By Lisa A. Biedenbach
One chilly morning three years ago, my boss stood at my office door and solemnly asked me to follow him to the conference room to meet with the company CEO. My stomach started to churn because I knew that other employees had been laid off. As I walked the plank to the sea of unemployment, my mind blurred, my heart raced, and my palms sweat. The CEO told me that after 24 years with the company, I was no longer needed. Upon leaving the conference room, I called my husband, who had been laid off four times in our 20-plus years of marriage. In his straightforward manner, Bob offered me early and lasting consolation: “Everything will be OK. Don’t worry. We’ll get through this.” Sixty handshakes and 30 packed boxes later, I closed the door to my office and walked away from a job that I loved. With creeping panic, I realized suddenly that I had just become a new statistic in the count of unemployed Americans. What would I do? What would become of me?
Working your way through.
Smart enough to know that I needed a strategy to become re-employed, I couldn’t muster the motivation or the mental wherewithal to start a job hunt. I didn’t know what to think or do or where to start. Three years later, with much hindsight, I can boil down to nine simple lessons that became my saving grace during a time of tremendous anxiety.
Give yourself permission to rest.
A psychologist-friend contacted me within hours of learning about my job loss, offering me skilled counsel. He gently told me that I had just suffered trauma and a deep loss akin to losing a loved one to death. “You don’t need to find a job today or even tomorrow. You need to give yourself permission to rest, sleep, and quiet your spirit in order to find peace and move forward. And you need to grieve the loss of a job you loved.” With his advice in my head, I planned my days to include quiet time, much of it atop our John Deere tractor. While mowing fields for four hours at a time, I thought calmly about what had happened, what was happening in my life, what I wanted to happen next, and what could happen.
True friends are forever.
The people who had loved me and supported me in good times continued to love me and now supported me in this not-so-great time. I invited colleagues in my field of expertise to offer feedback on my resume, and I asked others to provide networking opportunities. During the period between jobs, I seized opportunities to reconnect with long-ago friends that over the years I had become too busy to contact. These rekindled friendships buoyed my spirits and helped me maintain the self-esteem that had disappeared along with a regular paycheck.
Laughter will always be the best medicine.
Instinctively I knew that I needed fun in my life during this time of darkness and grief and uncertainty. My good fortune was to meet Peggy and Terry, friends of a beloved neighbor, and we four women began to hang out together. Doing so, we laughed and laughed—there’s nothing like deep laughter with playful people to release tension and refresh the spirit!
Recognize—and be grateful for—compassion.
The most surprising and probably least obvious source of compassion I encountered during my layoff came from the State of Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. The men and women who daily help the unemployed to walk the maze of forms and compensation benefits are, in my opinion, unsung civil servants. They responded to my questions with respect, patience, and kindness. The unemployment counselors modeled for me how to respect people who are going through rough times and to be compassionate.
Stress kills, so kill stress.
Stress sucks at and depletes a person’s spirit and attacks one’s health. To keep my sanity, I worked hard to significantly reduce as much stress in my life as I could. I created opportunities to succeed and thus feel good about myself. I began a daily campaign to de-clutter and organize our home, and my newly-neat environment brought renewed pride in my organizational skills, kept me occupied, and gave me reason to get out of bed every morning. My rewards were restful nights’ sleep, a few hours daily of focused physical activity, feelings of accomplishment, and a cleaner home!
Identity theft can be prevented.
I’m not talking here about stolen credit cards or hacked passwords, but theft of one’s real self. For too many years, I had allowed too many others and too many things to take over the real me. With a new resolve born of unemployment and the time to change what I wanted to change within myself, I quit trying to be what I thought others wanted from me—the driven director, the over-committed volunteer, the woman who could not or would not say “no” to any and every request that filled slots on my day planner. In letting go of what I thought others wanted me to be, I could begin to be the true me again. I was “reinventing Lisa” and finding that I liked her much.
During my long layoff and time of resting my spirit, I took advantage of being able to be more fully present to my family and friends. Early after my layoff, a niece asked me to babysit on Wednesday mornings so that she could teach her weekly ballet class and relieve her mother from driving several hours to babysit. In helping this niece, I rediscovered great joy in playing with a toddler and being useful to a young mother. And too, during my time of uncertainty, my family rallied around me by including me in impromptu gatherings and meals and delighting me with small gifts to boost my spirits—doing for me what I had so often tried to do for them.
Money isn’t everything (but it is missed at times!).
During each of my hubby Bob’s four layoffs, we reassessed our spending. Bob, who can live frugally without blinking an eye and with more willingness than me to cut corners, taught me daily about what is really necessary. We relearned how to enjoy leisure time without spending money. I cooked economical meals, opted for generic instead of brand-name products, combined errands to reduce gas consumption, and told solicitors for donations to charities that I was my own charity right now. I wrote my pastor that I could not contribute financially to our church during this time, but I would volunteer my professional skills as my stewardship. In response, he asked me to chair the church’s 150th anniversary celebration!
I am God’s gift.
For decades I had worked with spiritual thinkers to produce resources to inspire people to trust in God. This lesson was the hardest to acknowledge and fully embrace. Without a job and no clear idea of what I would do next, I questioned constantly how I could possibly be God’s gift in our world. So I decided to go with my strengths—with God’s gifts to me—and after much discernment, I established a consulting business and am using my talents in new and meaningful ways.
Like millions who have experienced job loss, I too felt anger, anxiety, and depression. I long at times to work again with certain former coworkers or on particular projects. And when the darkness of job loss wells up inside me, I can still feel bitterness welling up in my heart. But these detours on my road to “OK” occur less and less frequently. The moment that I knew that I had turned the corner from grieving my former job to reinventing my life was when a young cousin who had just lost her job called to ask my advice. I shared with her these hard-learned, but valuable lessons.
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