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Experiencing grief in your career

At some point in our life, we are all confronted with grief. It commonly happens when we lose a close friend, a relative or a pet. But a major loss can also be a job, a business or a situation, such as a career change you were not prepared for. Did you know, you can even experience grief when upgrading your iPhone? People can experience the same grief journey with any loss. 

In this article we’ll explore the following:

  • What are the 5 stages of grief
  • Instances of grief in one’s professional life
  • What can be done to move forward

The 5 stages of grief

According to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, grief manifests itself through 5 different stages which are (1) denial; (2) anger; (3) bargaining; (4) depression and finally (5) acceptance. 


Typically the first emotion one feels after getting the shocking news. Denial is a strategy to cope with the overwhelming pain. 

  1. ANGER

According to Friedrich & Müstenhagen (2017) this “state of resentment and frustration […]  may be directed toward the person or institution triggering these feelings”.


Bargaining marks a first step towards acknowledging the situation; yet the person will negotiate for more time or better conditions. Described by Kübler-Ross and Kessler talk about the “what if” and “if only” mindset in which one will focus on their hypothetical capacity to prevent the loss. I frequently encounter it among job seekers in the form of questions like “Should I reach back to them?” “How can I get this job back”? 


Intense mourning and sadness. After realizing that bargaining won’t do anything to bring the loss back, the person is facing the harsh reality. This stage can have a big impact on one’s social life as people tend to isolate themselves.


Acceptance is generally the final stage of grief. People feel the pain though sadness and regret may remain. 

Note that there’s no linear timeline with how grief shows up. People might experience the stages in a different order or skip some altogether. Also, note that stages can overlap. For example, you may be going through the bargaining stage while still being in denial. 

I have seen this with my clients when it comes to major changes in their life. For instance, a client came to me after he had lost his business due to circumstances out of his control created by the government response to COVID-19 in his area. He explained that tears would form out of nowhere and an intense feeling of loss and sadness. The next day he would be angry. He was experiencing classic signs of grief.

While some people may reach the acceptance stage in a few weeks or months, it might take years for others. 

When can grief occur in your career?

  • During the different stages in the job search process such as
    • You never hear back from the recruiter
    • You get to the final round of selection and are not selected
    • You receive a job offer at your ideal company and they lowball you
  • You get laid off
  • Your work environment changes dramatically. Thus, you might grieve:
    • The loss of a co-worker
    • The loss of a boss
    • The loss of your business
    • Your paycheck
    • The time spent at work
    • A job title
    • A role change
    • A loss of retirement
    • A demotion or restructure of your position

Why does grief happen?

From a neuroscientific perspective, grief is linked to the following: when we feel close to our loved ones or environment, our body produces “feel good hormones” such as oxytocin or serotonin. Therefore, loss provokes a consequent drop of these chemicals. On the contrary, stress chemicals, like cortisols, will increase.

Cortisol is then taking over, triggering a wide extent of emotional, mental and physical symptoms, from muscular tension to increased heart rate, compromised digestion and concentration, lack of appetite or even difficulty breathing. Thanks to fMRI, researchers have identified that grief activates regions of the brain that are associated with pain (Science, 2008)

When stress cortisols are at their highest it is common to feel numb, cut-off, and disconnected. You can think of this process as your body’s built- in self-protection mechanism” adds Dr Arielle Schwartz (2016), a clinical psychologist.

Furthermore, grief is hard because it dramatically interrupts our perception of the future. Indeed, we project our future selves and experiences based upon what we presently have. But when a major loss occurs, it disrupts both our present and future career, so much so that it may be difficult to keep imagining one – or at least, an optimistic one.

How to work through grief along your career?

How a person will process their grief depends on circumstances, preconditions and support mechanisms. For instance, in the case of job rejection, while some may bounce back quickly, some might have a hard time feeling confident and finding the motivation to keep applying. A career coach who specializes in change management can help you navigate through these mental challenges in your professional life and keep it all in perspective so you can keep going. 

In cases of prolonged and/or intense struggle, you may want to seek help from a mental health professional.

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Friedrich, E., & Wüstenhagen, R. (2017). Leading organizations through the stages of grief: The development of negative emotions over environmental change. Business & Society, 56(2), 186-213.

Schwartz, A. (2016, March 8). Grief, Grit, and Grace: The Complexity of Grief. Dr Arielle Schwartz. https://drarielleschwartz.com/grief-grit-and-grace-dr-arielle-schwartz/#.YYLqSNnMIqs 

Science, (2008, June 2008). Why It’s Hard to Say Goodbye. Science. https://www.science.org/content/article/why-its-hard-say-goodbye 

November 9, 2021

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