Ending a job or a stage in our career can cause real grief and feelings of loss, even if we know what we’re moving into next and even if we’re excited about the change.
I’m writing this post in Autumn, which is the time of year when I feel death’s presence most closely. It’s everywhere I look: falling leaves, Samhain or Halloween, and my own instinct to close old chapters and prepare for hibernation.
We don’t really know how to deal with death of any kind in the West, which leaves us generally ill-equipped to handle the loss that is a normal and regular part of growing and being alive. *For a deeper look at grief, I highly recommend Megan Devine’s work.
I don’t think we talk about loss enough in the career development space, and I’ve seen it cause serious hiccups when someone is trying to manifest the next thing in their professional life. If they haven’t really worked with the feelings that came up around the end of something, those same feelings pop up in weird ways as they try to move on.
Some of the signs that tell me that someone might have unprocessed grief around the ending of a job or stage in their career are:
Bitterness toward their former organization and the people there
Clinging to their old identity
Returning over and over again to stories about that job or career in a way that’s less focused on what they’ve learned and more focused on the nuts and bolts of what happened
Ruminating over and internalizing a story informed by what happened there. For example, taking on the belief that says “I’m unemployable” if they’ve been fired or let go.
If you have grief that’s lingering and you know that it’s informing your thoughts and behaviors as you move forward, this doesn’t mean you’re bad or doing something wrong. It just means that something within you needs your loving attention.
In 2014, after months of job searching and experimenting with entrepreneurship, I came to the point of accepting that I wasn’t going to work for an organization anymore. I felt excited but also a deep sadness because the career (and life) I envisioned for myself would be no longer. I grieved the loss of a regular paycheck, a 401k, having co-workers, and a lot more. I knew that if I didn’t make space for that grief, it would creep into everything I did moving forward.
I knew that if I didn’t grieve, I’d clamor for the things that were no longer there, and that could endanger the new career I wanted to create.
Since it’s Autumn, I’m going to use the metaphor of falling leaves to help shape this post and the ritual practice below, but the concepts here can be used any time, for any sort of loss (losing a manager, switching teams, not getting an interview, etc.)
Did you know that we actually don’t need to rake the leaves that fall from trees? People break their backs over getting every leaf in their yard scooped up, into bags, and hauled away even though leaves fell on the ground and were left there to compost for thousands of years.
When they’re ground up into digestible pieces, leaves are actually nutrient-rich treats for the soil. Just like our experiences in life, even though the leaves are no longer living in present time, when we integrate them, they can be incredibly supportive.
An important note before we move on: the point of this exercise is not to “fix” the feelings you have about the end of a job or career. It’s not about analyzing what happened or making it go away, it’s about integrating and bringing you back into wholeness in this area of your life.
So, how can we mulch the leaves that have fallen (or are ready to fall) in a way that turns us into rich, fertile soil for new life? I list these as steps below, but like everything in real life, this is a circular, not linear, process, and it can be done over and over again.
Step 1: Give yourself permission.
Permission to feel all the feelings, to be sad, to be confused, to be relieved, to take your time, to grieve. You had your own special relationship to that job, co-worker, or professional identity, and now it’s gone. That can be exhilarating, depressing, shocking - all sorts of things. Just let yourself hang out in the mess of it for a while, even for longer than you think might be socially acceptable. There’s no formula for this, and someone who got laid off after 10 years may need less time of intense grief than someone who worked at the organization for five months. Whatever you need, take it.
The pain you’re feeling over the end of something is real, so give it some space to breathe. For better or worse, it’s Autumn, and the leaves have to fall. It’s their destiny.
Step 2: Get the pain out of your body.
Write it on paper. Draw it. Paint it. Sing it. Dance it. Give it form in whatever way feels good to you. The pain can often be more acute and confusing when it lives solely in our minds, circulating over and over again. So get it out into the world where you can look at it. Grind it up so that it’s ready to be composted.
Step 3: Give it back to the Earth.
When you’re ready, let the leaves fall and seep into the soil. Metaphorically (or literally), compost the pain that you got out of your body. Burn it up, bury it, toss it into the river, do whatever feels good to you. Imagine a time-lapse video of all the ground-up leaf pieces just seeping and disintegrating into the Earth, nurturing the soil.
Step 4: Move your body in a new way now.
You’ve just released some heavy stuff. Help your brain and your body familiarize itself with this new territory by doing yoga, or walking, or shaking off your hands. If you can’t move in that way, imagine yourself doing it - that’s just as powerful.
You’re staking your claim to a life that integrates this loss in whatever way makes sense to you. Stake that claim with your body. Feel it as you stand up tall, or lie on the ground, or root into the Earth.
Step 5: Make space for what’s coming.
Nayyirah Waheed writes, “let a new life happen to you.”
As you process the feelings of loss you experience, you make space for what else wants to come into your life. This doesn’t mean that whatever happened to you is fine or that you should get over it, it just means that your branches are a little more bare, your soil is rich, and Spring will still come.
Write down the things you want to grow on your tree or in your garden now. Invite in the kind of work, opportunities, collaborations, or experiences that you want next.
Right after I graduated college, I took a job at a women’s shelter that I knew I shouldn’t have, but I was desperate and afraid of having to make it in the “real world.” I stayed in that job through the summer, and it wasn’t going well; the writing was on the wall for me to be fired, and I decided to leave and move back home before my boss could actually do it.
Not taking the opportunity to process the end of college, the end of my first “real job,” and the grief around moving home and “failing” informed my career choices for at least the next two years, and it wasn’t very pretty.
Even though endings are fraught with fears about survival, what’s next, and much more, I encourage you to make space for the grief. Hold it gently inside and in front of you. Look at it like you would a beautiful autumnal tree ablaze with oranges and yellows.
Let the leaves fall, and when you’re ready, prepare them for their descent into the soil. Into the process of nurturing you.