How do we make the most of losses in life? Everyone deals with a loss at some point, right?
Which begs the question – what do we do when losses hit us?
Do we let them define us? Should we ignore them or pretend they don't affect us?
Will we allow ourselves time to grieve, reflect and learn?
The truth is everyone deals with loss differently. There is no right or wrong way.
This topic is front and center for me after the passing of my father on July 6, 2018. It caused me to reflect on this very topic.
I want to share with you how I deal with losses and explore ways to make the most of them.
Loss is inevitable
Some losses hurt more than others. Indeed, the death of a loved one fits that category. Job loss is another huge one.
In today's world, many of us live beyond our means. If you're living paycheck to paycheck and lose your job, it can be a devastating loss.
There is the loss from becoming an empty nester when the kids leave home. For some parents, this is cause for celebration.
However, for many, especially moms, not having kids around is extremely difficult.
It brings on a broad sense of sadness. Sometimes, that sadness moves into depression.
The losses in life are hard to anticipate and plan.
Granted, becoming an empty nester is predictable. How you think you may feel versus how you feel when that happens may be entirely different.
For my wife and me, our son going to college was, initially, a cause for celebration. We were excited he got into his first choice of college and happy it was only an hour or so away.
Once he left, my wife quickly got the blues. The daily routine changed. He wasn't there for dinner. He wasn't around on the weekends.
It took some time to adjust, especially for her. For us, time passing was the best remedy.
Loss is unpredictable
The losses in life remind us of how little control we have. I mean, you can't control when someone you love dies, right?
Nor can you control when your company downsizes or eliminates your position. Of course, you can prepare financially for it.
However, if a company decides to make that change, you're left to deal with the consequences.
That's why one of the best ways to prepare for financial loss is to spend less than you make, save and invest the difference, and reduce or eliminate debt.
If you do that, the financial impact of that loss lessens. It may even help with the emotional aspect.
The financial stress of losing your primary source of income has less of an impact if you've planned for emergencies like this. Having money set aside for unplanned events adds security to your financial life. It reduces the stress brought on by this type of occurrence.
That's why the financial planners and personal finance bloggers always recommend an emergency fund. Many view the starting point of that fund to be at least six months of living expenses. I know others have from one to as much as five years in liquid savings in preparation for unexpected loss.
The two components of loss
In my experience, loss hits in two primary ways.
Let's take the job loss example.
Of course, losing your job brings financial loss. If you lose your income, that's a given. It also brings emotional loss.
That can go one of two ways. If you had a passion for your work and lost it, you would be sad and have a period of grief to go with the financial loss.
If you didn't prepare financially for the loss of income, you would also have emotional stress added to the mix. That one-two punch can be devastating.
Conversely, if you hated your job and lost it, you might be excited. Of course, if you hadn't financially prepared for it, grief and stress would be present.
That's why many bloggers in the FIRE movement advocate for becoming financially independent to prepare for this possibility. For others, the goal is to leave the corporate world and pursue other passions.
There is no substitute for being prepared for any contingency out of your control that may present itself.
Financial stress gets reduced or eliminated. It puts you in control of the financial part of the loss. That, in turn, reduces the emotional component that comes from stress and grief.
Being prepared for circumstances out of your control is the key to managing loss.
Some losses in my life
As someone in my sixth decade of life (yes, I'm that old), I've had my fair share of loss. These losses have been both financial and emotional.
I'll highlight three of the most significant.
2007 was a particularly tough year in our lives.
My mother, who suffered from Alzheimer's, lost her battle with the disease in 2007. For those who've experienced a family member with Alzheimer's, you know how difficult this is.
My mom lived with Alzheimer's for at least six or seven years before she passed. During the last four years or so, she had lost all cognitive ability. That took her ability to communicate in any intelligent manner away.
Fortunately, she always knew us to the very end. I now know how unusual that is and thank God He gave us that gift. I've had many friends and a couple of clients whose loved ones didn't know who they were in the late stages of the disease.
Lessons learned about grief
I learned a lot about grieving during that time.
Grief doesn't have a particular pattern. For many, it hits hard and heavy at the onset of the triggering event. That may be the time of diagnosis, or it could be at the time of death.
For me, the grieving started years before her death. Watching her deteriorate was hard.
We saw this coming with mom long before she got diagnosed. However, when the diagnosis got confirmed, the grief intensified.
That grieving went on for years at a low level. I talked with mom a lot throughout the years. But she wasn't the highly intelligent, active, vibrant personality she was pre-Alzheimer's.
When she finally passed, there was a combination of relief and sadness. Relief because she didn't have to live with this anymore. Sadness, of course, because she was gone.
I held it together during the time of preparation for the homegoing service and burial. Mom was in Indiana. We lived in Virginia.
Then, while watching a movie (not a sad one as I recall), it hit me like a ton of bricks. I curled up in a ball on the couch and cried like a baby.
The lesson – grief finds its way. You can't prepare for it or have expectations of how you should or shouldn't deal with it.
For the most part, I don't worry about how it happens anymore.
It comes when it comes. And that's the way it should be.
In that same year, 2007, we found out our son became addicted to drugs. Not just any medication. His drug of choice was heroin.
I won't get into the details of this journey here. I wrote extensively about it in a recent blog post, Dealing with Addiction and Its Financial Consequences – A Personal Story. If you're interested, you can read the full story here.
You can see from the title that this journey carries both emotional and financial consequences.
The emotional consequences are apparent. You're seeing your only son self-destruct before your eyes while in the throes of addiction. It was excruciating for my wife, Cathy, and me.
It was much worse for Cathy. A mother's connection to her children is so much different than a father's. You could make an argument, I suppose, that a father-daughter relationship and a mother-son connection are similarly stronger.
In my experience through this journey, it doesn't matter when your child is an addict. It pulls hard on both. In our case, it was much, much worse for Cathy. So, the emotional cost was high.
The financial cost was also high. Any parent dealing with a child's addiction knows that you will do anything to try and help them. Watching them self-destruct is crazy hard. In the beginning, things got out of control so fast; we felt like we were always putting out financial fires.
We spent embarrassing amounts of money.
Again, you can read the story here. Suffice it to say we are still bailing out of the financial mess.
We have learned to set solid boundaries and put our marriage and our priorities ahead of our son's. The battle is his and only he can do what's necessary to get better.
We are dealing with financial and emotional loss in a much healthier way. But it is still a battle.
Losing my father
This loss is very fresh. On Friday, July 6, 2018, my dad passed.
Also in Indiana, he lived a long and healthy life. He got 96 1/2 years. That's a good run!
Up until the last few months, he was in great shape, both physically and mentally. Dad was a guy who had quintuple bypass surgery at age 83. He got another 13 1/2 years after that!
When we would talk on the phone, I would hang up amazed at how mentally sharp he was. He carried on long, intelligent conversations as if he was thirty years younger. It was remarkable.
As you would expect, his body began wearing out.
The last year had him in the hospital a couple of times with infections. Each one became more and more difficult to treat. His body became unable to fight them like it used to.
The last battle came a few weeks ago. He got what they thought was another infection. Antibiotics proved an unsuccessful treatment. He told my brother, who lived near him that he was tired. He told his caregivers the same.
In essence, he told everyone he was ready to go.
A lasting legacy
The legacy he left was incredible. One of those legacies is a lesson to all of us in how to move into old age gracefully and in control of how that happens.
Allow me to explain.
After his wife died, dad decided he didn't need the house and headaches that came with it. As such, he decided to move into an independent living community.
When the quality of the care and the facility's services began to worsen, he packed up and moved to another facility.
In the interim, he decided to give up driving. So he sold (or maybe donated) his car.
My mom, on the other hand, fought giving up her independence to the bitter end. I've come to understand that is often symptomatic of people with Alzheimer's. Dad was in his right mind. Mom was not but thought she was.
The lesson for me is to follow dad's lead. Take control of the decisions about where you will live and the care you receive while you still can.
These decisions reduced the stress on my brother and me tremendously.
Lessons I've learned
Here are a few of the things I've learned about loss.
- As I said earlier, you often can't control when or how loss comes.
- In light of #1, it's best to do everything you can to prepare for the worst-case financial scenarios. That may be losing your job, divorce, getting transferred to an expensive location, or any other unforeseen event. Having a pile of cash on hand eases the financial stress of these events.
- Don't worry about how you grieve. Though many accept the five stages of grief definition (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), it doesn't mean you will move through them in order. In fact, you may not go through all of them. Grief is different for everyone. Don't worry if you don't fit the mold.
- Prepare yourself emotionally for the unexpected loss. Have a large emergency fund. If married, keep your marriage healthy. Talk about worst case scenarios and how you would deal with them. Have the difficult conversations about money, parents, health, etc. Doing so reduces the stress both now and when a loss occurs.
For Cathy and me, having a strong faith carries us through any crisis that comes our way.
We have a support network of Christian brothers and sisters who walk with us and we with them as we experience life together. That community has been fantastic.
Even if you don't share our faith, I will submit to you that it's still important to have an active community of support around you. Maybe it's a small circle of close friends with whom to share your journey. Maybe it's your family. I believe we are built to be in community with one another.
These days, that view seems contrary to conventional wisdom. That wisdom says pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Man (or woman) up.
Some may view the desire to be connected in a community as a sign of weakness.
To me, it's a sign of strength. Being able to reach out for support, help, and advice from trusted friends and family makes the journey through loss much more comfortable.
We may try to convince ourselves otherwise. My life experience tells me going it alone rarely works.
Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Stay connected. Doing so will make it easier to get through the losses that will inevitably come and bring you out stronger on the other side.
What losses have you experienced? How have you worked through them? Do you have a support network? What's worked best for you?
Let me know what you think. If you found this helpful, please please consider sharing with friends, family, and your social media.
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