Facing Loss in Financial or Natural Disasters

Two disasters this week have caused tens of thousands of Americans to lose -- and lose big. In the wake of Hurricane Ike, thousands of Gulf Coast residents lost their homes, and all their possessions, while countless others can't even go home yet to see what they lost, if anything.

And all around the country, especially in New York City, tens of thousands of employees who got caught up in the recent banking sector meltdown have lost their jobs, or at least their job security, and many more saw their retirement nest eggs evaporate.

While people in both disasters may lose the same things -- money, property and even homes -- experts say a manmade financial disaster creates a very different psychological burden than a natural disaster.

Those whose lives were battered by a natural disaster often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. However, for many, the aftermath of a fiscal disaster may be more complicated, experts say.

With a financial failure, victims often feel they are to blame. They frequently are haunted by guilt for the repercussions that will befall their families. And while victims of a natural disaster can often count on their community and aid organizations to help out, not to mention insurance, victims of a economic disaster may have fewer options and feel more isolated and abandoned.

Professor Anie Kalayjian, of Fordham University in New York, specializes in coping during natural disasters. A psychologist whose practice is near Wall Street, she says several employees of Lehman Brothers, the now-bankrupt brokerage company, have made appointments to see her this week.

"The similarities are the initial phase of the shock, the disbelief and the numbing," said Kalayjian about the different kinds of disasters.

Guilt and Responsibility

"They are emotionally numb because it's impossible to comprehend it all, to lose everything that you have worked for 30 years," said Kalayjian, who is president of the Association for Trauma Outreach and Prevention.

Among the natural disasters Kalayjian has studied, guilt over lost property rarely surfaces. Yet her clients from Lehman Brothers showed a lot of guilt.

"A lot of the people I counseled or work with, they were also trying to say perhaps it was their fault to have all their eggs in their basket and were not diversifying," Kalayjian said about people whose savings were wiped out.

Dealing With Job Loss

While that may technically be true, Kalayjian said the bigger issue is the identity wrapped up in property and money. The key lesson is to diversify.

"I'm not trying to talk about financial terms of course, but also emotionally," said Kalayjian. "Not to put a lot of their hopes and dreams and identities in the money."

A victim of a natural disaster may be surrounded by encouragement and offers of assistance, while a financial calamity is often endured alone.

After a catastrophic storm, "You mobilize your family, your larger family and your community to help," said Kalayjian. "My client's are asking 'Why is that the Lehman Brothers' vice president and boards are not doing that? They were getting $45 million bonuses, just bonuses, why don't they put their bonuses to help?'"

Across the country in California, a specialist in Internet advertising, was facing the same isolation when he lost his job two years ago. Although he found a lower-paying job quickly, he still needed help to recover financially.

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