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Weston: When life blows up your well-laid plans

A sudden change in financial security can come in several ways: job loss, divorce, disability or the death of a breadwinner

By LIZ WESTON, NerdWallet
Published: November 14, 2020, 6:00am

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. That’s never as simple as downloading a list and ticking off completed assignments, however.

Checklists can be helpful, for instance when you’ve just been laid off. 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, says financial therapist Edward Coambs of Charlotte, North Carolina.

“You know what’s happened, but it’s not like you get a funeral for it,” says 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.

Acknowledge that your grief is legitimate rather than trying to minimize what you’re going through, Coambs says. 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 says. “‘Why am I crying now? Why am I angry now? Why am I disappointed or lethargic?'”

This process won’t be quick, Coambs says. Our brains get used to our habits and routines. When those get dramatically disrupted, our brains need 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 says.

You can help this process by discussing your emotions with someone you trust, says financial therapist Preston D. Cherry, a certified financial planner in Lubbock, Texas. Cherry says 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 says.

Processing your emotions can help you avoid that fate, and if you’re raising kids you’ll also want to talk to them in age-appropriate ways about what’s going on, he says. Children need to know this isn’t a problem they created and it’s not their responsibility to fix it.

“Kids will assume inappropriate levels of responsibility for negative outcomes financially,” Coambs says. “Parents can say, ‘Mommy and Daddy are taking responsibility for this. We’re going to try to find the answers. You can come to us with your fears and concerns.'”


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 says. 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, is when people don’t have other people to process the grief with or they feel like they’re becoming a burden,” Coambs says. “That’s when professional help can be a big win.”