Career Transition After the Loss of Your Spouse
“Don’t make any big changes in the first year of grieving,” my grief counselor warned me.
“Relocation, a new relationship, career transition — a big change requires a clear mind. When you are in deep grief, you are confused and experience a lot of emotional ups and downs. You are more vulnerable to making a decision you regret later.”
I nodded to everything she said.
Within a year, I made all the changes my counselor had told me to avoid. I moved from Florida to Texas. I entered a new relationship. I changed my career. My first year of grieving was arduous, but I don’t regret any of my decisions. My new partner and I are engaged.
I love my life in the Texas Hill Country. My new career is fulfilling and aligns with my calling, albeit finding it took me much longer than I expected.
My career transition was a journey. It was a winding path over hills and through woods. It was a difficult process, but it taught me a lot about myself. It made me wiser, stronger, and more resilient. Career change during grieving is challenging but can be done successfully. It is quite transformative.
Career change — why now?
Your current career may not suit your new life as a widow. Perhaps you need a career that brings you more income. It’s possible widowhood changed your values and views so much that you no longer resonate with your once beloved career. You might have been a homemaker but want to start a career after losing your spouse.
My grief counselor was right: It’s much better to avoid making drastic changes (such as starting a new career) in the first year of grieving. However, it is sometimes unavoidable (I had all the above reasons for career change except for the last one). Like the transition to widowhood, career change requires much patience and understanding.
Here is the effective career transition strategy I recommend:
Mourn for your career loss
Take care of your immediate job needs
Create a time for career exploration
Take small steps to ease into your chosen career
Expect plan change and accept it without judgment or self-attack
Enjoy your journey
Mourn for your lost career
Career change after the death of your spouse is particularly challenging because you now must cope with double grief: grieving for your spouse and lost career. Strong emotions such as sadness, anger, anxiety, confusion, frustration, fear, and resentment get multiplied.
You must give those feelings outlets if you want to heal your wound and stay healthy in your body and mind. Mourn for your losses one at a time so as not to get overwhelmed.
Mourning is not the same as grieving. Whereas grieving is an internal experience of loss, mourning is an outward expression of grief. As a memorial service is held to mourn for the deceased and celebrate his life, you can create a ritual to mourn for your lost career.
Bury or burn an object that symbolizes it, write a thanks note to it, make a short video or slideshow that highlights it — find a way to mourn for the lost career that feels nurturing and healing to you.
When I had to let go of my performing arts career, I listed my stage costumes for sale on eBay. Once I made a sale, I ironed all the costumes, thanked each piece and the buyer, packed shipping boxes, and gave prayers before dropping them off at the post office. The whole ritual gave me a sense of closure and peace.
Solve your current job issue
Decision-making — including a career choice– — becomes very difficult when you are grieving. Confusion, lack of self-confidence, anxiety, and fear of the unknown may prevent you from taking steps toward your new career, however small they might be.
Instead of jump-starting your career search, clarify your immediate priority first. What needs to be done now? Is it earning more income to pay rent or quitting the job that is making you sick? Do you need to work in a new environment to move forward?
Satisfy your urgent needs with as little change as possible. Your life was turned upside down when you lost your spouse. Let’s not create more turbulence by diving into a new career.
Solve your pressing job issue first to have more time and energy to explore career options without financial, physical, or emotional stress. You may not be happy about your new job. But it will at least bring you an income and give the time to find a fulfilling new career.
Explore your potential
Once your immediate job needs are met, you are ready for the following exercise.
Career Exploration Exercise
Write down everything that makes your heart dance with joy, however big or small it is. Do you like baking? Write it down. Do you enjoy spending time in nature? Add it to your list. Does playing with makeup products make you happy? Include it too.
If you hear your inner critic saying, “That sounds fun, but you can’t turn it into your career!” acknowledge and let it go. Say aloud, “Thank you, the critic. I heard you. Now go away and sit in the corner.”
Keep building your list and return to it often. As you go over it, tune into your heart and notice how it responds. Does it like any particular activity on the list more than others? Imagine you engage in it as your job (e.g., baking at a cafe, performing duties at a state park, applying makeup to your client). How do you feel about it? If you hear the voice of your inner critic (“You don’t have any qualification or training in that field!”), acknowledge it and send the critic back to the corner. Learn to deal with your inner critic instead of trying to eradicate it (which is almost always impossible).
You don’t need to choose or create a career out of your list right away. At this point, you are just exploring your potential with no investment of your time and money. If you are deep in grief and don’t know what you like anymore, wait until you become calmer and more grounded. Invite your close friend or family member to do this exercise with you. They may know what excites you.
Start with small steps
Once you identify a career attractive to you, start exploring it by taking small actions. Read a memoir of a famous baker, talk to a ranger at a nearby state park, check out a local beauty school or online makeup artist certification course — there are so many things you can do to learn about your chosen career with no financial investment.
Avoid spending money at this stage because there is a big chance that your career interest will shift. Explore until you have a gut feeling (“This is it!”) that tells you to go ahead with committing, either financially, timewise, or both.
Be ready for changes and setbacks
You were sure about your career choice. You have invested money and time into developing it — only to realize it’s just not for you (ouch).
No worries! It can happen to anyone, no matter how carefully she has proceeded. Since there is a lot of uncertainty during a transition, the success rate for the first career change attempt is low. So celebrate big if your new career works out well for you. If it doesn’t, praise your effort (“Nice try!”), rest, be energized, and explore a different career option.
Enjoy your journey
Continue your exploration until you establish a career that fully aligns with your passion, talent, and values. It may take a long time to achieve. It could take you through lots of ups, downs, and detours. The zigzag path of your career journey may discourage or disappoint you.
To stay positive and motivated, connect with other career searchers, especially fellow widows. Receive support from your friends, family members, and mentors. Overcoming a challenge is much easier with other people.
If you only focus on your destination, you will miss all the beauties and wonders along your way. Enjoy your adventure and a new you — wiser and stronger — emerging during your career transition.