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Complications of Financial Grief – Losing Your Bounce

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Financial loss is not only about money. It probably wouldn’t be so devastating if it were. Here are just some of the other losses that come along with a sudden drop in assets:



Plans for retirement: Those ideas you had about retiring in a few years may have gone by the wayside now due to your 401K and IRAs losing money, having to dip into your savings sooner than you thought to keep the house, your business earning much less than in the years before the recession, unemployment, or losing your house.


College savings: You thought your kids would be able to go to a four-year university and now you’re hoping you can support them through community college. This wasn’t the dream you held for them all these years.


Housing: That loan that seemed so great a few years ago now has you upside down and struggling to pay your mortgage. Or maybe you’ve already had to sell your house or – the last thing you expected – you were foreclosed on.


Lifestyle: Your lifestyle may have taken a big hit in the last couple of years. Eating out, vacations, recreation time and activities, buying gifts for others . . . many of the things you took for granted have now changed.


Life Script: When very young, you started to write a Life Script for yourself. “I’m going to be a doctor,” “I’m going to be a scientist,” “I’m going to work with animals.” As you grew, you expanded your script, “I’m going to go to college, have a good job, get married, and live a healthy, happy life.” Most likely, your Life Script did not include, “I’m going to lose all my savings when I’m 60” or “I’m going to trust someone to make me a lot of money just to have them steal it all so I can go back to work when I’m 70” or “I’m going to buy the house of my dreams and then be foreclosed on four years later.”


The abrupt alteration of your Life Script, changes in your lifestyle and housing, and shattering of dreams for yourself and your family all magnify the emotions that surround financial loss.


Still, since we can see that all of this adds up to a BIG LOSS, why is it so hard to express grief about finances? What is it about this type of grief that is different than the emotions we feel when we lose someone we love? Well, there are some complications:


Embarrassment: It’s one thing to tell someone that your mother died, but a completely different thing to share that you lost your money in a Ponzi scheme (adjustable-rate mortgage, Lehman Brothers collapse, job loss, or any other issue related to recession.) We don’t usually chat with our neighbors and peripheral friends about issues related to money; it’s just not one of our cultural norms.


Loss of identity: You used to be Software Engineer Who Owns A House And Has Enough In the Bank To Put My Kids Through College and now you are Unemployed Dad Who Lost My House Due To Foreclosure And Had To Move The Family In With My Folks. Maybe your situation isn’t that drastic, but you get the idea. You identify with your work and your social status, among other things, and so you might be unsure of who you are right now.


Feelings of betrayal: Dealing with a loss is difficult enough without the added emotional fallout from feeling betrayed by banks, mortgage lenders, the government, Bernie Madoff, and Wall Street in general. Now you are not only dealing with grief, but anger and resentment as well. In addition, the anger and resentment may be at a spouse, friend, or relative who gave you bad financial advice.


Denying the magnitude of the loss: It is very easy to think, “I shouldn’t be feeling this bad. It’s not like someone has died.” You devalue your own feelings because it’s “not as bad” as something else.


The thought that financial crisis = personal failure: “If I was a better money manager, this wouldn’t have happened. I’m such a jerk.” “Why did I listen to that broker? I knew better. This is all my fault.” “I must be a real loser to have thought I could refinance my house with an adjustable rate mortgage.” This mythological thinking is very easy to fall into, but certainly not helpful (or true.)


Lack of social ritual for this kind of grief: We have many rituals for the death of a person: funerals, memorials, sitting shiva, wakes, etc. These customs help us with closure and adjusting to the world without our loved one. But there are no rituals around the loss of finances and the dreams that went with them. We are left feeling unfinished and lost.


So, it really is pretty complicated, isn’t it?


Still to come: Getting your bounce back

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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.