laid off. He's made it his mission to provide support, resources and advice to others who are out of work.

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