The Five Stages of Employment Loss and Grief

As I type this from my home office (really, it’s just a room with a computer and some rock memorabilia on the wall), it’s a beautiful, breezy night in the Chicago area.  The windows are open and I’m listening to Trompe le Monde by the Pixies.  And so begins my fifth week of unemployment …

After I was recently let go from my last job, a friend cautioned that the emotions and reactions tied to getting fired are very similar to those surrounding death and grief.

Specifically, he was referring to the Kübler-Ross model, or what most of us call “the five stages.” (It should be noted that Kübler-Ross is a totally awesome name, based on its incorporation of the very-metal umlaut.)

The Kübler-Ross model plays out like this:

Denial – “I don’t believe you! This can’t be happening!”

Anger – “Why me? This is bulls****!”

Bargaining – “I’ll do anything — go to church, donate money, whatever.”

Depression – “Why should I even carry on? What’s the point?”

Acceptance – “It is what it is.”

I believe that the response to losing one’s job is quite a bit different from the stages tied to death. Now that I’ve been thrice-fired in my career, I’d like to share the VanOsdol model for sociologists to consider:


1. RAGE – Because anger seems a bit too passive a reaction to such a life-changer. In the first 48 hours after losing a job, everyone in your life feels like an enemy and conspirator, and you want them all to WIPE THOSE COCKY, SMUG, KNOW-IT-ALL, SMILES FROM THEIR FAT, IGNORANT FACES. GRRR! ARRRGH! GAH! SIZZLE SIZZLE!

Sample behaviors tied to Stage 1 / Rage:

  • Unfriending now-former co-workers on Facebook and blocking those same people on Twitter
  • Drinking, and swearing loudly while doing so
  • Burning, shredding, and destroying all traces of your previous employer, from apparel to paystubs

2. BRAVADO – Swagger goes a long way to giving off the right impression, regardless of whether or not you actually feel what you’re selling.  This is the stage where you tell people “everything happens for a reason,” and that your next opportunity is going to be amazing.

Sample behaviors tied to Stage 2 / Bravado:

  • Over-posting on social media, just to let people know that you’re out there, and everything’s totally cool. No worries. Onward and upward. Bigger and better things await.
  • Spending money like a drunk sailor on shore leave, because, really, the next opportunity is right around the corner–there’s no need to tighten the belt yet. People are checking out the LinkedIn profile–they’re totally interested. It’s going to happen.

3. ISOLATION – Friends and colleagues are always sympathetic for the first two weeks of unemployment. They’ll proactively reach out and ask you how you’re doing. They may even take you out to lunch while the wounds are fresh and your bravado is peaking. Then, once that third Monday hits, you’ll be all alone. The calls, texts, posts, and tweets will all come to a stop. This has happened to me every time I’ve been on the proverbial beach–their lives will go on while you’re left behind on your little island. Adrift. No lifeline. Holy crap.

Sample behaviors tied to Stage 3 / Isolation:

  • Refriending now-former co-workers on Facebook and unblocking those same people on Twitter
  • Drinking, and quietly sobbing while doing so

4. THE CHEAPENING OF SELF – When the dream gigs aren’t lining up as you expected, you open yourself up to performing any number of humiliating jobs for money (“How bad would it be if I wore a Statue of Liberty costume and stood outside a Liberty Tax facility?”). This is the most dangerous stage of unemployment, and how strippers are made.

5. ACCEPTANCE – This stage is the only commonality between the stages of grief/death and unemployment. After all the drama, the ups and downs, near misses, good interviews, bad interviews, and false alarms, it simply is what it is.  As anyone will tell you, it’s not the incident that defines you, but rather how you recover from it.

I’m currently cruising along the Acceptance stage, though I have my weak moments where I imagine what I’d look like holding a torch on Tax Day.

Download:  The Offspring “Why Don’t You Get a Job?”


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One response to “The Five Stages of Employment Loss and Grief”

  1. Archie Flores says :

    The emotional grasp on unemployment was correct and those steps feel ever so familiar. What wasn’t mentioned and is a very important part that’s missing is the feeling of what I called “Hitting the change” the once feeble part of our lives was reduced to street charity or placed in a bottles somewhere to basically get it out of our pockets. We used paper money or even just our debit card for a suit or a bottle of water. In short, change, was a big pain in the ass.

    Though once reality shocked us into the present, those coin now became a sought after commodity that paid for a meal or the sporadic bottle of water (later we found filling an empty water bottle was smarter).
    Counting every penny and not getting the extra ingredient on your pizza or burrito now became another burdening decision. “Do I pay the light bill or the cable bill” is now a life altering decision that once was a part of our auto pay. Auto pay, how sweet are thee, the fact I didn’t have to worry about a deadline or another late charge. The freedom of throwing caution to the wind while drinking that second bottle of pino noir “that cost how much”? Our buddy who later sent you a message saying “Hey, your all paid, don’t worry about it”

    What’s worse is if you have children, the pizza and burrito just mentioned is not even a thought anymore. Milk, cereal, lunch meat, bread and that goddamn expensive Heilman’s mayo you need cause everything else sucks is now a priority. You go from cable or satellite to Netflix (my how I miss the commercials) and your just happy to know that your kids are entertained.

    Entertainment? no such thing when your OUT of cash. Barrowing money and promise to pay it back next week has now become a never ending excuse fest of “My check hasn’t come in yet” or extending the due date again! The mail carrier has now become your best friend as your looking out for “THE” check knowing their schedule should be taken seriously. Then you cash the check and have so much to pay for and pay back, you find yourself in the same predicament three days later.

    You have a genuine gripe and those feelings you have is something you don’t wish on your worse enemy. But we all go through a different set of Kübler-Ross models, we also learn how to deal with that particular feeling of “what can I do to NEVER be here again” OR “WTF”, because at the end of the day, waking up to make a difference in our lives is what truly matters.

    Good Luck Dude. Another door WILL open.

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