A Research Paper By Mark Wavle, Career and Agile Coach, UNITED STATES
Learn About Loss and Mourning in Career Coaching
Recently, I was studying lament psalms and was surprised by the significance of their inclusion in the Biblical canon. They express shockingly harsh, even theologically incorrect statements. Coming from a place of loss and disorientation, the psalmists wrestle through the challenge with God and find a way to a new orientation. I was deeply moved that the God of the universe created a space for people to engage with Him in a raw and honest way. Could it be that the opportunity to face and acknowledge loss was a critical part of healthy living?
Shortly after, I was coaching a client wrestling with unrealized hopes in his role at work. Through multiple sessions, he reflected on how the situation was different from what he thought it would be – and what he was told it would be – when he started several years earlier. He’d shared with his spouse that he was ready to find a new job, and she reflected something he was unaware of: he’d come to the same conclusion multiple times before. She thought it was odd that he was surprised by this, but he hadn’t realized he was in a loop of desire and resignation, fluctuating between the two and not making progress.
At that moment, I saw an intersection between my exploration of the lament psalms and my client’s job situation. I wondered whether he was aware of, had acknowledged, and had mourned the loss of the job he’d hoped and expected he would have. If not, could this be one of the things keeping him stuck?
In this paper, I hope to address the following questions:
- Why might it be important to address mourning in career coaching?
- What are the primary types of loss experienced in career situations?
- What are ways that people in career situations might manifest grief and mourning?
- How can a coach help their client recognize and address loss in their careers, and what does this enable?
In essence, I am exploring the intersection of grief coaching and career coaching and how this can be beneficial to our clients.
The Genesis: Lament Psalms
In his teaching series God’s Desire for a Vigorous Dialogue Partner, J. Richard Middleton posits that one of the significant challenges in many churches is that we feel pressure to “just praise the Lord anyway,” even in the middle of suffering or shock. The cultural expectation is that we sing and speak joyful things regardless of our situation. This expectation may come from an implicit belief that “our tears would provoke holy wrath” (Heard, 1983), even though we find clear examples in the Bible of honest tears streaming down the faces of those God loves.
Middleton describes the phases of lament as:
- Orientation: When all is aligned, makes sense, and feels right
- Disorientation: When there is misalignment, things don’t make sense, and all feels wrong
- Re-orientation: When things come into a new alignment, sense, and feeling right
For many in churches, we either pretend the pain isn’t real or address it with quick, simplistic answers. When our experiences don’t match our expectations, we get overwhelmed and land in disorientation. “What are you supposed to do when orientation doesn’t work? You can’t suppress it; it’ll come back and bite you. Many people in the church are suffering and hurting in that situation and don’t know what to do about it.” (Middleton, 2022)
As the Psalmist says in Psalm 39:2-3,
So I remained utterly silent, not even saying anything good.
But my anguish increased; my heart grew hot within me
While I meditated, the fire burned
The suppression of the Psalmist’s pain only increased his anguish to the point that it bursts out of him in the following verses. Surprisingly, those imperatives to God include statements like, “Stop whipping me!” (v10) and “Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again” (v13). These are bold, theologically incorrect statements, yet they are included in the Bible! Middleton concludes that, unlike many church cultures, God actually wants us to express our honest, raw perspectives in dialogue with Him. How might we, as coaches, reflect this in our coaching to enable the healthy results I believe God intends?
Why Address Mourning in Career Coaching
As I discovered with my coaching client, we may find that our clients are unable to make progress in realms where they haven’t addressed a related loss.
As we partner with our clients to find their next steps, it’s possible that some of their blockages may be a result of unacknowledged loss and grief. The growth and motion our clients seek can be found in mourning as it opens up the possibility of reframing. “It is in the very processing of grief that movement occurs – from focusing on what is lost to what is gained.” (Carpenter and Light, 2020)
Our cultures can view strength as managing or coping with a loss, usually manifested by detaching from our feelings. When our clients are coping and not acknowledging their loss, they are disconnecting from a part of themselves. (Sadness: The Gift We Resist, 2018) At some point, they will need to address the disconnected part in order to move forward.
Types of Loss in Careers
Our clients may not recognize they have experienced a loss or have discounted the loss as insignificant when compared to the death of a loved one. However, there are significant losses possible in our jobs that can affect even our perceptions of identity.
In short, mourning and grief occur when we experience loss. Here are some examples of losses that can occur in the workplace:
- When losing or changing jobs, our clients may experience a loss of identity, community, safety, or autonomy.
- When not getting a desirable job, our clients may experience a loss of expectations or desired identity.
- When the people they work with change, including reporting to a new manager, our clients may experience a loss of safety, community, or autonomy.
- When experiencing a severe challenge with a trusted co-worker, our clients may experience a loss of safety or community.
- When a new policy or way of working is introduced, our clients may experience a loss of autonomy or safety.
As this list highlights, the loss can be experienced in an actual event – such as losing a job – or in the lack of an anticipated event – such as not getting the desired position. The death of a dream or expectation, called anticipatory grief, is just as powerful and challenging as a past event of a loss.
I have not experienced many workplaces where these types of losses are considered worthy of mourning. So, much like the church cultures Dr. J. Richard Middleton references, our clients may be “suffering and hurting in that situation and don’t know what to do about it.” (Middleton, 2022)
Recognizing Career-Related Mourning
When our cultures view emotionless coping as strength and our workplaces don’t acknowledge career-related losses as significant, it is no wonder our clients get stuck when they experience loss. Even more, they often are unaware of the significance of the loss and how it’s affecting the things that are important to them.
When our clients cope with, rather than address, their grief, there are two broad categories of reactions that can help us recognize when they could be experiencing it.
First, they may hold it in by not fully acknowledging the loss, their emotions related to the loss, or the significance of the loss to them. This can be exhibited in numbness to specific feelings, people, or circumstances related to the loss. You might observe your client using minimizing language repeatedly, such as, “…but it’s not that big of a deal,” or, “…it doesn’t really bother me.” This can appear as if the client is almost trying to convince themselves that the situation doesn’t merit emotion or mourning.
Alternatively, they may be nursing the grief, not wanting to face it directly while also not wanting it to go away. The result can be explosions of emotions and self-destructive behaviors that drive the client farther away from their goals.
Regardless, we can usually perceive a tension between the client’s resignation that the situation won’t change and their deep desire to regain their identity, community, safety, or autonomy. As I noted with my client, he was in a cycle of being resigned to his situation, then getting so frustrated that he would look for alternatives, and then returning to resignation with his current situation.
These are examples of what it looks like when our clients disconnect from a part of themselves, and we can see in these descriptions some of the reasons why these approaches are powerful enough to hold our clients back from the growth they desire.
Helping Our Clients Through Loss in Their Careers
Once we recognize the possibility our client has experienced a loss that is holding them back, what can we do to be of service to them? Alan Wolfelt, founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, calls these partnering activities “Companioning” (Wolfelt, 2006), and Dr. Middleton refers to it as “hosting our disorientation.” (Middleton, 2022)
Across any activities we may choose, we will serve our clients best with compassion. Carpenter and Light define compassion as “the ability to hold pain with love” and identify it as “an incredible strength.” (Carpenter and Light, 2020) As with all coaching activities, our self-awareness is the foundation that will help us in the coaching relationship, including the losses and mourning we have experienced in our careers.
In my research, I have distilled three steps common across many sources that we can use to partner with our clients in the loss.
When we begin to be aware of loss or grief, we can simply acknowledge it with a reflection.
An example reflection is, “I think I’m hearing that you’ve experienced a loss as you are shifting to report to a new manager. What comes up as I say that?”
As with all coaching reflections, present this tentatively rather than definitively. This gives the client room to disagree with, adjust, or accept your perception, and it gives you room to be wrong without holding onto it.
When presented tentatively and coupled with an open invitation, the client can choose to explore the landscape of loss and discover things they weren’t previously aware of.
Our clients may naturally identify the loss they’ve experienced and their emotions related to it. Other times, it will be helpful for us to invite them further in with questions such as:
- “What might you have lost during this career change?”
- “As you’re exploring this loss, what are you feeling?”
As our clients gain clarity on their loss and grief, we can partner with them in finding a way forward. Each situation will be different as the client, their loss, and where they are at in their mourning journey will be varied.
Regardless, we can invite them forward with a simple question like, “Given this loss, what do you need most at this time?”
Some may want to express their emotions to you or a trusted friend. Others will want to address the loss with someone at their workplace. Others will explore the possibilities that have opened up by reframing their current circumstances in light of the loss.
Regardless of the shape of the conversation, when our client dives into their loss, grief, and emotions, our response is crucial, as our actions can counteract a belief that no one cares about their suffering or that their loss is insignificant. Dr. David Kessler says, “Grief is a no-judgment zone.” (Carpenter and Light, 2020) Suspending judgment is vital for effective coaching, which can enable a space for our clients to acknowledge their loss, experience related emotions, and mourn.
We can give them permission and the space to grieve.
What might our clients find in that space? In his book Companioning the Bereaved, Alan Wolfelt states that befriending the emotions of grief “is what makes it possible to experience, eventually, a sense of renewed meaning and purpose in your life.” (Wolfelt, 2006) Our clients may discover identity and purpose beyond what they have lost. As they let go of the “normal” they desired but lost, they may find a new and exciting “normal” is unlocked.
In a word, our clients can find hope.
Limits of Coaching in Loss
This could be dangerous territory for coaching since we are addressing the past loss or the loss of the desired future. Typically, we want to remain focused on the present and the future that the client wants to create. However, I have learned that losses that aren’t acknowledged or grieved may prevent my clients from creating their desired future. Therefore, because healthy mourning is so powerful, I will sometimes choose to invite them to focus on a loss.
It’s also important to acknowledge that there are situations when coaching is not the best way to serve our clients. For example:
- If the client isn’t willing or able to acknowledge loss or access their sadness & grief
- If the client is consistently not practicing healthy self-care and is deeply fatigued as a result
- If the client is stuck in sadness or even depression over the loss, going further into the sadness rather than reframing into a new perspective
In these cases, referring the client to a therapist or other healthcare professional can be important.
Career Coaching Loss and Mourning Guide
At the intersection of coaching and career-related loss, I found a rich trove of possibilities I will use as I partner with my clients. I will continue to encounter clients who need help grappling with their grief in order to move forward.
As I discovered with my client, when he acknowledged his loss, he found a part of him from which he had disconnected. As he mourned his loss, he re-integrated the lost part of himself and was able to re-frame his current situation. With renewed hope, he found a fresh perspective on his current situation and was able to search for a new job wholeheartedly.
I now have a clearer picture of how I can host my clients’ disorientation by holding space that invites and allows them to acknowledge and grieve their loss. In so doing, they can find hope that there is a future of possibilities for them to discover.
Carpenter, K., and Light, M., 2020. The Four intersections of Leadership & Grief. Optify | Scalable Coaching Solutions. [Accessed 16 July 2022].
Epstein, S., 2019. 4 Types of Grief Nobody Told You About. Psychology Today. [Accessed 16 July 2022].
Heard, M., 1983. These Plastic Halos. Home Sweet Home Records.
Learning in Action. 2020. Narrative Coaching: Bringing New Stories to Life. [Accessed 16 July 2022].
Learning in Action. 2018. Sadness: The Gift We Resist. [Accessed 16 July 2022].
Middleton, J., 2022. God’s Desire for a Vigorous Dialogue Partner. [Podcast] The Gritty Spirituality of the Lament Psalms. [Accessed 23 May 2022].
Middleton, J., 2022. God’s Desire for a Vigorous Dialogue Partner. Lament, Prophetic Intercession, and the Akedah. [Accessed 23 May 2022].
Wolfelt, A., 2006. Companioning the Bereaved. Fort Collins, Colo.: Companion.