The world feels a bit upside right now. It feels unpredictable and raw and weird. There is so much to say, and yet so little to say. Many other people have been writing about the stay-at-home orders and about the panic buying of toilet paper and about the infection rates of the pandemic. Some are talking about the heroism of our medical workers and how this virus is affecting us all. For now, I’m going to leave all that to others.
A little over a week ago was my last day at my job. It happened to coincide with the timing of the massive shutdowns and layoffs related to the pandemic and isolation orders, but it had nothing to do with any of that. I was laid off, along with all of my co-workers. We were given two weeks notice and severance packages. It was a huge and painful decision for the leadership and board of our organization, and no one likes that outcome, but I understood it was necessary. We were given time to slowly close our location and to say goodbye to our favorite customers and to even talk and grieve with each other.
With the last two weeks, I thought I had said my goodbyes. I exchanged phone numbers and hugs (yes, even in this time, I gave hugs) with a few friends, both co-workers and customers. On my last night of work, at the end of our shift, a co-worker and I went to get a “last supper” at our favorite little burger place. We were relieved to find they were still offering drive-up service. We ordered dinner and then drove back across the street to the parking lot of our work place. She parked the car so we could face and see the building. We savored the fries and pondered what was next. In between bites of burgers, we complained a little bit and reminisced a little bit. Mostly, though, we were quiet. My friend drove me home and I gave her a hug in the shadow of the street lights. I appreciated her company and friendship on this sad night.
The next day, I slept in and told myself that I was giving myself a week off, a week’s vacation, before deciding what was next, before making any decisions.
All around me, mostly in the news app on my phone (I don’t have television service), I learned about the pandemic, but all I could think about was my job and what I was going to do. Weirdly enough, back in February, I remember thinking that it would be nice to have a couple of weeks off to stay home and have time to write, cook, read, run, nap and to take a little break from people. I had even thought about taking some time off from work for that very purpose, to have a chill staycation at home, to rest and replenish.
I wasn’t panicked in the economic sense, I still have another paycheck and the severance package coming. I knew I could file for unemployment like many others.
Over the next few days, I took naps and read books. I went for runs early in the morning and sat on my patio in the afternoons. I tried out a couple of new recipes and made a pot of soup. I drank coffee in the mornings and did a little bit of writing, but mostly the words didn’t flow and I didn’t want to force things. I talked to my mom every day on the phone, a routine we had just started even before the events of the last few weeks. While I enjoyed the time, I wandered around my clean apartment and couldn’t figure out why I felt so weird and listless.
It wasn’t until a co-worker texted me and asked if she could call. I remember being a little surprised, because I wouldn’t have guessed that she and I would be much in touch after we stopped working together. I returned a quick text, “Yes, just give me about 5 minutes.” I went to the bathroom and then returned to the kitchen and dumped some ice cubes in a glass and poured some vodka and sprite. I mixed the contents with a clean butterknife, the first utensil I grabbed out of the silverware drawer. I took my phone and glass into the living room and tucked my legs under me. My co-worker friend called just as I got comfy on the couch.
The first thing she said was, “I am so sad.”
That’s when it hit me. That’s why I had felt listless and directionless and rudderless over the last week. That’s why I felt numb to the news and headlines pouring out over my phone.
“Me too,” I replied.
We talked about our jobs and how weird the week “off” had been. We talked about the beauty of spring in New Mexico. She told me the latest antics of her dog and the joy of making a good dinner for her daughter and boyfriend. She mentioned going for walks along the river, near her home. I mentioned reading good books and taking naps and my runs in the early mornings. We talked about the co-workers we missed and the customers we loved. We chuckled about one person that we wouldn’t miss. There are always bright spots to be found.
Then we were silent. I took a sip from my glass, the ice clinking.
“I’m grieving,” she whispered.
We both sighed into our phones.
We sat with the silence a bit longer.
“I didn’t think I would be this sad. I thought I would miss it, but I didn’t know it would feel like this. I thought I would miss a few people, but it’s bigger than that,” I told her. “All week I didn’t realize I was sad.”
Startled with my honesty, I jumped to other things. We made plans for her to come to my apartment early next week so I could help her file for unemployment. We joked that this was an absolute necessity, even with the orders to stay at home as much as possible. We talked about the co-workers we had heard from.
We were silent again.
“We have to sit with this and make space for it,” I choked on the words, “this grief.”
“We have to allow ourselves to grieve,” she said.
We finished our drinks, the ice clinking on both sides of the phones. We confirmed that she would be coming over on Monday and would bring another co-worker to also file for unemployment.
“Thank you so much for calling and reaching out. I love you,” I said.
“I love you, Kary. Good night.” She hung up.
That’s the thing. Yes, we have to pick ourselves up. We need to make plans and apply for new jobs, but even in the midst of all of this, we have to recognize grief. We think about grief in terms of losing a loved one, but grief can come for so many other things. Sure, we are much more than our jobs, but for many of us, our work becomes part of our identity, for better or for worse.
When we lose a job, we lose our daily routine, our organizing order for the days and weeks. I had been planning to make a change from this job, probably in the next couple of months, but I had considered staying on part-time, because it was a place I loved. I loved the people, the hubbub. I missed the social aspects of this job, because most of my jobs have included a small office setting. Yes, we also lose income, and in the practical sense that may be the first order of business, but it’s hard to tackle the first step if you don’t acknowledge that grief.
I have never been to an employment office or talked to a job counselor, but I have the folder of items that we were given before the layoff. It includes the brochure with step-by-step directions for filing for unemployment. Multiple documents highlight the services offered by the state workforce offices, including resume help and job search tips.
I wonder if the job counselors ever talk about grief or at least acknowledge it.
Sure, change can be good and this layoff might be a “blessing in disguise” as my mom likes to say. As I mentioned before in other blog posts, I was already considering some other directions. I realize, though, that even as I update my resume and help my co-workers and friends, I need to acknowledge the grief and to process it.
Yeah, losing a job isn’t the same as losing a loved one, but we do lose our little work families. I lost the people who groaned at my puns. I lost the place where my little merry band of misfits (if that doesn’t describe my co-workers in a nutshell, nothing does) met every day. I lost the people who greeted me as I walked by their desks so I could punch in on the computer time clock. I lost the co-worker who would save part of her lunch for me, if she had made too much. I lost the co-worker who gave me rides on Sunday nights because the bus doesn’t run late on Sundays. I lost the people I said good night to when they left for the day. Sure, some of us will stay in touch, but even with those that don’t, I still miss the camaraderie, that connection of place and routine and familiarity. I lost the place and the people that I spent a lot of time with over the last two and a half years. I lost a job that was fun and easy for the most part.
There are all kinds of loss and many kinds of grief. I realize that losing contact with some people who liked my silly humor is not the same as worrying about how to pay next month’s rent or losing one’s health, but there is sadness and grief in my loss of a job. It’s all there in loss.
I can be sad and give myself some space to acknowledge that. I can call a work friend and reminisce or just let her talk about her loss and listen. I can offer help to co-workers. I can write a few words to process my feelings and then rip up the pages and throw them into the recycling bin. I can pick myself up and dust myself off. I can organize myself into next steps and plans. I can work on a new resume and I can launch myself into a big career change. I can sit in the space of uncertainty. I can grieve and still move on at the same time. I can take a little time to just slow down and breathe. I can sit in the silence and the space of my own breath.