How To Stand Up When You’ve Been Stood Down: Tackling Grief

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Apr 01, 2020

Unlike traditional psychotherapy where solving problems is the aim, positive psychology focuses on increasing your happiness to make life better. The science behind it clearly shows that our lives are enhanced by the people who are in it, our personal health, a sense of meaning and a clear idea of our purpose. Over the past few weeks, all of us have experienced a lack of control or stability in one, or more of these areas – and with no real clues about when or if we can expect things to return to ‘normal’. For me, this well and truly hit home last week when my employer stood me down. 

Work matters. Work provides us with a routine environment where we get to make a difference, help others and be financially independent. All of that is thrown into turmoil when our reason for getting up, dressing up and showing up is no longer required. Even more challenging for me, is that the employer who stood me down stares at me in the mirror every morning. I’m a sole practitioner, and as of this week, my work has dried up and my diary is empty.

stress, grief, unemployment

Loss of employment, particularly in these unprecedented times can cause substantial challenges for people – both financially and psychologically. Life feels out of control and is unpredictable, and this causes distress. Understanding both the grief experience that job loss triggers, and the self-help strategies that can assist, will help us move forward in this difficult time.

Although the circumstances are different, the grief experienced following job loss is not dissimilar to the grief we experience when we lose a loved one. Loss (in any form) forces change, which is often unwelcome and upsetting in nature. Although grief is felt in many ways, there are some common features in our response – and recognising these can help us make sense of our reactions to it. 

The grief response first explained by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, encompasses five stages:

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
  • Denial – a time of disbelief. The situation doesn’t feel real, we can feel numb or as if it’s all part of a horrible dream. 
  • Anger – when we are fearful or worried, we often express our emotions through anger. We are likely to be short-tempered or feel angry.
  • Bargaining – in a need to regain control it is common to ask, ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ questions. We try to negotiate alternative options to numb the grief experience.
  • Depression – feeling sad or overwhelmed by our circumstances. This time can feel quiet and helpless.
  • Acceptance – while we don’t have to like a situation, we need to accept it has happened before we can move on. Our acceptance lies in understanding our circumstances.

In explaining grief, Kubler-Ross did not intend to present five distinct stages of a process that someone moves through from beginning to end. However, this is often how it’s presented. My experience in supporting those who grieve (and certainly my own experience from last week), is that the grief response is anything but a series of ordered stages. At any moment, we may jump between or combine the five stages, and it can be messy. In a visual sense, their combination is better likened to a bowl of spaghetti than an ordered production line of experience.

In short, if you (or a loved one) have been stood down and any of the above resonates with you, then your experiences are likely both unpleasant and normal. Through the course of last week, and on the day I delivered my last seminar for the foreseeable future, I felt a wave of emotions, all of them described above. The seven self-help strategies below can provide comfort and guidance to help you move forward:

  1. Pay attention and notice the emotions you are feeling – all emotions are functional. They are giving you feedback on how you are feeling, so that information is helpful.
  2. Know that our actions are related to how we feel. If you spend too long grieving for what you’ve lost, you lose the opportunity to move forward to the next possibility. The way you think will define your emotions, so be mindful of what you say to yourself.
  3. Ask yourself the question: What is helpful now? Is there a different way to think or something different that you can do? Can you tell yourself something that is more positively reframed? This was my go-to last week. I couldn’t find a convincing way to tell myself something more positive, so I went for a swim in the ocean. For 20 minutes the world stood still, and I stepped out of the water feeling better physically and in a better mindset to tackle what to do next.
  4. Find yourself a new routine, a new way that works for you. Routine and predictability are an effective way of gaining control in a seemingly uncontrollable situation.
  5. Stay connected. Who can help you with your current circumstances? Can you stay connected with your employer?
  6. Be creative. This will be a time of opportunity. Is there new learning you can adopt? Can you use your skills in different ways? Is there an education option for you? What can you do now, so that you might one day look back and see this time as a blessing?
  7. Ask for help. Don’t travel through this alone. People matter, and people want to help you.

For me, it has been a week where I have felt myself move through the process of grief. With acceptance I am now realising that my control doesn’t lie in what has happened to me, but how I now deal with it. There are opportunities for me to embrace and I am now excited about the possibilities of what they might be.

To watch a video of Dr Lukins further elaborating on this article, visit: 

About the author

Dr Jo Lukins is a psychological Indiana Jones who spends her day inside the heads of individuals, teams, and organisations seeking to understand what makes them tick and to achieve their best.  She holds a PhD in Psychology and has been acknowledged as an expert in her field, awarded an Outstanding Alumni by her alma mater. Her first book, The Elite: Think like an athlete, succeed like a champion translates the lessons of elite athlete thinking for the every person.


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