Musings from my desk

On grieving a sudden job loss

2023-06-28 16:17:31 -0500 CDT


My employer shut down last Friday. I’m optimistic about my next professional steps, but I also think it’s important to grieve my job loss. Grieving the loss of a job need not be an exercise in self-pity. Grieving is an important part of acknowledging change and preparing for what comes next.

To be clear

In my worldview, “grief” does not carry a negative connotation. While grief may indeed be sad and difficult, it can also indicate healing and acceptance. Grief is associated with loss, but I prefer to view grieving as a way of processing any change. To me, grieving is a way to honor that which came before, and prepare for that which follows. Grieving doesn’t need to be laden with tears or sorrow. Even though it is difficult, it can absolve oneself from needing to dwell in the past; grieving allows us to respect the importance of what was lost while simultaneously holding space for the new present, and future. Without acknowledging change and loss, we cannot adequately prepare ourselves to move on to a new opportunity with equanimity. This is why I grieve: to deepen my appreciation for what I experienced in the past and am experiencing in the present.

In my recent experience, I noticed five primary areas for which I felt drawn to grieve:

Let’s talk a little about each.

Grieving the loss of income

Typically, the loss of income is top of mind for people when they suddenly lose a job. For me, it was certainly one of the first things I thought about when I received the news that my employer was shutting down. Sure, there are state unemployment benefits, but they are famously slow, cumbersome to navigate, and inadequate for covering full expenses. In my case, I was lucky enough to receive some severance pay, but not enough to cover the average 3-6 months it takes to find a new job. The loss of income is a highly tangible and valid concern. It is also difficult to acknowledge fully because it depends so much on the unknowns: how long will it take to find a new job, how much will I receive in unemployment benefits, how much can I reduce my expenses while I’m unemployed, etc. For me, I had to be honest with myself and my partner that we will likely dig into savings a bit during this time, and that we should prepare to sacrifice a little in terms of lifestyle choices such as food and entertainment. I know we will survive, but it is a big change that we had no time to prepare for.

Grieving the loss of community

Having a community outside of work is critical for social health, but I know I’m not alone in taking joy from my work community too. If Harvard Business Review is to be trusted, community is one of the top three things that employees want in their job. Being surrounded in my workplace by people whom I enjoy and respect is a massive benefit for me. When the job isn’t going so great, a strong work community strengthens my mental resilience and allows me to push through without feeling too beaten down. When the job is going great, a strong work community will celebrate our wins together and intimately understand the unique challenges that were necessary to make it happen. No matter how work is going, your work friends will always understand the idiosyncrasies and oddities of your work better than probably anyone else in your life. The shared experiences of a work community are critically valuable in making work seem like more than just an activity to earn money.

For me, a work community is not an abstract concept but a concrete web of people that I care about. “Work friends” are valid and real and meaningful, but it isn’t always possible or reasonable to transition a work friendship to a non-work friendship. This is particularly true with remote work, where there’s not even an opportunity to meet up for coffee or engage in other shared activities that often form the basis of friendships. Long-distance friendships are difficult even in the best of circumstances, and they become even more challenging when it involves the evolution of a work friendship to a non-work friendship. Partly, this is because mutual engagement is critical for a non-work friendship to persist, and that is far from guaranteed after a layoff (what if your work friend is too busy to be non-work friends?). The loss of community is particularly important for me to grieve because it often represents a real goodbye to people I care about. Of course, there is LinkedIn and social media, and we will always “stay in touch”, but all of these are very different from the small daily interactions of a workplace. Will these relationships be replaced with others in the future? Yes. Does it still hurt to lose people you care about? Also yes.

Grieving the change in identity

Although I frequently wish it weren’t so, I strongly identify with my work. Yes, I hear you, I “shouldn’t do that” - it’s important to have a strong identity outside of work! I totally agree, and yet here we are, with an entire heading in my blog post dedicated to the topic.

I care about being seen as someone who is capable and productive. Performing work is one of the main ways that I can concretely add value to the world. I love reading books, cooking, walking my dog, and making amateur music recordings, but the sad truth is that most other people will never experience any of that. Work is one way that I can meaningfully impact the lives of many more people, and that gives me a sense of purpose. Of course, work is not my entire identity (nor would I want it to be), but it would be dishonest to pretend that my work is not a meaningful part of my identity. It’s important to note that the loss of a job is not the loss of a career. However, for me, it is much easier to associate identity with a job than with a career. The identity of my career (software developer) is trivial compared to the identity of my job. “Software developer” can mean so many vastly different things, but how I apply those skills to my specific job is where I derive meaning. Meaning feeds my identity because I want my life to be meaningful.

I feel lucky that my job loss does not mean a permanent loss of my career. I know that I will find another job, hopefully sooner rather than later, and I will start the process of identity creation anew. For the moment, I am left to ponder this gap in my identity and figure out how to fill it productively.

Grieving the change of activities

Only a few days into my post-layoff life, I already feel myself being stretched by my lack of an external schedule. Grocery shopping at 10am on a Tuesday? Why not!

I have a schedule for myself that I want to uphold, and if nothing else, I’m responsible for walking our dog in the morning, which will always get me out of bed. Even so, the way I spend my time is dramatically different when I am not working. In many ways, this is a blessing: I have time to play music, read, nap, run errands, clean the house - all without conflicting with a work schedule. However, there is something to be said for being externally accountable to a schedule. By “externally accountable”, I simply mean accountable to others outside of oneself. Even though work schedules can be draining and frustratingly inflexible at times, they still provide a strong structure for my life. This is a form of grieving that is much more mixed than the others because, for the most part, it is really nice to not have a schedule! … for a time. My apprehension about lacking a schedule is strongly biased towards the long-term effects. If my job search lasts longer than I expect, I anticipate feeling restless due to not having any external accountability. In addition, the longer I go without a schedule, the harder it will likely be to readjust to a schedule once I find work again.

Grieving the loss of value

Adding value to the world brings me a lot of joy. Knowing that I did something that others will find useful or beneficial is a really good feeling for me and one that drives many of my behaviors. Work is only one way that I add value to the world around me, but it’s an important one: I spend more hours on work than I spend on nearly any other single activity (sleep might be the only exception, but I would argue sleep doesn’t add much value to the world beyond enabling my other activities). With the loss of a job comes the loss of value that I’m adding to the world. I am lucky to be naturally curious and creative (in the sense that I like to create, not that I’m particularly gifted at it!), and therefore, I have plenty of ways that I try to add value to the world. This blog is one example; while the practical value of this blog may be quite small, the act of creating content is, to me, an act of adding value to the world. I can only hope that I will augment my total value output during this period of joblessness by writing more, playing more music, and recording more videos.


Sudden, unexpected job loss is an experience that many people go through every year. I believe that change is generally a good thing, and I’m optimistic that this change will lead to a new and positive experience in the near future. However, in order to fully embrace that future, I feel it is important to grieve what I have lost. Income, community, identity, activity, and value are all critically meaningful parts of my life, and they have all been suddenly impacted by this experience. I’m incredibly lucky that this layoff doesn’t present an existential threat to me, but it is important nonetheless. Processing these feelings allows me to honor the experience that came before. Now, I turn my energy towards preparing for what is to come.