Years ago, during the big economic downturn, my husband Blake got laid off from his I.T. consulting job after working there for about two years. It wasn’t because of anything he had done. It wasn’t anything about him. It wasn’t a result of poor performance or bad behavior. It was just a small company, trying to deal with difficult financial circumstances. And, as he was the last person they had hired, he was the first to be let go….out of nowhere…on a Sunday afternoon…2 days after his elbow surgery.
That year was particularly bad for us. We still mark 2009 as one of the worst we’ve ever had. In January of that year, my brother John was deployed to Baghdad. Later in January, I had Collin, which was both, as most parents know, “The best of times and the worst of times.” Not that having a baby is bad, but it rocked our world. That’s not the subject of this post, so I’ll just leave it at that. In early April on a Monday, my dad was set to have what was supposed to be “routine” heart surgery. The day of his surgery was fine. The next day, a Tuesday, I returned to work from maternity leave and left my infant son at the babysitter for the first time. I remember weeping the entire way to work. And then, when I got to work that day, my first order of business was to go and inform a lifelong friend and recent employee that the university was letting her and about 30 other people go. Two days later, on Wednesday, I was back at my dad’s bedside after his health took a turn for the worse. He almost died. That all happened during three days. Thankfully, Dad recovered after a long stay in the Vanderbilt ICU. The next month, Blake was laid off. In August, I had to have my dog put to sleep. It seems like something else happened that year, but suffice it to say that 2009 was not one we’d like to re-do. But for Collin’s birth, that year was a big downer.
Anyway, back to my point. In May, Blake had his elbow surgery and 2 days later, was laid off. So, there I was with a 4-month-old baby, still trying to adjust to being a working mom, and my husband was now without a job. To make matters worse, he worked in information technology and specifically worked with warehouse management systems, which is not a big industry in Jackson, TN. When we go the news, I FREAKED OUT. I cried and cried and cried. I spent the hours following the news in a state somewhere between anger and “ugly crying.” I went into Job Seeking overdrive status, updating Blake’s resume (and mine – in case we needed to move). I was in a fog of emotional overload and worry. Over the next few days, as we told people what had happened, we were met with a mixture of responses. Some of them were spot-on. Some of them were so far off base, I filed them away as a “DO NOT EVER SAY THIS TO SOMEBODY.” Most of them were somewhere in the middle. This brings me to my post today. I’d like to offer all of you some things to say and some things to NOT say when somebody has been let go from their job.
1. THE DISMISSIVE APPROACH
DO NOT SAY: “Oh, you’ll find something else.”
DO SAY: “Wow. That _____.” (Insert: stinks, sucks, is awful, is not fair, is no fun, is bad timing, is hard, etc.)
When you are blindsided by the loss of over half your income and you are still reeling over the real-world possibilities of not being able to pay for daycare or your bills, not to mention that you have just had a baby and your husband just had elbow surgery and can’t just “go work at Home Depot,” you DO NOT want to hear somebody who knows NOTHING about your job, your situation, or the job climate in your city say offhandedly that they “know” you’ll find something else. While this might be true, I want to assure you that IT. IS. NOT. HELPFUL. These are the same people who, when a loved one dies, say such banal things as “It was just his time.” SAY WHAT? I think what they are trying to do is be supportive. I think they are trying to offer hope. What they are really doing is completely denying your right to freak out. They are discounting your feelings. They are saying that you don’t deserve to be so upset. Well, yes you do. If you or your spouse lose their job, here’s my unequivocal permission to FREAK OUT. YOU DESERVE IT.
When I told my friend Wanda what happened, she started to cry, and she put her arms around me and said how sorry she was. THAT is a response I needed. Her husband had been through something similar many years ago. She knew how it felt. She felt it with me then. She let me sit and wallow in self-pity for a while. She offered to do whatever she could to help. THAT. WAS. HELPFUL.
At the time, I fully understood that Blake’s job situation was not the worst thing in the entire world, but it was bad for us and it was stressful. I would get downright mad when people would dismiss our feelings of panic with flippant comments like “oh, you’ll be ok” or “you’ll find something better” or “you’ll get a better job somewhere else.” While these things might be 100% entirely true (and they usually are), it is not helpful for you to say these things, and they are especially un-helpful when the wound is still fresh.
2. “WELL AT LEAST…”
DO NOT SAY: “Well, at least something didn’t happen to your baby.”
DO SAY: NOTHING
Yep. Somebody ACTUALLY said that I should be relieved because at least nothing happened to my newborn baby. Again, completely discounting a person’s feelings IS. NOT. HELPFUL. Well, at least nothing happened to your baby? REALLY? Well, at least your house didn’t explode. Well, at least you can drive. Well, at least you didn’t get bitten by a spider on your face like that girl on the internet. Well, at least aliens didn’t come down from Mars and turn all of us into minions. Well, at least grass is green. I want to go on the record as saying that no good response ever starts with “Well, at least…” The most helpful friends and responses were those who could just sit with me in my sadness. Brad Montague let me just sit in his office and cry while I ate a hot fudge sundae…in front of him. He and Jud Davis just let me sit and rant and cry and freak out. In looking back, maybe this is more of a male response and the fact that I was having an emotional breakdown rendered them speechless. Either way, their silence and complete acceptance of the mess I had become was refreshing and helpful to me. They didn’t try to fix it. They acknowledged I was in a bad place and they let me do what I needed to do in that moment. There was no “Well, at least…” There was no “What you need to do is….” There was just “Hey, you can sit in that chair right there and ugly cry as long as you want. I’ve got tissues and I’ve got ears. Carry on.” THAT. WAS. HELPFUL.
3. INVOKING GOD’S PLANS
DO NOT SAY: “Well, it’s part of God’s plan.”
DO SAY: “I love you. I’m here for you. I’m praying for you.”
This is probably going to be controversial, but I just want to admit that when Blake lost his job and really, any time I’ve been through trauma, it has never helped for somebody to point out that God has a plan. In fact, that statement makes me angry, because to me it sounds like somebody has told me that God has caused this situation specifically, so I can learn a lesson. I don’t think God works like that. I DO, in fact, believe that God has a plan for me. However, when people talk about God’s plan, in times of anguish, it can actually turn a person away from Him. Your baby died? Oh, God planned that. Your husband left? God planned that. Your leg was amputated? God had a plan for that. You have cancer? That’s God’s plan. Is any of that helpful? Not for me.
Look, I know God has a plan. I just don’t think He plans out every step of every day, nor do I think that He has a little “connect the dots” plan laid out for me and that He sets things up like that. Do I think He can? Absolutely. Do I think if I call out to Him for seemingly “trivial” things during the day, He hears me? Yes. It’s not that I don’t think God plans things…I just think that the “plan” God really has is for me to is just to be saved. I think He works with whatever circumstances life throws at me, to offer salvation and grace in any circumstance. I think He doesn’t ever want me to suffer, but if I do, I know He cares and I know He wants to work it out for me. I don’t think it’s part of his “plan” to make me suffer or lose jobs or lose babies or get cancer or hurt. I think that’s just called life and being human.
I am not saying you shouldn’t talk about God to people who lose jobs. I’m just saying that you need to be careful what you say. Offer encouragement. Offer prayers. Offer God. Just don’t misrepresent God. I think God’s plans develop over time, given our circumstances. As Steve Jobs said in his famous 2005 Stanford commencement speech (and yes, I know Jobs was not a Christian, but his statement is still true, especially for believers):
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path; and that will make all the difference.”
– Steve Jobs (2005) Stanford June Commencement Speech
On a personal note, I really think the revelation and realization of God’s plan in our life is one of retrospection. God’s plan is revealed in looking back, to see how it all miraculously fit together. Yes, the omniscient creator of the universe can certainly look ahead, but I don’t see him as a puppet master, angling and weaving our paths toward each dot along the way. I think we choose our dots and God works with them. I also think that when we casually say that something traumatic is God’s plan, it’s a cop-out. It’s us denying the other persons’ feelings. It’s a way for us to get around sitting with somebody in the uncomfortable silence. It’s another way to deny a person’s right to be angry or hurt or mad or sad. When you say, “Oh it’s part of God’s plan” you not only shut down and discount their feelings, but you are also saying that God caused this, AND you are potentially causing them to feel shame over not having enough faith in God. THIS. IS. NOT. HELPFUL.
It’s ok to be mad or sad or upset when things happen. There are a plethora of examples in the Bible where people got mad and upset with life. It is okay! Yes, I know God can heal and deliver me, and I know that He is able to do all things, and I know that with God all things are possible, but having you say that God “planned” this isn’t helpful TO ME.
4. IT’S ALWAYS PERSONAL
DO NOT SAY: “Don’t take it personal”
DO SAY: “You are smart. You are talented. You are awesome. This moment does not define you. I am here for you.”
Look, we all know what “Don’t take it personal” means. And yes, I believe that Blake being laid off was not “personal.” However, until you have been let go, you have no idea how “personal” being laid off feels. It always feels INTENSELY personal. It’s personal because it’s YOU. Only people who aren’t being let go won’t take it personally. (It’s the same thing with surgery – it’s only “minor” surgery if it’s not happening to you!) OF COURSE being let go is personal! In the moments afterward, you don’t sit and bask in the realization that nothing is wrong with you – it’s the opposite. You question what you did wrong. You question what you could have done to stay. You question every word they said to you when they laid you off. You question why they let you go and not somebody else. You question it all and if you’re like me, you think surely there is something wrong with you that caused this. Being let go is personal, even when it’s not. So, don’t tell somebody to not take it personal. Again, this is completely discounting their feelings. After you have validated their feelings with something like “Wow! That really stinks. Do I need to go elbow them in the teeth for you?” then you should say, “You are smart and talented and awesome. You have every right to be upset. What can I do to help?” Validate their feelings, give them a compliment, and offer to help. It’s that simple.
DO say empathetic and supportive things.
DO buy them dinner and/or offer to watch the kids so they can have a moment to carve out a game plan.
DO pray for them.
DO check up on them.
DO allow them to talk.
DO NOT say dismissive, banal, cliché, or insincere things.
DO NOT downplay this.
DO NOT deny them the right to cry or yell or be upset.
DO NOT try to fix it, unless you do, indeed have job leads or connections in their area.
And for goodness sake, DO NOT try to put their situation into cosmic perspective by comparing it to children dying etc.
Remember, while all the things you might want to say may be true, you need to consider the situation, the timing, and the circumstances of this person and respond appropriately. Of course, that’s only if you want to be a good friend. And for us, good friends made all the difference.