Lament in the Time of Layoffs

By Meryl Herr

February 7, 2023

De Pree Journal

Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Salesforce, Lyft, Vimeo, Wayfair, Stitch Fix, and Goldman Sachs. Hasbro, Dow, IBM, 3M, and Spotify. All of them are recognizable, reputable brands making headlines in early 2023 for announcing layoffs. Some of these companies are letting go of up to 10% of their employees.

Then there are the layoffs that don’t make the news, like the jobs eliminated at a small college trying to stay afloat by undergoing a massive restructuring. Every week, thousands of people around the world are losing their jobs as the economy slows down and companies and institutions attempt to stay in the black by downsizing their workforces.

As I scroll my LinkedIn feed, I see some people responding to the news of layoffs by seeking to serve those who now (or soon will) find themselves out of a job. One person compiled a long list of job search sites. Another shared an article containing resume tips for executives. These are timely resources. Many of those who have been laid off likely feel tremendous pressure to get a new job quickly, even if they received a decent severance package. But in some industries, like big tech, the competition for some positions could be fierce as the number of openings dwindles.

I love the inclination to help those who have been laid off to network and find new jobs. I’m one of those people who is constantly on the lookout for opportunities or connections that might help a friend who is out of work or seeking to make a career change. That’s because I’ve been on the other side. I’ve been let go from a job due to budget cuts, and I’ve experienced both unemployment and underemployment. None of it is fun. In fact, it can be downright terrible.

But I think there’s another way we can help those who have unexpectedly lost a job: we can join them in lament. 

Our Reluctance to Lament
Lament is not a very popular topic in Western culture. In her book, This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers, K.J. Ramsey writes, “We don’t have language for lament because we don’t view weakness as an expected reality. We don’t have space to grieve, because we’re too busy judging grief or seeking its relief to speak its truth aloud.” When it comes to the grief associated with job loss, sometimes we don’t take the time to acknowledge it. Maybe it stings too bad, the shame is too much, or we’re trying to get a new job quickly to help numb the pain.

Soong-Chan Rah, in his book Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times, describes the dangerous consequences of our inability and refusal to lament:

The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost…The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory. We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain.

Avoiding lament contributes to a culture that doesn’t know what to do with grief, pain, and loss—all painful realities that will be part of the human story until Jesus returns. All painful realities that Jesus can heal and redeem in this life.

Since we seem to struggle with lament—both knowing what it is and practicing it—let’s begin with a definition. Soong-Chan Rah offers this one:

Laments are prayers of petition arising out of need. But lament is not simply the presentation of a list of complaints, nor merely the expression of sadness over difficult circumstances. Lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated through lament.

Lament is a way to respond in prayer to pain and suffering. But to lament well with someone, we need to acknowledge their hurt and the depth of the brokenness they’ve experienced. We need to lean in and understand.

To me, this is the essence of compassion. Henri Nouwen and his friends Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison, in their Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, write, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears.” So what does it look like to “go where it hurts” with someone who’s experienced job loss?

Our Reasons for Lament
Perhaps the best way to lean in and understand the pain and suffering of someone who’s been laid off is to take them out to lunch and listen to their story. (Maybe you pick up the tab since they’re unemployed.) Ask what they’re feeling. Acknowledge their doubts and fears. Validate their hurt. Grieve their loss with them.

We can also learn from what others have learned about the effects of job loss. In an article for the Annual Review of Sociology, UCLA sociologist Jennie E. Brand synthesized years of academic research on job loss and unemployment to describe some of the impacts. According to Brand, people who lose their jobs can experience mental health issues and relational difficulties as a result. They can also find it more challenging to get a new job. “Job loss disrupts more than just income flow; it disrupts individuals’ status, time structure, demonstration of competence and skill, and structure of relations,” she adds. These effects can be magnified for those in vulnerable populations.

Layoffs across a sector can affect the entire industry. They can even have a negative impact on local communities. I think of Seattle and Silicon Valley in particular in the wake of so many tech layoffs. When thousands of high-wage earners lose their jobs, their purchasing power and their charitable giving may decrease for a time. Those decreases can negatively impact other businesses and individuals in the area who may also begin to feel the financial squeeze.

In short, layoffs can be devastating. The academic literature even distinguishes between layoff victims and survivors. To me, that sort of language signals just how tragic and traumatic this kind of job loss can be.

How We Can Lament
So how do we lament? How do we take this sort of pain and suffering to God in prayer? I think one of the best ways to learn how to lament is to study the prayers of lament in Scripture. We can look at the Book of Lamentations, believed by many to be a compilation of the prophet Jeremiah’s prayers after the fall of Jerusalem. The Book of Psalms also contains several laments.

While studying some of the prayers of lament in the Bible, I noticed they seemed to follow a fairly consistent pattern. First, the writers complain to God about their suffering and loss. They get real and sometimes fairly raw, describing their emotional, physical, and social pain. Second, they ask God to look, see, hear, and remember them. They believe that God cares for them and is near to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18); therefore, they ask for help. Finally, they reaffirm their hope in God. Lamentations 3 gives us one of the clearest examples of this turn from our pain to our sovereign God.

Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:21-23).

In my experience, it’s this turning back to God and recalling the Lord’s faithfulness and care that can be the most challenging for those in the midst of grief. It’s difficult to see the light from the valley floor.

Our tendency, because of our aversion to pain and suffering, can be to bypass grief and loss and jump immediately to words of encouragement and hope. But the Bible calls Christians to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). We can’t merely look down from the ledge, hoping our words of affirmation reach those at the bottom. We have to go down to the valley to be with those who are suffering—to look into their tear-filled eyes and groan with them before we can help them hope.

If someone near and dear to you has been laid off, now is the time to lean in with empathy and compassion. Don’t let them go it alone. Sit with them in their sorrow. Raise your voice and maybe your fists as you shout at God, “This is not the way it’s supposed to be!” Speak a word of truth and encouragement against their shame. Remind them of the God who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3)—the God who sees them and who does not let their pain go unnoticed.

Banner image by Nicola Barts via Pexels.

Meryl Herr

Director of Research and Resources

Dr. Meryl Herr is the Director of Research and Resources at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership where she designs and conducts research studies that add to the understanding of what helps marketplace leaders flourish. She also oversees the team’s efforts to convert research findings into r...

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