When Vanessa was made redundant she already had a plan up her sleeve

Last Spring I was in a pretty dark place. I loved my job with a media company, but was conscious of my age. The job meant long hours but it gave me financial independence and a sense of purpose. It really mattered to me. But, at 58, I was starting to think that I really wanted a plan, a long-term future doing something that was going to give me real emotional reward.

Then COVID hit and, like for everybody in March 2020, panic set in. I remember on my last day, March 16, going in to collect some files and thinking I’d be back in the office within the month. From my desk by the window I gazed out at the sea of office buildings at Bankside where I worked. Usually buzzing with life, they were eerily empty. Apart from one or two people who, like me, had gone in to collect laptops and work files, the whole area was virtually deserted. While working from home was a bit of a novelty for me, I soon learnt that going into town every day was total oxygen.

I loathed lockdown. It quickly became apparent that time on my own was vital. Being at home with my husband and young adult daughter meant a loss of control over my working life. I couldn’t work without intrusion, so finding the peace to concentrate became impossible. I knew something absolutely had to change. It gave me an insight into what retirement might be like, this loss of independence and of time to myself. I really started thinking about how I could enrich my life while keeping work and home very separate.

“Connecting with people like me helped lessen my fears. You can’t put a price on hearing the experiences of other women. It gave me the push I needed and soon I felt confident enough to start exploring something else”

And that’s when the idea of training as a celebrant really started to take hold. My beloved dad’s funeral service had been conducted by a celebrant and I’d loved the personalised way it celebrated a well-lived life. Looking into celebrancy training I realised it would suit my empathetic personality down to the ground.

Finding my tribe
At the same time I was attending Audrey Lives. The Audrey team had started running live online meet-ups for women who were struggling with the fear and frustration of lockdown. Finding myself in a Zoom room full of women in a similar situation was an absolute lifesaver to me. I was quite depressed and really struggling with the isolation, with the loss of independence and fear for my job and the prospect of losing my income. And hearing how other women were coping and remaining positive was a lifeline. One lady said “Getting up is enough, we don’t need to learn Mandarin” and I thought She’s right.

It was such an unknown time for all of us and so hard for women. Connecting with people like me helped me feel less frightened and alone. You can’t put a price on hearing the experiences of other women. It gave me the push I needed and soon I felt confident enough to start exploring something else and planning properly for my future.

I was also anxious that my company was cutting budgets. Action was needed – and fast. Fortunately for me, the Institute of Professional Celebrants had adapted their course for virtual learning and I already had the £2,000 fee saved up. So I took some annual leave and signed up for the week-long course. And I loved it. It was very interactive and energising, with inspiring lectures and intensive evening tasks. We learned about conducting weddings, baby naming ceremonies and funerals, about creating bespoke and highly individual ceremonies for people at important times in their lives.

“In the hour it took me to research the job and company, the position had already gone. And being 58 made it extra terrifying. At our age we’ve got experience and valuable skills, but I don’t think we’re seen that way.”

By the end of May I had my certificate – I was qualified. I had retrained to do something very, very different from my usual job. Which is fortunate because this was the point when I received the consultation letter to inform me that my role was at risk. After the excitement of the training came the terror of redundancy. I’d had the rug pulled from underneath me in my career before, but the fear never lessens.

Still I powered on and had my professional website built and started taking celebrancy bookings for summer 2021 wedding ceremonies and vow renewals. Word got around and it was really exciting to know I had this side hustle and to see the organic growth of my new profession. But what would I do for income in the meantime? Once I’d officially been made redundant I briefly got a job working for a funeral director, but the day I was left alone with an occupied open coffin was the day I realised that job wasn’t for me. I’d found my limit.

Applying for jobs really showed me what a jungle it is out there. Job applications were part of a rolling process, so in the hour it took me to research a job and the company, the position was already gone. And being 58 made it extra terrifying. At our age we’ve got experience and valuable skills that you wouldn’t have at 21, but I don’t think we’re seen that way. That was a big hurdle.

But the day I saw an ad for a job as administrator of a crematorium was the day fortune smiled down on me. As I did the online test and pressed the submit button, I knew my celebrancy training gave me insights that would really give me an edge – and sure enough I got an interview. But would my age work against me? As I got dressed up for the interview an alert came through from the recruitment agency saying 1580 people had applied. Why on earth would they pick me?

Whatever happens I’m really going to enjoy this experience, I thought. I hadn’t applied for a job or had an interview for years, so I saw this as useful practice. All of my jobs had come via word of mouth and personal introductions. So I knew I really needed to get my head around the process and do well on the day. After the two-hour interview I thought it would be a polite no. But they called me back that same day and offered me the job. To say I was thrilled would be the understatement of the year.

A new lease of life
I’ve been in my job for a few months now and I love learning a new craft and using different skills. It’s been an exceptionally busy time. Sometimes I do chapel attendance work, working with a company who provide live weblinks and slideshows and line up the music. With the 30 mourners limit this has become essential. It might be a hindu priest or a vicar or a humanist conducting the service and I work with them to make sure it runs like a mini production. Sometimes bereaved people don’t want to let go of the coffin. It takes every bit of my sensitivity to get mourners to stick to the schedule. It’s my job to do so.

I feel incredibly lucky and genuinely blessed that I’ve carved out a new career, something I can do for a long time. There’s a huge sense of pride. I feel I’m in quite a privileged position, doing an important role for the community and helping people at their time of need. When I’m writing my signature on a cremation certificate, I think How did I end up here? What’s weird is how different it is to what I was doing before, only a few months ago. But it’s where I was meant to be.

“If you’ve been made redundant, don’t give up on having a career. You have tools you’re probably not even aware of. Find a different way to use them and you’ll discover a whole new sense of purpose.”

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