I know I’m not alone in sometimes feeling surrounded by illness, bereavement or grief. In the last six weeks two close friends have each lost one of their parents. Another friend is undergoing treatment to blast away cancerous cells and yet another awaits news if her treatment has been successful.
It seems, we, of a certain age, have entered an emotionally turbulent stage of our lives accompanied by illness, bereavement and grief.
Sometimes I doubt whether any positive could come from such negative experiences…
I met one of these friends for breakfast this week who divulged that while physical and mental trauma has been a very unwelcome visitor in her home for the last year, it hasn’t been all negative.
She was referring to a certain clarity she now feels about life that was fogged by worrying about “the small stuff” in the past.
She can see her bigger picture more clearly. And has begun to make sense of what that might mean for her and her family in the future. If they are lucky enough to have a future together.
That got me thinking...
How a health scare, illness or grief can impact career change
I’ve noticed that I’m working, more and more often, with mid-lifers wishing to change careers who cite one of their reasons for change coming from a new thought process after experiencing:
a) the trauma of losing an elderly parent
b) a personal health scare
c) a serious illness of a close friend/sibling
While the loss is never the primary reason for their desire for change, it often appears in response to my “Why now?” initial question.
Some sort of life clarity appears to present itself at some point after exposure to a serious health scare (personal or otherwise) or over the course of a grieving process. I guess it’s no surprise for those of you who have experienced it, but to me it looks and feels like a complete over-haul of priorities and life values.
The sense that “life is short” seems to grow to more than “a feeling” with some people. It can grow so much that it requires and demands attention and inspires change. Change in lots of ways, such as:
· moving home to be closer to family,
· moving parents closer to us,
· creating new family traditions,
· changing how we eat and drink,
· changing friends,
· spending more time with x group of people,
· spending less time with x group of people,
· creating a bucket list,
· scratching off items on an old bucket list,
· picking up new projects/hobbies to make us feel more alive, or
· changes in our spending patterns to allow for the new priorities.
For some, they feel a very strong need to re-think their careers.
The new sense that “Life is too short” in some, magnifies the impact of spending 8-10 hours a day doing something that they don’t love - at best - or something that is stressful, exhausting or draining - at worst.
But the loss of our healthy self, our healthy friend or a parent takes time to work through. That sense-making process is often called grief and it can be debilitating…for a while.
How bereavement and grief impact our brain:
In summary, grief and loss can:
1. Increase cortisone release (the stress hormones) which impacts our immune system;
2. Intensify and lengthen our reaction to fear making emotional control is less effective;
3. Change our sleep patterns;
4. Cause memory loss or brain fog.
How long should you wait to instigate a career change if you are grieving a loss?
The answer is, of course, it depends.
It depends on what sort of loss you have experienced, how much time you need to re-build personally, how open you are about talking to others, how complicated your loss was, what sort of support you have around you and how much time you can devote to healing.
Broadly, career change takes time - months and years, not days and weeks. The type of career change that takes weeks or months is generally a leap of faith or a dramatic escape…I disagree with both, simply because they are rarely successful.
If you know someone who is considering career change who has also lost someone close to them or has experienced a health scare – here are a few tools and recommendations that might help them through the sense-making stage of their grief process.
Then, when they are ready, they can crack on with a full, well-thought out career overhaul. One that more perfectly aligns with their values and new priorities.
While I was training and volunteering as a bereavement supporter, I probably read about 20/25 books on grief. These two books made a giant impact on my life, but I completely understand that they may not connect with everyone.
- Grief Works by Julia Salmon – Experienced grief counsellor tells stories and patterns that I found fascinating and healing. Not at all for early stage loss but useful in the sense-making phases.
- Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom – small book, very easy to read and inspired me to focus on what I value in my life, rather than what the world appears to value.
- Personal recommendations are best, but our society doesn’t enjoy discussing death, so this can be harder than you might imagine.
- www.whatsyourgrief.com is a good introduction to finding some professional help – there’ll will be a similar website in your country.
- www.CRUSE.org.uk is a wonderful UK charity that offers wait-listed, free, grief support. They are not qualified grief counsellors but very highly trained volunteers who support grief.
An unusual but brilliant podcast:
Award-winning podcast led by a comedian whose father died when she was a teenager. Essentially, it’s funny people talking about their grief stories – past and present. I laugh and cry in almost every episode and since I mostly listen to podcasts in the car – I look like a lunatic at traffic lights!
It’s a window into how common grief is in our society and its success shows how little our society talks about it but how much we need to. Julia Salmon (see book recommendation) was interviewed on it and was enlightening. Start there if you want to dip your toe in.
What could you do to ready yourself for a future career re-think (without making any rash decisions)?
1. Don’t resign or consider major career change until at least 6 months after a loss, ideally 12 months. That doesn’t mean you can’t get your thoughts together.
2. Be gentle with yourself. This was my most common comment to anyone in a state of loss when I was volunteering with Cruse Bereavement Care.
If you feel like getting straight back to work to get some semblance of normality back into life – Do it!
If you feel like jumping into bed straight after coming home from work – Do it!
If you feel like wearing your Dad’s favourite sweater every day for months – Do it!
If you feel like watching endless re-runs of Homes under the Hammer – Do it!
If you feel like eating 5 crème eggs in a row – Do it!
3. Talk about the person you have lost with friends, family, colleagues and strangers. Share memories. Good times and bad. Funny stories. What you miss most. What you miss least.
4. If you don’t release your feelings, they find a way to present themselves physically. If you think your family and friends can’t handle it, book into a professional grief counsellor and talk for as long as you can.
5. Spoil yourself. Book a massage. Buy those new shoes. Have long baths. Be outside. Walk. Eat colourful food.
6. Ask someone at work to tell your colleagues why you have been off work before you return. It’ll save on those awkward moments when they ask about how lovely your holiday was.
7. Exercise – it improves mood, memory, sleep and thought processing. You’ll need all of these if you are to think through and plan out a career change.
8. Talk to people at work, if you can. Keeping your grief in can increase stress. Without looking very hard, you might find someone who feels the same as you but has no outlet at work. You might be able to ask that colleague how their grief/illness/health scare impacted their view of their career.
9. If you are dead set on re-thinking your career now: Grab a piece of paper. Write down a list of the elements of your work that you definitely want to change in the future
10. On a different piece of paper write a list of the elements of your work that you’d like to do more of in the future. Put the piece of paper away somewhere safe, that you can find easily, for when you feel stronger to make some bigger changes.
You might also like to sign up to the “You’re not too old and it’s not too late” newsletter here for monthly articles to help you think through a possible career change – save them up in your email list to read when you are ready.
I am not an expert on grief but I am an expert on mid-lifer career change. Having said that, I spent two years of my spare-time training and working with CRUSE Bereavement Care but don’t anymore because life got too busy. I am interested in all things important to human happiness and losing a loved one or experiencing a health scare can have a huge impact on human happiness.