The Stages of Grief: Job Loss Edition
It’s now public knowledge that over the next two weeks, Turner plans to lay off nearly 1,500 employees. It will be the culmination of an ugly few months for those of us still connected to the company, either by marriage, friendship or general fondness for our professional alma mater. Since the first hints of “structure changes” went out earlier this year, people have been pushing through an underlying sense of panic, worried about what’s next for them and whether they’ll still have a job by the time it’s all over.
Their fears are justified. Because for all the wonderful opportunities this type of change can provide long-term, the immediate impact is, well, pretty shitty. There are a lot of steps between the back exit of your old job and the front door of your next great success, and those first few steps don’t feel very good. At all.
It’s been almost two years since I left Turner. I started right out of college as an intern and was lucky enough to get hired full-time at Cartoon Network. I spent the next 14 years—my entire adult life—walking in and out of those hallways at Techwood and Williams Street. It was the only workplace I had ever known. Almost all of my friends were from inside Turner. As homesick as I was for my family in Chicago, I could never imagine leaving behind such a cool job and such smart, funny people.
Even better, I was good at my job. Or at least it seemed that way. I kept getting promoted, and there’s nothing the straight-A student in me loved more than the approval of people in authority. If people like my work, that means they like me. And if I have an office and a door and “senior” in front of my title, well, then that means they like me even more. I must be really important.
And then, suddenly, I wasn’t. I can’t go into too much detail about how and why I left, but the short version is that the process started with me being told my position no longer existed. While the events that followed were in my control—including my ultimate decision to leave—for a long time I couldn’t move past the fact that the first one was not.
I walked out of the building that last Friday night on a surreal high. I was confident I’d made the right decision. This was just the kick I needed. Now I could finally focus on writing and prove right all of the well-wishers who said I was destined for comedic stardom. I hugged everyone over drinks and tater tots at my going-away party, and left with an exhausted smile on a wave of mutual promises to stay in touch.
Then, at home, as I started to drift off to sleep, a sudden jolt hit me in the stomach. Oh my god, I thought. It’s over. I started to cry. Those casual conversations in the hallway that always left me laughing? The business trips to fun places like Burbank and New York with people I genuinely enjoyed spending time with? The feeling of being on the inside of something special, doing creative work with colleagues who made me feel special? It’s gone, all of it—and I’ll never get it back.
That first Monday morning, I was in tears as my husband left for work. We had said I should take the first week to just relax, decompress. I honestly can’t remember what exactly I did that day, but, ironically, I was determined to do anything but watch TV. I wasn’t going to be that person. I’m sure I looked at Facebook for a long time. I can’t remember if I signed onto AIM or was too embarrassed to be so available to chat. I went to my favorite coffee shop that afternoon with a stack of magazines but spent most of my time staring away from the table.
There were no emails coming in, no meetings to run to. Just… time. The time I had so often longed for, that previously had felt so elusive and now threatened to overwhelm me. I would smile politely at people who’d ask how I was enjoying my “life of leisure,” unsure how to describe the stress of self-doubt that was plaguing every moment. Whatever job pressure had been lifted by leaving was quickly replaced with no-job pressure: What are you doing with your day? With your week? With your life?
I talked to a counselor who encouraged me to give myself permission to mourn this job loss the same way I would a death. And she was right. In fact, I’ve told people in some ways, losing my job was a harder process than losing my mother. Obviously, her death is more significant and affects me more deeply, but I didn’t have an identity crisis when my mom died. I didn’t question my self-worth. Plus, the death of a parent is a socially accepted and even “celebrated” loss. Nobody brings you a casserole when you’re out of work.
So as cliched as it sounds, over the course of my unemployment, I went through the five stages of grief:
- Denial: I can always go back. They’ll realize how much they miss me. Things just won’t run the same without me there. I wasn’t really happy there anyway. There’s absolutely nothing I’ll miss about that place. I don’t need them. Something even better is right around the corner.
- Anger: Why did this happen to me? Where did I go wrong? I can’t believe everything’s just moving on so quickly without me. If my role isn’t necessary now, was it ever necessary? I feel like such a fool. I thought people liked and respected me—was that all just bullshit? I’m a good person. What did I do to deserve this?
- Bargaining: You know what, this is for the best. Now I have time to do all the things I’ve always wanted to do. I can exercise and get in shape. I can try my hand at some craft projects. I’ll finally write that script. In fact, I feel sorry for all of those people stuck in corporate jobs. They don’t realize how sad their lives are, chained to their desks and checking email at all hours of the night. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that anymore. Sure, they may have the security of a steady paycheck, but I have something even better: freedom to do whatever I want. Yeah, this is better.
- Depression: I’m wasting my time. I haven’t gotten in shape. I haven’t done any of those fun craft projects. I’m struggling to finish this script. And it’s because I feel like doing any of those things just advertises the fact that I’m unemployed. Only losers with lots of time on their hands do that kind of stuff. And that’s what I am—a loser. For all of the talk about how smart and talented I am, I don’t even get replies to 90% of the emails I send out for freelance writing jobs. The interviews I’ve had have gone nowhere. I didn’t get accepted into the writing programs I applied for. The articles I do get published only pay minuscule amounts. This isn’t working. I feel lost. I’m drifting farther away from my old, confident self. I’m lonely. All of which makes it even harder to motivate myself to be productive during the day. Everyone back at work is so busy, so important. I imagine how disappointed they are in me, at how badly I’ve failed—and then I realize they’re not thinking about me at all. They don’t miss me. But boy, do I miss them.
- Acceptance: I’ll let you know when I get there.
I’m kidding. Mostly. I can’t say I’m 100% over it. And maybe “acceptance” doesn’t mean being over it. But I’m in a much better place emotionally than I was even a few months ago. Certainly my mom’s death helped put things in perspective. Rather than dwell on the past or fear the future, I’ve come to appreciate the peace of living in the present. I try to remind myself to pause in gratitude for all the things I take for granted and realize I could have it much, much worse.
A while back, I read a motivational quote—unemployed people read lots of motivational quotes—about how holding onto anger is like grasping a hot stone with the intent of throwing it at someone; you’re the one who gets burned. I decided to reach out to my old boss and we got to a good place. I realized I could never fully make sense of what happened, and that there was no defeat in letting myself move on.
I started using my extra time to be more responsive with friends, both nearby and long-distance. I set up lunches and dinners and pretty much said yes to any and all invitations. I’ve never generally been good at being social (more on that in a future post), so it was a little uneasy at first. What would we have to talk about if I wasn’t working? My day was so empty, so clearly my life was empty, too, right?
But instead, I became closer to my friends, and made new ones, precisely because my life was so empty open. After spending so many years placing all of my self-worth into my job, it was a bit of an epiphany to realize I had people in my life who simply liked me. Not my title, not my achievements, not my limitless potential. They weren’t thinking about any of that. They just wanted to hang out and talk and connect over the very doubts and fears I thought only I was having. I was enough.
And that’s probably the most valuable lesson from this whole experience: the realization that I am not my job. And neither are you. Yes, work can bring you joy and confidence and inspiration and purpose, but it does not define you. You are you, regardless of what door you walk through each morning.
About five months ago, I started a new job at a company few people have heard of, and I’m not going to lie: It’s been a tough adjustment. The offices are nice, but stark. The people are smart and friendly, but the projects aren’t funny or creative. Instead of getting a big smile and “Oh, cool!” when I tell people where I work, I have to give a little explanation of what we do. (And even now I hesitate at saying “we” right there, because I still find myself asking Cartoon Network friends what “our” strategy is for a new product.)
But for the first time in my career, my job is not my life—it’s part of my life. I sign off email at the end of the day and don’t need to check it all night. My manager offers us flexible schedules, including one day a week to work from home. I get along well with my new coworkers, but the balance has now shifted to where the bulk of my friends are from outside the office. Rather than trying to be important, I’m trying to focus on the things that are important.
My heart goes out to the hundreds of people who are about to have that life-changing meeting with HR. They’ll spend weeks replaying that conversation in their heads, recalling the moments leading up to it, reminiscing about the years before. If you’re among them, you might not know exactly where you’re headed next, but you may be pleasantly surprised at how much love surrounds you, and how many people will be right there with you for the ride.