Question: Due to an unexpected reduction in our income, my husband and I agreed we have to sell our family home which, unfortunately, will have to be a short sale. I thought we were dealing well with the decision and sale of our home. But, suddenly my husband is constantly angry and blaming about things other than the house, including me. What felt like a strong marriage now feels like it is coming a part at the seams. Yesterday, I was caught completely by surprise when I suddenly started to cry as a friend spoke of selling their house. I feel like a huge failure. What is happening to us?---Lost
Don: You are in shock.
Reality has hit you on the head. You can spend your whole life doing all the right things--carefully investing in your house, keeping your credit score pristine, and so on. Then you have to sell at a
loss, pay capital gains taxes, your credit score ruined, having to start all over again. You can tell yourself that your house is only a house--a thing--but your emotions will tell you otherwise, in a somewhat predictable fashion. You and your husband are experiencing the initial symptoms of grief.
You feel the full impact of the shock at what is happening. The stages of grief described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross were never meant to be applied to every loss situation nor assumed to happen in any particular order. Although not every grieving person experiences each stage, these areas of grief are still helpful in understanding what is happening when there is a sudden, important loss and how to face it.
The initial shock and denial of grief feels surreal, like you are living in a dream or it is somebody else’s life. You may experience a whole range of emotion, or you might feel just empty and a numb-like calm. Either way, your mind is arguing with reality and saying, “We are intelligent. We didn’t make rash financial decisions and put a lot of money down to buy our home so this can’t be happening to us.”
You can force yourself to think, "Okay, so let’s just move on," but there are more necessary emotional steps that are ahead of you. If you don’t face these, you will project these emotions onto other situations unrelated to the short sale, and most often the targets will be your job, your loved ones, yourself and especially your marriage. It is important not to get distracted in arguing over the little things, but face the bigger elephant in the room: this feels unreal and yet, it is happening. Start talking about this. Spend time in reflection with it. Write things down in a journal about it. Feel it. This is the way to get traction to the next step. Admit you are here.
The element of anger and blame. Your husband might be feeling stuck in the reaction of anger. You are looking for something to blame. The “should-a, could-a, would-a” can keep you awake at night as your mind tries to figure out who or what caused this catastrophe in your lives. The mind is looking to find “fault,” and the anger and blame can be at yourself: “I should have done more to prevent this,” your partner, the government, and even God.
Your mind is angry and taking names. It often starts projecting it on other situations simply to find a release of the powerful natural emotions of guilt, anger, and self-hatred targeting the real estate agent, the mortgage broker, the bank, Wall Street, the husband, the wife, and on and on. To get unstuck you and your husband will need to talk regularly about it and give each other room to vent, and time to stop kidding yourselves, and support to be honest about how you feel. Most likely you will find that you are most angry at the past circumstances that are now out of your control.
The element of bargaining. Desperation drives your mind to figure out a way to keep your home. It is certainly important to look at all options possible, but there is a point where there is an endlessly combing over the facts become a way to avoid the emotions of helplessness and hopelessness. When you are able to start feeling those, you are entering the doorway, believe it or not, out of your grief: depression. You are starting to face reality.
The element of depression, has at least two parts. The first of depression is the I-just-don’t-care-any-more phase. This can feel very dark and very empty. It is important to reach out and talk to trusted friends and not over-burden your spouse. Here is where counseling can be of great help to loosen the grip of the pain and spring forward. If you can allow yourself the space and time to actually feel the helplessness and hopelessness, these feelings will eventually give way to a second part of depression, soberness: “This really is happening and there is nothing I can do about the past.”
The element of acceptance emerges, often slowly. The facts become clearer and the intensity of your emotional reactions and imaginary conversations in your head lessen. The shock, anger, blame, bargaining, and hopelessness give way, and your mind is no longer trying to make reality go away. Here your mental processes yield to what has and is actually occurring now. Though painful, you feel relief. You have stopped trying to change the past and have surrendered to what you can actually do now. The more you talk, feel, and share, the less the grief process will control your choices. The sixth element slowly emerges from the acceptance, and you are able to be present in your life as it is and no longer have imaginary conversations with yourself as if the loss didn't happen.
What grief is trying to teach us is simply this: everything changes. No matter how hard and well you try, life just does what life does. It is best to work with and move with those changes that life brings instead of resisting them.
When you feel the emotions of each element of grief, your attention is freed and refocused on what is most important: your house is not your home. Fire, a hurricane, an earthquake, world wide economic changes can certainly take your house from you, and sometimes there is nothing you can do now to prevent it. But nobody, and I mean NOBODY can EVER take your home. Home is where you choose to put your heart. And if you are reading this and feel a great relief, then you are further along than you realized. If you read this and feel resistance, then you have a few more steps to go.
May this storm cloud’s silver lining be revealed to you and your husband as soon as possible. Don't allow circumstances that are out of your control take over what you can control: your attitude. You cannot avoid the storm, but you can work with it, until it passes. You may not have that house, but you still have your life. Make that your home, sweet, home--wherever you are, whoever you are with, and with whatever is happening in your life.