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Why losing a job deserves its own grieving process

Unemployment is startlingly similar to the loss of a loved one, including its effect on your sense of identity.

Why losing a job deserves its own grieving process
[Photo: Nicola Fioravanti/Unsplash]

Do you find yourself unemployed through no fault of your own? Even worse, are you unemployed during a historic pandemic of epic proportions? With about 10 million people filing for unemployment in a two-week span in March alone, you are more likely to be the rule than the exception.

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If you’re going to navigate this sudden change effectively, you have to start allowing the grieving process to run its course.

First, recognize that job loss—like any event that tears at the fabric of your life story—triggers grief. The purpose of grief is to help you reweave the story of your life together. Many people are familiar with the five stages of grief first described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the context of understanding patients dealing with terminal illness. The five stages she described are: Shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and detachment, and acceptance. Not every person will go through all five stages, but it is helpful to recognize them.

The reason why job loss feels so damaging is that your work structures a lot of your daily routine. For many people, their job also provides a significant source of your identity. Moreover, work also provides a social network, a steady paycheck, and critically, a predictable routine.

During this period of loss, shock often comes first. This sensation often arrives alongside a realization the future will look little like the past. Until you can begin to understand why certain events occur, it can feel difficult to be productive. The stress of shock makes it hard to think clearly; therefore the phase of shock often looks like a blur in retrospect.

The next common stage is anger. Try your best to acknowledge this feeling, rather than suppress it. If you are angry, shoot to dissipate some of that energy. Take a walk, go for a run, chop wood, or dive into something that gets your blood pumping.

When you reach the bargaining stage, you start thinking through all the “what ifs,” which redirected your trajectory to uncertainty. This is all completely normal. Work to recognize this phase and don’t spend excessive time beating yourself up. Blaming or shaming yourself will not help the situation, because you can’t rewrite history. Try journaling about the traumatic situation. Plenty of evidence demonstrates writing down your thoughts can be beneficial to long-term health.

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Depression and detachment typically come next. You will feel depleted and helpless. Lean on family or friends for motivation, and go outdoors in nature, which shows you that the world is bigger than yourself. Look at other people laughing and having fun, and recognize all these individuals experienced tragedy once, as well as times to move forward. Take positive actions each day, even though you don’t want to.

At the end of this journey is acceptance—the stage in which you are ready to move on. What will it take to help you accept a situation that is out of your control and convince you to move forward? Maybe it is unpacking the boxes that remind you of the past and stand in the way of your future.

You may go through just one of these stages, many of these stages repeatedly, or none at all. Wherever you are on your unemployment grief journey, here are three things you can do to get back to a productive mindset.

Take up a hobby or do something you’ve always wanted to do

What is that one thing that you would do if you “just had time”? Well, now is the time. Maybe it is creating a garden in your yard, learning a different language, visiting or reconnecting with old friends, or learning to teach yoga.

A hobby or a scheduled activity gives you something to look forward to, and it can help you to get the social interaction you miss. In addition, by starting something new, you experience the joy of learning that comes from the early stages of any new venture. Moreover, you will prove to yourself that you can try and succeed at new things, which is a big confidence builder.

Don’t just accept help—ask for it

Your job loss has a big impact on you and your life, but it also affects others who depend on you. Don’t take the burden on all by yourself. Your family would never want to watch you suffer and feel helpless. Ask them for ideas and help. You may be surprised by their level of support and the suggestions they make. This situation that you are facing by yourself can just as easily become a family situation, one where everyone can pitch in and help out. A family that manages crises together, strengthens their bond together.

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Reach out to your business acquaintances. You never know where a discussion with one contact can lead to another, and possibly a new job. You may refrain from reaching out, because you feel ashamed at the stigma of unemployment. Don’t let this hesitation hold you back. The people in your social network are much more likely to help you than you think they are—just ask.

As an added note, don’t only ask for help. Look for opportunities to give assistance. For instance, there are endless volunteer opportunities. By helping others, you reconnect to your community and gain a sense of accomplishment.

In addition to this emotional benefit, your volunteer work might just expand your network of like-minded contacts, eventually leading to a job opportunity.

Create a schedule that affords the comfort of routine

Another key activity is to make up for the lack of structure that comes with job loss. Develop a regular schedule. A routine helps you stay in control of your day and remain mindful of how you spend your time. Share this schedule with those closest to you, as they can offer support.

These are tumultuous times that we find ourselves in. Success in life is determined by what you do in difficult times as much by how you manage success. Will you duck and hide, or seize control of your fate?

Action positions you as the author of your future. Even if you feel you have no control, you have the ability to write yourself a new beginning by taking action.

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Art Markman, PhD, is a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. Art is the author of Smart Thinking, Habits of Leadership, Smart Change, Brain Briefs and, most recently, Bring Your Brain to Work.

Michelle Jack is an expert in change management. She holds an MA from the University of Texas in Human Dimensions of Organizations. She is a certified executive coach from the University of Georgia.

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