Posted by: Catherine | June 2, 2010

The emotional grief of short sales . . . it’s not easy

This is a blog post loooong in the making, however, other than my observations as I help people navigate this most stressful process of losing their home, I never felt I had any sort of expertise which would provide anyone any meaningful insight for an article.   So today, when I received an article (Q & A) through email from a local Marriage, Family Therapist, Don Elium, MA, MFT, I instantly asked him for permission to reprint this here.

As a Broker who helps homeowners navigate the harsh waters of the foreclosure process, I’ve seen emotions run the gamet.  From folks who seemingly are paralyzed and don’t know what to do  – so they do nothing, to people who try to do it all and borrow from family and deplete their life savings to continue to do the “right thing. ” Unfortunately we’ve all learned in this process, that the banks aren’t out to help anyone (but themselves perhaps) and their processes and guidelines simply serve to make matters worse in MOST cases.  People try as hard as they can to make sense of what has happened, and in many cases, why there is no help for them.  Or they feel a sense of it all being “unfair.”

Rule one I try to instill upon families in these situations is you have to take care of YOURSELVES (and each other) first and foremost.  I heard a quote related to parenting once, and it seems to apply here, “will it matter in 5 years?”  In most cases, nothing that happens to your credit, or your missed payments, or what your neighbors think, or anything else will matter in 5 years.  WHAT WILL MATTER however, is keeping your family, and your sanity intact.   So I hope you get something out of Dr. Don Elium’s article here, and please, please don’t be shy about contacting him if you need help.  I have had clients I’ve genuinely worried about, and I always wish I could do more to make the process easier emotionally.  All I really can do is to support them, and make the process go as smoothly as I can.  Along the way, I’ve made what I feel will be lifelong friends, but in some cases, there are those clients that are mad at everyone, no matter your intentions.  We all just do the best we can, and we all have different defense mechanisms.  If this article, or anything I ever say, can just help one person, it is all worthwhile:

The Hidden Emotional Grief of The Short Salechainedtohouse1

When your house is no longer your home & your self-worth & marriage start coming apart

Dear Don,

Due to an unexpected reduction in our income, my husband and I agreed we have to sell our family home which is, unfortunately, 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

dontvprmopictureDear Lost,

You are in shock.

The truth has hit you in the head: you can spend your whole life carefully investing in your home, keeping your credit score pristine, doing all the right things, and have to sell it at a loss, pay capital gains taxes, and have your credit score lowered only to have to start over again. Your superman and superwoman capes have come loose.  You can tell yourself that your home 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 early stages of grief.

The first dynamic of grief, is that sudden feeling of shock at what you are hearing.  It will feel surreal, like you are living in a dream or it is somebody else’s life.  There can be 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”  These reactions are normal– just the way the mind reacts to sudden loss.

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.  If there is a nit hidden anywhere it is going to be picked until the grief of this loss is fully faced.  The way forward is 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. Sit with it. Feel into it. This is the way to get traction to the next step. Admit you are here. 

The second dynamic of grief is anger and blame. Your husband might be feeling stuck in the phase of feeling angry. The mind is 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. The mind is angry and taking names. It often start 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 move forward you will need to regularly sit and talk about it, feel it, give each other room to vent, and to be honest with yourself about what you are really angry at. Most likely you will find that you are most angry at the past circumstances that are now out of your control.  This leads leads to the third dynamic of grief..    

The third dynamic is bargaining. Here desperation drives the mind to figure out a way that this might not be true.  It is certainly important to look at all options possible, but there is a point where there is an endlessly combing over the facts as 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.

Depression, the fourth dynamic, has two parts. The first 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. Here is where counseling can be of great help to loosen the grip of the pain and spring forward. If you can sit and feel the helpless and hopeless that is passing through, it will eventually give way to the second phase of depression, soberness:  “this really is happening and there is nothing I can do about the past.”

The fifth dynamic of acceptance, emerges, often slowly. The facts become clearer and the intensity of your emotional reactions and mentally fabricated storylines lessen. The shock, anger, blame, bargaining, and hopelessness give way, and your mind is no longer tries to make reality go away. The mind yields to what is actually happening. Though painful, it feels like a relief.  You have stopped fighting the impossibility of changing the past, and have surrendered to what is actually possible, now.

The dynamics of loss and grief happen in no particular order. Some are active at the same time, and it will take whatever time it takes to get through them. Sometimes, right when you think you are free of them, boom, more comes. So stop trying to force the process. Live with things as they are. Feel whatever emotion arises. Let go of the story your mind is fabricating. Open up. The more you talk, feel, and share, the less the grief process will control your choices.The sixth dynamic slowly emerges from the acceptance phase, and you are able to be present in your life, at this moment, as it is. You can think of what has happened with your house and realize, you sold or lost your house, but NO ONE CAN TAKE YOUR HOME.  Home is where you choose to put your heart.

The sixth dynamic slowly emerges from the acceptance phase, and you are able to be present in your life, in this moment, as it is. You can think of what has happened with your house and realize, you sold or lost your house, but NO ONE CAN TAKE YOUR HOME.  

What grief is trying to teach us is simply this: everything changes. No matter how hard and well you try, life does what life does. It is best to work with and move with those changes that life brings instead of resist them. It is best to feel the emotions of each phase of grief so your attention can be freed and refocused on the truth: your house is not your home.  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. 

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.

May this storm cloud’s silver lining be revealed to you and your husband as soon as possible.  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.

Now, let’s get to it!


(all articles are written with permission and edited for brevity)

donjeanneweb1Don Elium, MA MFT  is a marriage and family therapist in practice in Walnut Creek, CA (San Francisco Bay Area). He is a psychotherapist to adult individuals and couples, a national professional speaker, frequently appears on television and radio.

Phone 925 256-8282
Walnut Creek, CA [San Francisco Bay Area]

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