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The Five Phases of Losing a Job (by Paul W. Smith)

I can forgive the girls who broke my heart, forget the embarrassing moments in the high school cafeteria, and even overlook the exams I failed. Doing so allows me to bask in the glow of the good stuff from almost any era of my life. The 60’s, the latter part of which heralded my graduation from high school, are no exception. Sergeant Pepper tuned up his Lonely Hearts Club Band, Psycho was the top grossing movie, unemployment was around 5%, and the Dow hit a peak of 685. The families of the neighborhood were clamoring for my lawn-mowing and leaf-raking services; my first job was taking shape.

One of the many lasting gifts of the 60’s was Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s landmark book, On Death and Dying. In it, the Swiss psychiatrist attempted to categorize 5 distinct phases through which people diagnosed with a terminal illness will pass. She later generalized the theory to embrace other catastrophic life events, including job loss. At first glance, the theory appears elegant, but it was criticized by many for its lack of supporting evidence, either from Kubler-Ross herself or from other independent researchers. In response, she modified her stance a bit to say that not everyone will experience the phases in the same order, nor will every person go through all 5. At the risk of having no theory left at all, she stood on the belief that everyone will experience at least 2 of the phases.

Much has been written about the death of the classical retirement model, and the beginning of a new age where people transition to a second, more satisfying career life. This is the time where, instead of sitting in a rocking chair gazing lovingly at your gold watch, you run a small business out of your garage involving handmade bookends, fudge from Grandma’s secret recipe, or perhaps your best-selling, critically acclaimed auto-biography. It is the “actor-turned-salad-dressing-king” model for life’s second phase. My own partially formed vision of this phase involved some photography and some writing, along with part-time university teaching. I was spared from worrying about the details when, after walking into work one morning, I was handed the master-plan, complete with dates (today!) and financing (known to insiders as a “separation” package).

It was known in the building where I worked that layoffs would begin Wednesday, and be substantially completed by Friday. As I walked in the building to prepare for an early meeting, I was accosted in the cube-row by my boss (who never came in early...a warning for sure). He was carrying a black folder (another sign) and suggested we head immediately for the privacy of his office to fulfill the prophecy. Before I even knew what happened, I was heading out the door, and after texting my wife the news, I picked up a latte from Starbucks (such indulgences had not yet been eliminated from the budget) and went straight to the nearest park. I am being completely honest when I say that I felt extremely relieved; I would not have to squirm through the rest of the week, watching co-workers trudge grimly out the door carrying boxes of belongings. The bleeding was brief; the details of my future plan were beginning to congeal. It was only Wednesday, and I already had the rest of the week off. Life was good....

It is widely accepted that fighting reality with respect to any catastrophic event will doom you to remain permanently stuck in the denial stage. Although those who feel they have led a good, productive life are supposedly more likely to accept death, I suspect that those who feel that way about their job will find it even harder to escape the temporary shelter of denial. You can deny the whole thing, but that’s hard to do when they won’t let you in the building anymore. There is the option of playing down the seriousness, but this becomes difficult when the Friday auto deposits stop showing up (particularly so when you are married, as I am, to an accountant). There is also the option of completely absolving yourself of any responsibility, blaming the whole thing on someone else. The little ball with my number on it just happened to bounce into the hopper and roll down the chute. It was a winner for someone who had never won anything. Denial is said to be a mechanism of the immature mind, conflicting with the ability to learn and cope with reality...that can’t be me. No denial for this guy. Moving on....

Kubler-Ross would say that once I left denial behind, I was headed toward anger. This is the “Why me?”, “This is not fair!”, “Who is to blame for this?” phase which usually involves a fair amount of venting, foot stomping and table pounding. This is the point where I realized that denial can’t continue, that 3 months is long enough to rant and rave about the morons in the unemployment office, and that it’s time to shave, shower and get out of the house again. It was cute to tell everyone who asked that I was retired, but the lie was transparently thin and people just weren’t buying it. Psychologists classify typical signs of anger as making loud sounds, attempting to look physically larger, baring one’s teeth and staring. The goal is generally to turn back an aggressor, to stop the threatening behavior and make it go away. Perhaps I shouldn’t have walked out the door so willingly. Maybe I was doomed to be a gatherer of berries in a world of carnivores. At this point, any individual with a regular job; the convenience store clerk, the mechanic who worked on my car, even the janitor at my son’s high school – any human who symbolized life, energy and full time employment with benefits became an object of resentment, jealousy and, yes, just a little bit of anger.

Bargaining is the next phase, where one generally tries to make a deal with whoever is in charge to secure some sort of rescue. This is a bit like the lottery player who swears he will give half to the poor if he wins the Powerball jackpot. With no one to bargain with (they were all laid off too), there was nothing left to do but move on to the next phase – depression. According to the book, I am allowed to do this without completely trashing my overall mental well-being.

For me, the next phase was characterized by much soul-searching and reminiscing. I realized that I had worked more or less continuously since I began the neighborhood lawn mowing business back in those sugar-coated sixties. People are justifiably suspicious when you tell them that you have spent 35 years in the high-tech field without ever having been laid off. They walk away convinced that you are either a liar, delusional, or perhaps a rare genius of some sort. Whether or not I was depressed in this phase is a matter for the professionals to debate. Psychologists have their 1000 page Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to help them figure this stuff out. It is a bit like Machinery’s Handbook for denizens of the leather couch. For me, it was a way of wallowing in the failure of my online job search to yield even a single response. My hit rate was 0%. I was completely unemployable. I faced the mirror and repeated “Would you like to biggie size that?” until tears rolled down my cheeks.

In the end, the “Now” had quite a bit of power after all. The bills were paid, the fridge was full and I was completely liberated from the feelings that many of my friends and neighbors were experiencing – the next swing of the axe and the loss of their jobs. Acceptance is generally characterized by a feeling of peace and understanding, recognition that the die is cast and it is time to face forward rather than back. It is also described as a state where one rests in a negative or uncomfortable situation without attempting to change it, protest, or exit in any way. The idea is that if you try and get out, than you aren’t really accepting it in the first place. If you are trying desperately to get a job, than you haven’t completed the acceptance challenge, and you are not emotionally well enough to move on. If you are not trying to get a job, than you are either back in depression, or just plain lazy (break out the DSM-IV...). It is basically the classic Catch-22 of the unemployment battlefield.

In spite of all that has transpired, I can still forgive, forget and overlook. The glow is returning, and it is not the embers of my torched career. With “Boom Boom Pow” resonating in the background, Harry Potter now owns the box office, the Dow is hovering in the mid 9000’s, and unemployment will soon crack the ominous 10% mark. Life has become a hazy, exciting, promising world of unrealizable possibilities where hope and fear stare each other down in the octagon of my future. It is a new phase, uncharted by Kubler-Ross, of networking, online job hunts, unemployment checks and a heightened interest in whatever new “safety nets” might surface in ObamaLand.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to LoveMyTool, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and

occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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