When life blows up your well-laid plans
Job loss, business failure, involuntary retirement, divorce, disability or the death of a breadwinner — these are just some of the ways our finances can force us to come up with a Plan B.
But the biggest task after financial loss may be dealing with your emotions after the future you had envisioned disappears.
People who lose a loved one expect to grieve. People who lose their financial security or a standard of living suffer “ambiguous loss,” where many elements of their lives are the same, but a major element is now gone, said financial therapist Edward Coambs of Charlotte, North Carolina.
“You know what’s happened, but it’s not like you get a funeral for it,” said Coambs, a certified financial planner and couples therapist. He’s a member of the Financial Therapy Association, a group of advisors who combine financial and psychological counseling.
Everybody’s grief is different
Acknowledge that your grief is legitimate rather than trying to minimize what you’re going through, Coambs said.
Also, don’t expect grief to proceed in predictable stages. Psychological research shows that grief is more dynamic than that, and people may feel shifting emotions that can include sadness, despair, confusion, disorientation, fear, anxiety and even relief.
“A lot of the grief around the financial loss is going to feel kind of unexpected,” Coambs said. “‘Why am I crying now? Why am I angry now? Why am I disappointed or lethargic?’”
This process won’t be quick, Coambs said. Our brains get used to our habits and routines. When those get dramatically disrupted, our brains need time to catch up.
“It takes time for the neural pathways to adjust and change, right? My brain is literally needing time to reorganize itself,” Coambs said.
You can help this process by discussing your emotions with someone you trust, said financial therapist Preston D. Cherry, a certified financial planner.
Cherry said writing can help. He writes poetry, but writing in a journal is also effective. Studies have shown that expressive writing — writing nonstop for 15 minutes or so each day without inhibitions about the traumatic event or experience — can help people deal with emotional fallout.
Writing can help us organize our thoughts and give meaning to what happened, which can help us break free of ruminating or brooding.
Many of Coambs’ clients have problems with money that stem from childhood traumas, often because of a parent’s layoff or the loss of a family business.
“What they often end up seeing is the parent lose their sense of self, fall into depression and despair, and never make it out,” Coambs said.
Processing your emotions can help you avoid that fate.
Know when to get help
If you’re struggling, keep in mind that this is just one phase of your life and that it, like the current pandemic, will pass, Cherry said.
He also recommends regular “self audits” — taking time alone to reflect on what’s happened, work through your feelings and start to consider possible futures.
But when you’re feeling stuck or isolated, you may need to seek professional help. If you’re employed, your company may provide mental health resources. If money is tight, 211.org may be able to point you to free or low-cost treatment.
Depression or anxiety that persists for weeks or months isn’t normal and may need medical treatment. If you don’t have someone to talk to who is empathetic, understanding and nonjudgmental, a therapist could help guide you through your trauma so you can move on with your life.
“That’s probably one of the bigger things that I see, when people don’t have other people to process the grief with or they feel like they’re becoming a burden,” Coambs said. “That’s when professional help can be a big win.”