Something’s Wrong If Losing A Job Feels Worse Than Losing A Spouse

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A lot of people are talking about the recent article claiming that the loss of a job is worse than losing a spouse┬áIn particular, it’s important to understand the context of the study. It involved those with very lengthy unemployment. The results would be very different for those who were re-employed much sooner.

More importantly, though, is that the study doesn’t include those who have lost both a job and a spouse. I wonder if those surveyed would have a different view if they had. I wonder because I have experienced both the death of a spouse and the loss of a job, and can say that the death of my spouse was the most life-altering event I have ever faced. This is not to diminish the shaking-me-to-my-core experience of job loss — that is surely a hardship and a blow to the ego. However, nothing strips you to your core as the loss of your spouse, the father of your children.

When my husband died, leaving me to raise our two-and-a-half-year-old alone, everything that I thought was solid and sure was gone. Our shared future and the dreams that go along with it disappeared. My husband was my anchor. I faced my tomorrow alone, with a dependent child and no idea of what the next step was going to be. There was no outplacement or transition coach to support me through the hardest first months. Death is a journey you travel alone. There is no replacement spouse, there is no strategy to go out and get another life partner.

When I lost my job, I knew there’d be another one. I didn’t know where or when but I knew it existed. My role was to devise a plan to get it. Of course it’s a blow, no doubt. Your ego takes a beating and searching for a job is a very humbling experience. For many, it is the first time that they are not in control of their lives.

As a career transition coach, I share this journey with many clients. I see the pain and the humiliation that job loss inflicts on my clients. They question their self-worth and many lose their self-confidence.When they were terminated, they realized that despite personal sacrifice for the sake of the job, they were still expendable. Many were left with a deep sense of betrayal.

Over time, many clients reviewed their values, questioning the degree of personal and emotional investment they made in their jobs. They realized that they often put their families second to their work. They missed concerts, baseball games and special moments. They weren’t fully present in their family’s lives and often weren’t available when their kids wanted to just talk. When they lost their jobs, they were very much alone, except for family.

I didn’t mourn long for my lost job. Don’t get me wrong: I love my work. I’m fortunate to have meaningful work that I enjoy and get a great deal of satisfaction from. I have wonderful clients, fantastic colleagues and lots of opportunities to grow personally and professionally. I also draw clear boundaries around my job. It isn’t the meaning of my life. There are many jobs in our lives — they come and go. There are many careers, many paths and many opportunities to share your strengths and your gifts.

There (I hope) aren’t many spouses in our lives. There aren’t many places that we can find unconditional love, but family is one of the few places where that exists. It certainly doesn’t exist in the workplace. Our relationships touch our souls, they bring light to our lives. Long after a job is gone, family is all that remains. When we are away from home, it’s our spouse we hope to return to, not our job. When life is falling apart or when we celebrate, it’s family we turn to for support, not our jobs. Family provides love, a safe harbor, unconditional love, tolerance and patience with our idiosyncrasies, patience. Family is constant and ever-present. Family is forever.

A job is fleeting, as all of those who have left or lost jobs understand. Your employment and contribution are conditional, as indeed they should be. As an employee, you are making a contribution towards something that is greater than yourself. While that can be truly meaningful, it also means that you are one person among many contributors. There are times when your contribution is no longer needed or valued. Those are the times when you and your job part ways.

So I have to question why some of us feel like we are nothing without our work. At its most basic, work is meant to ensure we can put food on the table, a roof over our heads and an education for our children. Once we achieve that, everything else is a bonus. Of course it’s best if work can be meaningful; after all, we spend so much of our lives at work. But when the loss of work means more than the death of a spouse, then I have to question what has happened to our values and the meaning of relationships. Since when did the production of goods and services carry more meaning than the building and sustaining of deep and meaningful connections, of building family and community?

To accept the premise that the loss of a job is more traumatic than the death of a spouse without questioning our values is to head down a path where relationships have less meaning than professional accomplishments. Perhaps those who can’t recover from job loss for years need to build community and relationships around them, surround themselves with those who treasure them for their inner lives and less so for their outward material contribution and success. What are we teaching our children and society that people feel so worthless without work?

So, what do you think ?