Recognizing Grief Over the Loss of Income
Shock and denial are the first reactions of people experiencing unplanned changes.
When people experience a major income loss they go through certain stages of grief. Figure 2 shows these and what happens at each stage. People often move back and forth between the stages and sometimes get stuck at a particular stage for a while.
Figure 2. Stages of the Grief Cycle
To express anger in a positive way, people need to change how they view the situation.
Stage 1 - Shock and Denial
Shock and denial are the first reactions of people experiencing unplanned changes. At this stage in the loss cycle, it is normal for people to feel confused and afraid, and to want to place blame. However, many people are just numb when facing an unplanned change as if they were on automatic pilot. It is very common for people to avoid making decisions or taking action at this point. People are often unable to function or perform simple, routine tasks during this stage.
Denial can occasionally be healthy for a short time, but prolonged denial can have devastating consequences for the person and for the situation. Denial of something that has happened or of the pain and fear being experienced is a way in which people protect themselves when faced with a painful situation. Continued denial of the pain and fear, however, will block them from doing something about it.
Stage 2 - Anger
Anger is a feeling that is often intensely felt during this time. Anger is identified by feelings of second-guessing, hate, self-doubt, embarrassment, irritation, shame, hurt, frustration, and anxiety. People usually understand more clearly what is happening, but they may look for someone to blame at this stage. If there is no one on whom to focus the anger or blame, a feeling of helplessness may take over and the anger may be turned inside. Some people take it out on themselves by taking responsibility for a situation over which they have had little control.
People are often afraid that if they let themselves acknowledge the anger they feel, they will immediately need to express it and act on it in a way that they will regret later. However, by not admitting to themselves and others close to them the loss and pain they feel, they will be blocked from doing something about the situation. It will also prevent them from moving on. Some people get stuck at this stage.
To express anger in a positive way, people need to change how they view the situation. It is also helpful to talk to others about it or write down their feelings in order to figure out what they need to do to make the feelings less intense. Another option is to turn the anger into energy through an active sport or brisk physical activity or to express it through playing a musical instrument.
Stage 3 - Depression and Detachment
The third stage of the loss cycle, depression and detachment, is characterized by feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and being overwhelmed. People often feel down, lack energy, and have no desire to do anything. Withdrawal from activities and other people is common. Because it is also hard to make decisions at this stage, ask a family member, friend, or professional to help you if important decisions need to be made.
Stage 4 - Dialogue and Bargaining
The fourth stage, dialogue and bargaining, is a time when people struggle to find meaning in what has happened. They begin to reach out to others and want to tell their story. People become more willing to explore alternatives after expressing their feelings. They may, however, still be angry or depressed. People do not move neatly from one stage to another. Rather, the stages overlap and people often slip back to earlier stages.
Stage 5 - Acceptance
At this stage, people are ready to explore and consider options. As the acceptance stage progresses, a new plan begins to take shape or, at the very least, people are open to new options.
Getting Back to "Normal"
A person's "normal" state of functioning becomes disrupted by a sudden income loss. It is possible to return to a purposeful state of functioning after going through the stages described above and after exploring options and setting a plan. People then begin to feel secure and in control and have a more positive self-esteem. People get renewed energy to tackle life again but in different ways than before the sudden income change. It is perhaps better to think of the end of the grief cycle as returning to a meaningful life rather than returning to a "normal" life. "Normal" at this stage will not be the same as "normal" before the loss.