Loss, Grief and Unemployment

By Ray Smith

Unemployment affects many men and women: those who have lost jobs and those who have never had the opportunity to engage in paid employment. I focus on men who have lost their jobs because of my extensive experience working with longterm, unemployed men.

What is Grief?

When one talks about grief it is usually in the context of the effect on people of the death of a family or close friend. Peter Marris1 states that normal grief, as observed in Britain and America, produces the following symptoms: “At first the bereaved are restless, and cannot sleep; they feel exhausted, have no appetite, and may suffer from symptoms of chest or digestive illness, head­aches, rashes or rheumatism. The shock of bereavement may numb them for a while.”

The death of a close relative or friend not only causes these symptoms of grief, it also frequently results in major changes in the structure and organ­isation of the bereaved person’s life. Their sense of security and meaning of life may also be adversely affected.

Grief and Unemployment

Unemployment is now a fact of life for an ever increasing number in Ireland and worldwide. Like death, the loss of a job causes massive upheaval in a person’s life and that of their family. Their sense of security is shattered and their ability to plan for the future obliterated. Based on my experience of nearly ten years of working with longterm unemployed men in the Dublin area, I would suggest that the symptomatic profile of the unemployed person mirrors almost exactly that of a person bereaved.

Unfortunately, the need to follow through the process of grieving for the unemployed person is often not recognized by themselves, their families or society. The process is frequently aborted, leaving the person frozen in grief. According to Peter Marris2 grieving must be worked out, from the stage of acute shock, through distress, to reintegration. If not, the person may suffer lasting emotional damage.

I have not come across any research material linking unemployment and bereavement, so my comments are based solely on my observations of the groups and individuals I have worked with for nearly a decade.

The organisation of living is about having the means and, thereby, the dignity to maintain oneself and one’s family. This usually comes through the exchange of labour for a wage. When this exchange is no longer available the individual and family suffer from fear of disintegration of the structure and meaning of their lives. Their organised world falls apart. Traditionally men are identified by the kind of work they do. Through this they gain respect from peers and the general community. Therefore, the work they do is part of themselves. It justifies, for them, their place in society and, for many, it is part of the structure which gives a meaning to their lives.

A person’s first reaction to losing a job is usually disbelief and denial. They refuse to accept the reality of their situation. They then move on to become restless and engage in an active search for work. They keep as much contact as possible with former work colleagues in order to maintain the link with past structures. This is an unconscious attempt to ward off the fear of the disintegration of their life.

Disintegration of Structure as Experienced by Unemployed People

One of the very ordinary structures of our lives relates to the activities we associate with night, day, work and sleep. Yet it is one of the first structures which changes for the unemployed person. They experience sleep-wake schedule disorders, being awake when they would normally be asleep and asleep when they would normal be awake. They lose interest in the structures surrounding them, and men in particular, see no role for them­selves in the home or in the community.

Earlier attempts at securing another job, having failed, leave them with a sense of worthlessness. Rather than seeing the difficulties which exist in obtaining employment, they see themselves as unemployable. At this stage they lose contact with former work colleagues or purposely do not make contact because of the embarrassment of not having found work.

Once unemployed people move on to an acceptance of their situation, they frequently become despairing, having lost hope of finding another job. At this stage in the process they exhibit symptoms of neurosis such as sleep disorder, fear, avoidance and somatic illness.

Because the of loss of employment is not commonly seen as a grieving process, the actual process itself becomes aborted. My experience of working with longterm unemployed men indicates that they are frozen in grief. I worked for a six month period with one group of longterm unemployed men all of whom exhibited signs of inhibited or aborted grief. This was evident through the constant illness of group members and a fixation with each other’s health. Achievement of unity or cohesion within the group was rendered impossible because of actions associated with Atypical Paranoid Behaviour. An example of this was the constant misinterpretation by group members of each other’s comments and actions.

In another group I worked with, the obsession of the members was with past employment experience. Two men in the group had worked in the construction industry and they spent one session talking about how much poured concrete it took to construct a building they worked on thirteen years ago. They have not worked on a building site in the intervening period, yet they spoke of the past as if it were the present and each seemed to live on his past glories with no recognition of his current situation. When I tried to move the discussion forward to the present and examine what plans might be made for the future these two men left the group. Moving from a past where there was some hope to a painful present and an uncertain, or even hopeless future, proved too difficult for these two individuals.

Pat’s Story

The following case history of one of my clients clearly shows the impact of job loss on an individual and his family. Pat is a 37 year old married man with three young children who has been unemployed on and off for the past ten years.

“I became unemployed when the company I worked for closed down. I had a very good relationship with my employer and felt secure in my work. I was very happy there. I remember feeling shattered when the job went. I felt insecure and I wondered if I could get a job anywhere else.

I particularly remember one day at rush hour outside a factory. People were coming out of there looking tired, I saw them as achieving some­thing and saw myself as having nothing. I decided at that point never to go out again at that particular time.

Shortly after losing my job I began walking from place to place looking for work with little success. I really felt angry and betrayed by the comp­any owner, but as I looked for other jobs, I really did not want to go into another place of work, I wanted my old job back.

I felt that I was a failure, I owed rent on my accommodation, I had lost contact with friends and I had also lost contact with the people I worked with. I was not looking after myself well and had let my appearance go.

I managed to pick up casual work but found myself moving from job to job. I was constantly late for work and at that time I returned to bed-wetting habits. When I was young I used to wet the bed. My Mother would always change the sheets the next day, she never made an issue of it. Sometimes when it happened she would just change the bed without mentioning it.

The time that followed was a horrible time. There was real poverty in my life and I could not include myself in any social activity. I also could not bear to say to people that I was unemployed as I saw myself as a complete failure and worthless.

I used to wake several times at night, get up and make coffee and smoke. I’d then sleep on late. I felt my children had little respect for me and saw me as doing nothing. When I did get work over the past few years I would blame myself when the job closed down, thinking I brought that on.

During that time I developed stomach ulcers and I also suffered from excessive tiredness. I’d go to bed in the middle of the day, sometimes just to escape the boredom. More recently I’ve developed rheumatoid arthritis but I drink a lot of tea and smoke which does not help.

Through my involvement in groups I have reflected on my life experi­ence. I have learned of my fear of loss of control of events. I have also moved from achievements based on influences outside myself to internal achievements. I work with youth in my community, I learned to play the guitar and sing and play at sessions for which I am paid for my performance.

Pat’s story brings us through the stages of grief as experienced by him. During the initial stages of his unemployment he found it difficult to func­tion at an ordinary everyday level. When the structure of his life changed as a result of the loss of his job, Pat regressed to childhood anxieties and patterns of behaviour. His unconscious denial of grief meant that it was not possible for him to identify positive ways forward. The same is true for many unemployed people. In my opinion this situation of unresolved grief acts as a block to thinking about the problem of unemployment in a creative or imaginative way. It also inhibits the identification and building of struc­tures which would appropriately address today’s unemployment situation.


Unemployment is now a reality which Ireland and every other country must face up to. The consequences for the unemployed, their family and, ultimate­ly, society in general, are enormous. Yet the impact, or at times even the very existence of these consequences, are denied both by the sufferer and by society. Unless the process associated with loss, grief and structural disin­tegration is recognized and owned by those most affected, lasting solutions will not be found. It is, therefore, imperative that much more time be given to studying and researching the emotional and psychological effects of un­employment.


1. Marris P, Loss and Change, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-09862-9.
2. Ibid.

Ray Smith is a Group Therapist in private practice. He is a partner in the Group Analytic Practice (GAP), Global House, 29 Lr. Abbey Street, Dublin 1. tel 01 878 6486. He is also a Resource and Development Worker with Community Action Network, Dublin. Much of his work over the past ten years has focused on men’s development especially with those who are longterm unemployed.