Loss is an inherent certainty of the human experience. We cannot avoid or control the inevitability of losses in our lives. Besides losing loved ones to death, we may lose relationships, physical abilities, possessions, and many other things. And, in some way, most of these losses are monetary. Some, like a poor investment or the loss of a job or a financial asset like a house, are directly financial. Others, including the death of a family member, have a significant financial component.
For any loss, it is important to grieve. I would suggest that grief itself is not an emotion but deep emotional pain that is a constellation of many emotions that might include sadness, fear, anger, relief, and more. A grieving person might feel numb, disengaged from daily life, and unable to carry on with regular duties.
Financial planners and financial therapists often find themselves supporting clients through grief over emotional and financial losses. A financial advisor can offer crucial guidance around recovering financially from a loss. For example, insurance can alleviate the impact of some financial losses. Yet money can only replace possessions. There is no way to insure against the emotional pain of a loss.
Much of the work of therapy, including financial therapy, is dealing with intense periods of loss that have been locked away in our psyche. This is often referred to as unfinished business because the process of working through or resolving the loss is left undone. Healing such unfinished business often involves opening the emotional wound and fully experiencing the emotional depth of the loss. No wonder we are reluctant to expose ourselves to the intense feelings that have been mentally locked away.
It is crucial for someone to move through the process of grieving. It is understandable that we resist this, denying and suppressing the painful emotions. But doing so inevitably prolongs the grieving process.
Being emotionally numb, immobilized and stuck in prolonged grief can be damaging financially as well as emotionally. In the short term, someone may be unable to carry out essential tasks like paying bills or dealing with the logistics of filing insurance claims. In the longer term, unresolved loss and grief can limit a person’s ability to make sound and clear financial decisions and move on with their life for months and years.
This is why reaching out for help and support are so important. It’s crucial for a grieving person to have someone they can trust financially to provide support, feedback, and advice. It can be dangerous to be making financial decisions when a person is in a period of intense grief. Many advisors recommend, for example, not making any serious life decision for perhaps one or two years after the death of a spouse. Financial transitionist Susan Bradley calls this the “decision free zone.”
Everyone’s experience or timing will not be the same. The process is on a continuum and is not the same for everybody. Similar losses will not have the same impact for two different individuals. For someone who identifies strongly with their work, or who has no emergency financial cushion, a job loss may be devastating. For someone who has strong financial resources, is close to retirement, has with skills in high demand, or is unhappy in their work, a job loss may bring relief or a sense of opportunity. Both these people can benefit from help and support, but their needs will not be the same.
How can you help someone who is in the grieving process? First, recognize that grief is part of someone’s response to a financial loss. It is important to be with the person and to listen. If you’re worried about what you can or should say, it’s probably better to say less. Well-intentioned though they may be, trite phrases of comfort and reassurance are often received as minimizing and condescending. It’s more helpful to ask something like, “How has this been for you?” and then listen.
Another thing you can do is offer to help with immediate chores and tasks. This could be bill paying, making deposits, working with insurance agents, organizing a fundraiser, and in general helping with financial decisions that need attention.
Third, you might gently encourage someone to get into a grief support group or see a therapist.
Finally, it’s important to see loss as a transition. We are always in transition in our lives, and many of them involve losses. Grieving those losses is not a problem to be solved, but a process to be lived through.
Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.