Job loss grieving follows an Emotional Wave of Unemployment (or E-Wave) because, without planning or permission, you are dumped into an ocean of emotions–shock and denial, fear and panic, anger, depression, and temporary acceptance. Just when you think you may have bottomed out, rejection creates one more wave you need to navigate.
Job loss grieving is a normal process people go through, although not everyone encounters all of the above stages. Losing a job is traumatic and devastating because there are no socially acceptable rituals to follow. Job loss is complicated and changes your life. People may not be able to see it, but you have been badly bruised on the inside. Still, you are expected to be strong on the outside.
Some people know in advance that downsizing is impending. They recognize the signs of layoffs, hear rumors that the company is going out of business, or simply work in a company that has constant turn over of personnel. They may take early retirement or start preparing well before the layoffs take effect. These individuals have the chance to process job loss on their time and terms and actually may be relieved when a final downsize or release occurs.
Once you understand the emotional stages of job loss grieving, you can better cope with the process. This chapter reviews each of the emotional stages of unemployment and provides proven strategies for conquering the loss. In addition, it discusses the potential impact of posttraumatic stress, the ongoing stress of being out of work, and how this stress may impact your ability to find a job.
Stage 1: Shock and Denial
Remember when you heard the words “Your position has been eliminated” plus all the other noise you heard (”blah, blah, blah”) from thereon, but didn’t absorb, only to hear again “I am sure you understand…Mary from HR is going to introduce you to ‘blah, blah, blah,’ who will help you find another job. ‘blah, blah, blah’ ‘Good Luck.’….”
Like so many others in your company who have been terminated, you have just gone into shock. Even if you believed the rumors, you didn’t think the layoffs would affect you because you have:
- Always done the ”right thing”
- Worked overtime without complaint
- Postponed vacations when asked
- Always thought it would be someone else
And, like most people, you probably said to yourself:
- How could this happen to me?
- This must be a mistake!
- My professional life is over.
- What will I tell my spouse and children?
The public announcement of your termination may not seem real and, at the time, nothing else will either. People have told me over the years that they felt like zombies in a bad movie … this is your mind going into shock.
Coping With Shock and Denial
Give yourself plenty of time and the privacy needed to recuperate. Fight the urge to blast your former employer on Facebook or Twitter. This is not the time to post anything on any public forum, write letters, call people, or broadcast the news of your termination. Instead, begin to think about your options and plan your next steps. Pamper yourself by allowing time for you to catch your breath, pause, and then proceed.
Stage 2: Fear and Panic
When I was out of work, I began to believe that everywhere I went people were looking at me. At one point, I thought the word ”loser” had been tattooed on my forehead or ”will work for food” was written on my chest. During the day, I didn’t answer my door or telephone or go outside. I didn’t want my neighbors to know I was out of a job and at home.
Fear and panic can create a sense of anxiety. Relatively minor decisions and events can sometimes become enormous and frightening.
A member of PIT® once shared how she obsessed about the air conditioner in her house coming on when she was out of work. “Whenever the blower came on, I thought of the expense. How long will it run? How much will it cost?” To regain control and reduce costs, she turned down the air conditioner and began sweating to save money.
Anything that costs money during unemployment brings up a host of valid concerns. During the fear and panic stage, you may spend much of your time and energy obsessed on concerns such as:
- Will I have to declare bankruptcy?
- What happens if I lose everything I own?
- Will my family and friends abandon me?
- Is this the end of my career?
- Will any employer ever give me another chance?
Fear and panic may also lead to indecisiveness. Every minor choice may take on an exaggerated importance and sometimes may make you feel as if the world will end if an incorrect decision is made. For example, Rick, who lost his job as a bank teller, remembers how much of an ordeal it was for him to figure out how to present himself on job interviews. “I’d change my tie ten times, and then go back to the one I had originally chosen.” Each time he hesitated, Rick felt as though his indecision proved he was a loser and reinforced his inability to follow his own trusted instincts.
Fear, panic, and indecision are appropriate responses to losing your job. Nothing could be more natural than to worry about the future when your income and career have just been stolen and you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
Coping with Fear and Panic
The key to managing fear and panic is to put your concerns into perspective. Create a scheduled worry time. When I caught myself worrying outside of my worry time, I would tell myself “You can’t worry now because your worry time isn’t until 2:00 this afternoon.” Did it stop me from worrying? Sometimes, but mostly it reminded me to relax, take a deep breath, and keep moving forward.
A feeling of scarcity may envelop you and your family. This is a very common reaction to losing a job. What is interesting is the “scarcity mentality” touches all income levels. It makes no difference if you are a newly created “golden-parachute” executive or a factory worker. During job loss, fear is an appropriate response because your identity and income have been “jerked” away. To reduce fear, choose, instead, to move forward. Know that there is another job for you out there; positive thinking always helps change your situation.
Begin to control fear and panic (and the scarcity mentality) by creating a prioritized list of all outgoing expenses and compare that list with incoming monies, including severance, dividends, and unemployment benefits (see Exhibit 1-2) Now is the time to be proactive and make adjustments.
Ongoing expenses (nonnegotiable items) include:
One time/current (non-negotiable) expenses include:
- A health club or gym. Let someone in charge know your situation. The club may not charge you (or may reduce your membership fee) while you are unemployed. Physical exercise reduces stress and gives you the chance to think, so you want to keep your membership if possible.
- If you have planned and partially paid for a vacation, take it. The cancellation fees alone may eliminate any savings you would have been able to reclaim. Instead, call the companies, explain your situation, and see if you can negotiate a lower cost version of your trip. Vacation renegotiation may eliminate the need for you to pay the remaining portion of the deposit.
- If your kids have been promised summer camps and you have prepaid, let them go.
- Maintain as many family rituals as possible, but don’t be afraid to modify them to meet your new budget. Maintaining an attitude of abundance instead of scarcity may seem contrary to common sense, but with some creativity tempered by the new realities of your budget, you will be able to replicate many of your family and personal activities.
You will also reduce personal guilt and anxiety by teaching yourself to say: “We can afford
to do this instead.” By looking at the situation in a positive manner, your outlook will feel different. Your ability to find creative ways around the temporary inconvenience of being unemployed will help create breathing room as you begin to rebuild your professional identity. (See Chapter 5, “Rebuilding Your Professional Identity”)
Notify your bank and all other creditors of your new situation. Let them know you will be paying the minimum amount due each month. By sharing this information, you are making debtors your partners not your enemies. Putting all of this in writing reestablishes personal control and reduces some stress. More importantly, it creates a paper trail of your good intentions and may open a channel of communication between you and your creditors.
If you’re having trouble making decisions, limit the time you give yourself to choose. Allow yourself one minute to make a forced choice. This prevents you from being paralyzed over small decisions that used to be a snap to make. Few choices are of the “forever” variety. In all likelihood, you’ll get a chance to resolve any potential mistake you make along the way.
Stage 3: Anger
Anger is an appropriate response to job loss. It lingers just below the surface and can well up unexpectedly. Once when shopping, I ran into a former coworker. For an instant, our eyes met. Then, she quickly went down the next aisle trying to avoid me. I felt angry that she could be so thoughtless, although it made sense she would feel awkward and not know what to say to me.
Righteous anger tends to explode, and you may find yourself screaming:
- This isn’t fair!
- How can they do this to me?
- This is an outrage!
- They have no right!
Because there’s no effective way to vent your rage, anger can and will build up inside of you. The longer you think (stew) about your situation, the angrier and more resentful you will become. You want to even the score, lash out, and wipe that smug look off their faces.
The trick is to manage anger by channeling it. Anger is the fire in your belly. Properly channeled, it will energize your job search. Harness the anger and let it propel you forward into positive reemployment-based activities.
If you push down the anger instead of channeling it, the anger will fester and continue to gnaw at you. Tamped-down anger can morph into depression. Unexpressed anger can be heard in your voice and impact how you interview. Anger can destroy relationships, while distancing family and friends.
Coping with Anger
The most important thing is getting the anger out; how you do it is up to you. Your body will take the liberty of translating your emotions into physical symptoms. Why not take advantage of those building emotions by directing that powerful negative energy into your job search? I had a friend who installed a punching bag in his basement. Every time he got angry, he put on his gloves and imagined the punching bag was the face of his old boss. After pounding his former boss to smithereens, my friend would then continue his job search in a much more relaxed frame of mind.
Channel your emotions by doing something physical: go for a walk/run, work out, swim, or go to the soccer field and kick goals until you’re exhausted. Don’t be afraid to tackle your “to-do” list, including home improvement projects, or your “wish” list, including learning new skills such as cooking/baking/cake decorating. Smash things (without harming yourself or anyone else), beat sofa cushions, or have a pillow fight. Do anything to vent and redirect your anger into positive energy. Redirecting your emotions and mind helps refocus current happenings and puts you back in control of your thoughts, reenergizes your spirit, and helps you to move forward in different directions of your choice.
What you shouldn’t do is contain your anger or vent it at the wrong times or in the wrong places. Avoid the temptation to blast your old company and former employer in public because an angry person is perceived as unemployable. Remember that unexpressed anger is unhealthy, as it will grow into rage, which ends up harming you in more than one way.
Stage 4: Bargaining
Once you’ve expressed your anger, you will be exhausted. Your mind may go blank or the desire to fight and get revenge will temporarily disappear. Instead, you may become convinced that the job savior will appear and make all the pain disappear. Thoughts similar to the following may occur to you:
- I’ll get another job right away.
- Maybe it was all a mistake.
- The situation can’t be as bad as it seems.
- Maybe my old company will apologize and take me back when management sees what a mistake it was to let me go.
You bargain with yourself that if your former boss rehires you or another job appears, you will never borrow another company-bought pencil or you will work ten hours a day/six days a week without complaint. You promise to learn from your mistakes and become the worthiest employee, family member, and world citizen.
During the bargaining stage, you may begin to fantasize that a quick and painless ending to your unemployment crisis will happen soon. Thoughts such as the following may enter your mind: I’m sure my buddy, Bob, will keep his word and help me find a job because “he promised to help” or All I have to do is learn the latest software program and my phone will ring off the hook.
In your attempt to make the pain go away, you may continue to wait for the job savior. People kept telling me what a great person I was and reassuring me I would have no problem finding a job. The first time I was out of work, I exhausted my frequent flier miles traveling across the country to attend a trade event and hand out resumes like a paperboy. I said to every vendor I met, “I just lost my job, can you help me out?” I was absolutely convinced my next employer was at the trade event and that someone from the industry would create the perfect job for me. Five hundred resumes, 50 follow-up letters, 4 job interviews, and no job later, I realized there was no such thing as a job savior. I learned the hard way that my full-time job now was finding a full-time job.
Coping with Bargaining
One of the most shocking things about job loss is that you learn very quickly who your true friends are and who your work acquaintances were. It is a bitter pill to swallow. Thinking there is somebody out there who’s going to swoop into your life and eliminate the job loss pain is a comforting thought, but in more than 95 percent of cases, this just doesn’t happen.
Stage 5: Depression
Once you realize that bargaining won’t get your old boss to reverse his decision, despair may set in. Feeling abandoned is natural when you consider your routine, status, professional network, workstation, lunch group, and even your water cooler chat group has been eliminated from your life. You may find that every mistake you may have made, every skeleton in your closet, and even unresolved issues from your past come bubbling to the surface of your consciousness.
Here are some of the thoughts that may creep into your mind:
- It’s all my fault.
- My best days are gone.
- If only I had done X instead of Y, they may not have let me go.
- I will never get another job.
- This is the end of the road for me.
Depression is anger turned inward. I vividly imagined myself sitting on a park bench, unshaven. In my mind’s eye, my clothes were tattered. I was holding a half-empty bottle of cheap, convenience store wine. My car had been repossessed, and my wife and kids had left me. And, I knew I’d earned every bit of what was happening to me.
When I really got down, all I wanted to do was sleep. I stopped answering the phone, didn’t go outside, and basically gave up on life. People would knock on the door, and I wouldn’t answer. I had no energy or desire to job search. I felt stupid and ashamed for losing my job, and I just wanted to hide and be left alone.
Be prepared to hit bottom, perhaps even more than once. Battling depression can become a daily occurrence. If you are depressed, understand that it can be the result of a chemical imbalance in your body. It is not your fault and can be treated with medication. If depression is a recurring emotion for you, seek immediate professional help. But, if depression has not completely overwhelmed you, there are proven techniques you can use to convert depression into action.
Coping with Depression
When job search depression takes over, you may be swamped with feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and lethargy. It may take all your energy just to get out of bed in the morning, so you have no strength left to fight your way out of the gloom. Depression can also be described as a cloud that blots out all your good feelings (especially about yourself).
Perhaps the hardest thing is to learn to forgive your former boss, your former employer, and even yourself for anything that may have happened in life. This is difficult to do and not something that occurs all at once. Self-forgiveness reduces the likelihood that you will criticize every move you make in the future. By forgiving your boss and the company you worked for, you enable yourself to move forward in your job search. Even though you have managed to forgive, you will never forget.
Now is the time to do all the things you never had time to do. Play with your kids, spend time with your spouse, take the time to laugh, and allow yourself to step outside of your job loss situation. Treat yourself as if you were your best friend.
Do something productive and helpful for other people. Volunteer to serve at a soup kitchen, clean up the litter in a local playground, or raise funds for your favorite charity. You will realize how much you have left to give and focus less on what you have lost.
Fight the fatigue that depression often brings. Remember that running, walking, swimming, and other aerobic activities energize you. Give yourself the chance to let loose, shake off the blues, and do something nice for your mind and body. Exercising will help you sleep better. An effective job search is most productive if you are rested and healthy, and your outlook is positive.
Stage 6: Temporary Acceptance
In the temporary acceptance stage, you pick yourself up, shake yourself off, and get on with life. You absolve yourself of the blame for your unemployment and take charge of finding your next job. Although the crisis of unemployment is with you every moment of every day, you now have some breathing room. Some healthy concepts that begin to sink in are:
- The past is past, and it is time to move on.
- Life as a couch potato isn’t doing me any good.
- I can’t change anything by kicking myself in the butt.
- Why dwell on what I can’t change?
- My job search is my responsibility, and I can make it happen.
Coping With Temporary Acceptance
If temporary acceptance were the final stop on the journey to your recovery, there’d be nothing to cope with. It would be time to celebrate. You’d be “over” the trauma of unemployment. However, job loss grieving is an emotional wave, a continual cycle and not a series of linear steps. You might accept your situation with grace one day and sink into depression the next. One minute you might be full of optimism; the next, you’re heartbroken.
Be prepared to experience extreme mood swings as long as you’re unemployed. Your feelings may be exaggerated. The highs will be much higher, and the lows much lower. What others may consider minor events — a rejection letter or a job application that you have invested hours online submitting but seemed to fall into the ”black hole” of the Internet — can catapult you from the plateau of temporary acceptance to the depths of shock and denial, fear and panic, anger, bargaining, or depression.
Take advantage of temporary acceptance to prepare yourself for what lies ahead. Develop a plan and prepare to face the world again from the perspective of personal responsibility, forgiveness, and confidence.
Stage 7: Rejection
A job search is full of rejection. Positions you spend hours applying to online seem to disappear into a large black hole. Guess what? Many times they do! Because of the tremendous number of applications received, it is a common practice for an HR manager to “park” or hold applications until others are previewed and processed. Often, parked applications are never retrieved or seen by human eyes.
Hiring is simply a process and each company has its own approach. When you set your emotions aside and step outside of yourself, you will see that you are just an application in the eyes of the hiring company. Nothing personal is directed to you or your application. Just because you have not received a response does not mean you did anything wrong or that you are a failure. Remember that companies respond (or don’t respond) on their timelines not yours.
Many times, your follow-up calls will go into a general HR voicemail, and emails and letters are often not answered. If you get no response, keep following through and try not to take it personally. When you get a promise of a callback from HR, it may be delayed for internal reasons. Fight rejection by sending a thank-you note to the person who called, summarizing the conversation and the next steps. Wait ten days, and call back.
Constant rejection is like big potholes that suddenly appear on the road to reemployment. They may temporarily knock you out of alignment. When it rains, it can (and often does) pour. Don’t be surprised if unplanned issues and unexpected bills arrive at your doorstep. Each situation will stir up your feelings, seem like a major crisis, and throw you back into the emotional wave. Do your best, however, to manage these potholes and balance the whole picture. When you were employed, these issues were simply issues you handled. Regain control and approach each issue with different tactics until it is resolved or managed.
Coping with Rejection
Coping with rejection is an ongoing, daily process, so you must take things day by day. Be sure to create goals and measure daily productivity. Record your actual tasks, including:
- Positions applied for online
- Follow-up calls made
- Networking contacts activated
- Research completed
Manage rejection by using the Rule of 3/30. This means you follow through with potential networking opportunities, companies, and positions three times every month. When you do this, you will be following up every ten days, which is a balanced approach and does not seem desperate. Create a “No” list, on which it takes 99 rejections to get one yes. In my case, I was on #87 before I got another job.
End your job search in time for dinner, and do not return to it until tomorrow. When you go to bed each night, know that you did everything possible to find a job that day. Sleep well, as tomorrow is another day.
The Trauma of Job Loss and Understanding Stress
No hard-and-fast rule says everyone has to suffer from prolonged job loss grief. In most cases, however, unemployed individuals do find it necessary to learn how to manage rejection and all of the feelings encountered in the emotional wave of job loss before they can successfully move on with their professional lives.
Understanding stress and the possibility of job loss flashbacks is critical. This awareness will help you move beyond the paralysis brought on by downsizing.
I am not a board-certified mental health professional. My formal training is in business, psychology, and career counseling. I can only share with you what it was like for me and the thousands I have worked with over the past twenty years.
When I lost my job, my self-esteem evaporated. A strong professional identity and confidence were replaced by the dark clouds of insecurity, shame, and guilt. The intense weight of trying to figure out what to do next, along with the impact of the emotional wave, drowned my senses of hope and reality. Each time I lost my job, my experiences were violating, traumatic, and excruciating.
As I attempted to fight back against ongoing daily stress, rejections, and the feelings of helplessness, I came to relate these emotional job loss feelings to similar feelings of Post Delayed Stress Syndrome (“undertow” feelings of a different form).
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a complex disorder in which the affected person’s memory, emotional responses, intellectual processes, and nervous system have all been disrupted by one or more traumatic experiences. It is sometimes summarized as “a normal reaction to abnormal events”; a delayed stress reaction.1
Following a traumatic event, almost everyone experiences some degree of PTSD. When your sense of safety and trust have been shattered, it’s normal to feel crazy, disconnected, or numb. It’s common to have bad dreams, be fearful, and find it difficult to stop thinking about what happened.
For most people, these symptoms are short-lived. They may last for several weeks or even months, but they gradually dissolve over time. These dreams usually disappear after you are back to work.
Individuals who suffer from PTSD find:
- Symptoms like flashbacks do not decrease
- They do not feel better over time, but rather feel progressively feel worse
If this is your case, please seek immediate professional help.2
<2>Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder (OTSD)
In an article in The Jewish Daily Forward (“When It Comes to Being Unemployed”), Howard Fine recently wrote.,, “I — not being a mental health professional — am inclined to call PTSD, Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder (OTSD)…. The National Institute of Mental Health comments, ‘People may develop PTSD in reaction to events that may not qualify as traumatic, but can be devastating life events like divorce or unemployment.’ For my part, I cannot imagine the feelings of helplessness these people suffer, nor the fears they experience as more and more states cut or propose to cut back on unemployment insurance payments and as more and more of them lose their homes to foreclosure.”3
<2>PTSD and OTSD Play a Dual Role in Job Loss Grieving
I believe that both PTSD and OTSD play a role in job loss grieving. The symptoms that define PTSD must last more than a month and may include:
- Recurrent, intrusive, distressing dreams and memories of a trauma
- Frequent flashbacks triggering a frame-by-frame review of your job loss.
- Extreme distress or trigger events that in some way symbolize or resemble your job loss experience, including:
- Unemployment stories in the news media
- Announcements of other layoffs
- Friends who lose their jobs after you
- Unexpected bills or expenses
- Family or life events that normally would not cause a traumatic stress reaction
- Attempting to avoid thoughts, feelings, and activities associated with the event
- Inability to remember important details
- Feelings of detachment and estrangement from loved ones
- Extreme irritability
- Inability to concentrate
- Hypervigilance or an exaggerated startle response
Many of us have experienced trauma. With major changes in the economic markets, circumstances can trigger memories and/or experiences of individual feelings of confusion, pain, and loss of control. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, reach out for help. Don’t assume you can handle the problems yourself. We all go through stressful times, and it’s good to have support when we need it.
Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder (OTSD) symptoms can be identical to PTSD symptoms. When you combine the personal and emotional components of job loss grieving with the ongoing stress that unemployment brings to you and your family, identical symptoms can affect you physically, mentally, and psychologically.
My research indicates that the terms Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder (OTSD) have been used interchangeably to describe the symptoms of traumatic stress. What does this mean to you? By understanding the impact of job loss, you will be able to:
- Anticipate and cope with each stage of the emotional wave
- Manage the ongoing stress of job searching
- Become aware of PTSD and OTSD and the importance of recognizing and reacting to the symptoms
If you feel you have any of the above or similar indicators of PTSD or OTSD, seek additional support through special support counseling groups, such as Family Services or the Veterans Administration, or with someone in your religious organization you are comfortable talking with.