Understanding Grief In The Context Of Job Loss & Lifestyle Adjustment

by Millicent Nuver Simmelink

Traditionally, career counseling has focused on career exploration, career redirection, assessment, education/ training, job search skills and placement. Little consideration has been given to the complex emotional dynamics of grief associated with job loss. Understanding grief in the context of job loss and lifestyle adjustment is particularly important when clients are confronting a major life change. Oftentimes, an overwhelming sense of loss distracts or impedes a person's readiness to conduct a job search or effectively move forward with a positive career-life change. Career Counselors working with clients who are experiencing a job or career loss compounded by the need to adjust lifestyle expectations need to comprehend the grief process if they are to empower their clients to succeed.

Loss Issues and Stress

Losing one's job is a devastating experience. According to the Holmes-Rahe Social Adjustment Scale, out of 43 stressful life events, losing one's job ranks among the top 10. Clients will frequently say losing their job was a relief, but in reality, their self-confidence and perception of self is still shaken. Let's use Ron as an example. Ron, a pseudonym, is a 50 year old male who was dissatisfied with his employer and his career. His wife was terminally ill and he was feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of becoming a single parent. Ron put his career transition on hold despite declining performance reviews, only to be terminated on the one year anniversary of his wife's death. On the surface, Ron expressed relief at the situation, but in reality, he was shocked, angry and caught off guard about what he wanted to do next. Ron's experience clearly illustrates the importance of addressing a client's loss issues from a holistic perspective.

Furthermore, if a client has experienced an illness, trauma or injury that prevents him/her from returning to the work previously done, there may be other complicated grief issues to consider since the individual may have to contend with upsetting and unexpected limitations that affect employability. Job loss can also trigger other problems at the worst possible time. Relationships can be tested, mental health concerns such as depression may become exacerbated and physiological concerns such as high blood pressure can develop. Practitioners must be ready to suggest appropriate referrals if their client requires additional support.

The Relationship of Grief to Job Loss

People grieve the loss of anything important. A person's job is fundamental to supporting much of what is important in their life. A person's job provides income, status, identity and to some extent, a sense of belonging and security. It enables a person to nurture, develop and enjoy a lifestyle. When one's livelihood is challenged, even on a temporary basis, as in the case of Ron, a person grieves. Adjusting to change is never easy.

The grief process (Kubler-Ross Model) identifies five stages that are applicable to anyone facing any type of bad news. The first stage, Denial, is characterized by shock, disbelief and numbness. During an employment termination, most employees, even if they saw it coming, are in a state of shock because they are not in control of the separation. The second stage is Anger. The person may be angry at anyone who may have had something to do with the termination. Anger either diverts pain away from self or turns it inward in the form of blaming self. The third stage is Bargaining. In this stage, people try to negotiate the situation either with the person in control or with God. It is a sort of magical thinking that things can go back to the way they were even though they will not. The fourth stage, Depression, is characterized by a realization that the loss is real and unchanging. Individuals may feel feelings of regret, guilt, hopelessness, diminished energy, sadness and helplessness. Practitioners need to be especially careful with clients who may be feeling abnormally depressed and be prepared to suggest they seek out additional professional support. Stage five, Acceptance, is when a person finally comes to terms with the situation and accepts it as a fact of life.

Strategies for Empowering Clients

Empowering clients to move beyond their grief is a tricky process. Feelings of anger, blame, trust, betrayal, guilt, chronic pain, unexpected personal limitations, complicated grief due to other concurrent personal losses are just some of the issues that can affect a client's mind set. In Ron's case, venting his feelings of anger and frustration was highly therapeutic prior to organizing a successful job search. Helpful counseling strategies for working with clients stuck in grief include

  • Allow clients to tell their story and vent, while listening for emotions, work-related problems, personality conflicts, work styles and personal concerns that will need to be addressed as part of the transition process.
  • Encourage clients to take back control by creating a scheduled day with purposeful, realistic and attainable goals related to their job search.
  • Assist clients in identifying their personal support network.
  • Develop an inspirational list of books and DVD's such as Spencer Johnson's The Present  and Who Moved My Cheese, Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Granger Westberg's Good Grief, Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, or Forest Gump (DVD).
  • Suggest clients journal feelings and fears.
  • Suggest clients write a letter to the person(s) responsible for their loss expressing their anger/ frustrations as an unburdening exercise -- not to be sent.
  • Introduce a mission statement exercise to help focus values, meaning and direction.
  • Have clients create a collage using magazine clips to help identify and clarify important life values.
  • Help clients identify effective ways to de-stress by ending every session with a goal for fun/ relaxation.
  • Create a Checklist for Empowerment --Things to accomplish by the next meeting keeps clients on task and accountable.
  • Develop a referral network if additional support is needed.


Clients who are able to resolve or control the emotional distress associated with job loss will find themselves in a stronger position to create a successful job search campaign. The grief process teaches clients tremendous self-introspection and results in strengthened character, proven adaptability and a deeper understanding of self.

Millicent SimmelinkMillicent N. Simmelink, M.Ed, MCC, DCC, L.P.C. specializes in career planning, change management, workplace issues and strategic search.  She is the founding Principal of Career Links Counseling located in Rocky River, Ohio.  Visit her at careerlinkscounseling.com or contact her directly at   careerlinks@centurytel.net.

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