The grief cycle of job loss revisited

I appreciate my readers and clients as the source of so many of my column ideas. Not long ago, I connected with a young woman who had received a layoff notice two weeks earlier, and was negotiating a severance package when we spoke.

By all external standards, this process has gone as smoothly as could be expected, with no hard feelings on either side. As she reported, “The day after I left, I honestly felt as if I had moved through the grief cycle pretty well. I really felt ready to move forward.”

And then? About a week after her last day on the job, she says, she woke up angry, which shocked her. After holding it together so well, she was not expecting such a raw emotion before even starting her day. Where did that come from?

I couldn’t help but laugh. As I told her, the same thing had happened to me, after one of my many involuntary departures from a job.

In my case, the work I had been doing for almost three years was no longer necessary, leading to the inevitable layoff. After having had multiple jobs in a few short years, I was ready to try something different, so I headed out the door with my box of memories and promptly went into self-employment.

So busy was I with my startup and the myriad part-time positions needed to support it, I didn’t even consider the concept of an emotional fallout from losing a job I loved. As my business grew, I was able to stop waitressing, unloading trucks, delivering phone books and all the other things I’d been doing to look more prosperous than I was. I felt like I had made it.

And then it happened. About seven years after the layoff – seven years! – I was leaving a downtown parking ramp when I saw a familiar silhouette on the sunlit sidewalk 20 feet in front of my vehicle. It was the unmistakable profile of a very nasty manager from my old job.

I wasn’t surprised that he would be walking along in front of my car. Rather, I was surprised by the momentary flash of anger I felt. It actually occurred to me that I could punch the pedal and flatten the fellow who had tormented me nearly every week of my otherwise happy years at the job I had lost.

The moment passed, he crossed safely in front of me, and I drove away shaken by the realization that I had not fully recovered from my layoff after all. As I told my client in our recent conversation, the emotions from a job loss are not necessarily logical, nor do they appear in a timely way.

In the nearly three decades that I’ve been serving laid-off workers in my business, I’ve done my share of reading and thinking about the famous job-loss grief cycle based on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on death and dying. Frequently depicted as a U-shape, with the hapless worker descending down a line of negative emotions (disbelief, bargaining, anger, etc.) before bottoming out and climbing back up a line of positive emotions (acceptance, hope, etc.), this concept has been foundational for professionals in my field.

And yet, ever since my parking ramp epiphany, I’ve felt the need to reshape that line from a U to a vertical spiral. Now I think we’re not likely to “recover” from deeply challenging circumstances so much as we are to incorporate them into our lives moving forward.

My new visual starts with a circle. If you picture someone walking along a closed circle which features several emotions stationed along the circumference – anger, hope, acceptance, etc. – you have the image of someone who is moving through different stages but not really progressing: The circle just keeps repeating. But if you break open the circle and stretch it upwards like a coil standing on end, now you have constant upward movement, even while the individual circles around periodically to revisit emotions you would expect him or her to have left behind.

I don’t know if that image helps or confuses things but I do know this: After all these years, I no longer expect workers to “get over” their job losses, any more than they would any other grief they’ve experienced. I just want them to keep moving, keep growing and keep returning to hope and acceptance as they layer in positive work experiences over the painful ones.

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Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.