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Grieving the Loss of a Work Identity

When we step out of the workplace, we lose more than a job

By Jill Smolowe

A recent conversation with a 67-year-old friend who found herself unexpectedly retired by a job elimination brought home a grief we often fail to acknowledge: the loss of our work friends.

Credit: Adobe Stock

“I used to talk to these people several times a day,” my friend said. “Now, I don’t talk to them at all.” When I asked if she’d considered reaching out to say hello, she shrugged. “I don’t see the point. We don’t really have anything to talk about anymore,” she replied.

The combination of losses — her job, her work friends, her daily flow of conversation — was doing a number on my friend’s head.

No one to run ideas by. No one to banter with. No one to chat with over coffee. No one to admire your new tie or commiserate over your awful haircut. Perhaps most important, no one to pull you out of yourself when you’re having a difficult day.

“Some days I get up, thinking I’ll look online for a job, and instead I just go back to bed,” she said. “The whole thing has made me angry. It’s put a strain on my relationship with my husband.”

The Silence After Leaving a Workplace

I empathize. While I left my last job by choice, the silence that descended in its wake has been so unanticipated that I’m not sure I’ve quite recovered five years on.

Whether we work in an office or are in touch with colleagues remotely, the contact with them provides a steady stream of daily camaraderie and interaction. Then, poof, it’s gone — along with the work identity that for decades provided a ready and concise answer to the question, Who Am I?

During the four decades I was a salaried journalist working for four publications, I learned to think of my work relationships as situational friendships. Much as I liked the people with whom I shared deadlines, ideas and office space, I came to understand that once the tie that bound us was broken, it was unlikely we’d remain in touch.

While many of my workmates and I exchanged details about our personal lives, it was always the job and the workplace itself that provided the glue. After all those years, I can count on one hand the number of former colleagues who remain an active part of my life.

And that’s painful, given that it was the camaraderie that so often made the work pleasurable.

What My Former Colleague and I Miss

I recently had an email exchange with a former magazine colleague whom I haven’t seen in eight or nine years. She’d asked what I was up to.

“Been working on a book,” I wrote. “But I do miss the weekly hit. Or maybe, more accurately, I miss knowing what I’m doing any given week. And I miss having colleagues and their conversation. Do you miss conceptualizing and editing?”

“Yes to everything!” she responded. “I miss the weekly hit. I miss cubicle-mates (no one around to weigh in on a lede [the opening of an article] — except the dog, who is never very helpful). Most of all, I miss having no home for ideas.”

Exactly. No one to run ideas by. No one to banter with. No one to chat with over coffee. No one to admire your new tie or commiserate over your awful haircut. Perhaps most important, no one to pull you out of yourself when you’re having a difficult day.

Finding Meaning in a New Chapter of Life

It’s hard enough when you leave a job and step into semi-retirement or full retirement by choice. Five years on, I struggle as many days as not with how I’m going to fill the hours in a way that feels meaningful and worthwhile.

At a recent meditation retreat, it felt vindicating to hear one of the instructors comment, “Very little attention is paid to the transition of retirement.” Her observation reminded me that I’m not alone in this, albeit lonely at times.

(Next Avenue’s Work & Purpose Editor Richard Eisenberg addressed this feeling in his blog post, “When Retirement Is a Bad Fit,” interviewing the author of the book, Retirement and Its Discontents.)

When I hear people comment, “I’m going to keep working for as long as I can; I don’t know what I’d do with myself otherwise,” I suspect that often it’s more the loss of workplace companionship than the work itself that people dread losing.


The Challenge of Life After a Layoff

If you had no intention of leaving your job, but your job left you, finding your way out of the disappointment and into a new rhythm can be all the more challenging.

After a layoff, “we often irrationally feel like the rest of the world is happily employed while it’s only me sitting at home watching reruns all day,” Kristin Neff writes in Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself — a book I recommend for just such a moment.

This time of life requires determination and experimentation to identify activities that give your days and weeks a shape and feeling of flow. It requires energy, initiative and resolve to build a new network of people.

And it takes time — just as it took time in the workplace — to build relationships that feel so much a part of your life that you take them for granted.

Advice for the Transition

If you’re struggling with the transition, a good first step toward crafting your new life is to give yourself the time and mental space to grieve the loss of your old one.

Start with all the people from work who have fallen out of your life.

That guy whose jokes used to strike you as ridiculous? Allow yourself to admit you miss his cringe-worthy punchlines. The woman who used to pop by to review the latest twist on Game of Thrones? Allow yourself to miss the excited arguments about who would ascend the Iron Throne. The annoying manager who pointedly checked his watch when you showed up five minutes late? Acknowledge that, hey, it was actually kind of nice that someone noticed whether you were there or not.

And remember: Tired though you may have been of the eight hours that work ate out of each day, those were eight hours you didn’t have to think about filling. Those were eight hours that had a monetary value. Those were eight hours that anchored your day.

Grieve the Loss of Your Work Identity

So, allow yourself to grieve the loss of your work identity. That’s not easy.

We are a society that leans heavily into the “What do you do for a living?” question to kick off conversations. It’s hard to lose the one- or two-word answer that helped to situate ourselves in other people’s universes, as well as our own.

Finally, identify and grieve other sorts of losses that perhaps you’re only now recognizing helped to make your life simpler.

When full-time work is in your past, it’s important to acknowledge the reasons for your sadness, not dismiss or hide from them. As with grief of any kind, before we can move forward, we need to mourn what we’re leaving behind.

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of "Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief." To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit Read More
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