A Loss Is Never Just a Loss

Making distinctions between losses based on the type of loss instead of its consequences would be erroneous, yet this is exactly what we do. We, for example, tend to assume that losing a person must always be worse than losing a career. It, however, all depends on how the loss affects one’s life and to what degree it disrupts one’s basic human needs.

Source: The Lives of Others

Desolation after a loss is caused by the disruption of our basic needs

Losses can be so devastating because they mess up the very foundations of our lives. Loss, as a rule, disrupts our psychological needs (the need for intimate relationships, belonging, and status) and/or our basic needs (having home, food, safety). With losing that, our self-fulfillment needs, as the third part of the Masslow’s pyramid, are also at risk.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Source: http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html)

When we look at a loss with that in mind, it becomes easier to see why a loss of career can be absolutely devastating, especially when one had invested decades of work into in, and if it happened later in life. Such a loss can be worse or equally hard to overcome than the loss of a fellow human being.

When you lose a career (meaning that you have to start your new career from scratch and qualify for another line of work), you lose a major part of your identity.

Usually, we do not pay much attention to it, but when you think of it, how do you present yourself to the world? Isn’t your job title the first thing you’d say after you name? ‘I am …’ is defined by what you do in life, by your calling, your career. So what do you say when you lose that? Who are you now? All of a sudden you do not know how to present yourself any longer.

Compounding to the loss of identity, there is a loss of income. Your ability to survive is now at risk. Following the loss of career, you might lose your home or get into debt and you can also lose a large social circle of former colleagues, friends, and even family.

Usually, there are not many who’d stay by your side when you are going through a major upheaval and financial troubles. As a consequence, your status and with that self-esteem (another basic psychological need) is gone.

With everything already stated, your ability for self-fulfilment diminishes as well. In the end, the whole pyramid collapses; your whole life falls apart and all of the basic needs in your life are in disarray.

It’s hard to imagine a loss worse than that, and it’s not a coincidence that ruining someone’s career or preventing a person from working in their field of expertise was one of the favorite tools of destruction in Eastern Germany and other countries under the Soviet Communist regime. They knew how to destroy the so-called ‘enemies of the regime’ without having to kill them.

I suggest watching a great movie on how that was routinely done, The Lives of Others, to get the picture.

Yet, our society evaluates losses based on the type and not the severity of their consequences. It is thus a lot easier to find compassion and grief support groups devoted to loss of a loved one than it is to find groups specialized in a loss of career.

The latter is seen as ‘just’ losing a career and deemed less horrible since no physical death is involved. But death in a symbolic sense has nevertheless occurred.

People grieve the loss of a career just like they grieve the loss of a loved one, but we fail to recognize that similar issues and processes are at play. It is not uncommon for people who have lost their career or business to commit suicide because that’s how devastating that kind of a loss can be.

In both cases, whether someone dies or whether someone’s career and with that identity ‘dies,’ we are dealing with a major loss, grief and the disruption of basic human needs. We thus need to change our perspective and start looking at and evaluate losses differently — not based on who or what one lost, but on the severity of the consequences in the aftermath of the loss.


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Mateja graduated summa cum laude in psychology from Arizona State University and is now a grief counselor at Transform the Pain. She previously worked as a journalist and psychologist. She has been through several losses herself and had also survived a few brushes with death.

Thanks to Justine M Dunn for editing.