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.

Isolated Grief May Be Worse

"I had no way to pay for rent, for food or bills or anything," said Bertrand." We were making decisions trying to keep the house, and you decide not to pay certain credit card bills."

When Bertrand finally lost his house to foreclosure on May 7 of this year, he decided to change the stressful experience for others. He founded the non-profit advocacy site Moving Forward to link people in foreclosure to lawyers, CPAs, and family counselors.

Where to Focus the Blame or Fear?

"So many people were going through this including ourselves, and no one was addressing the emotional problems," said Bertrand, now of Thousand Oaks, Calif.

"Talking to hundreds of people who have gone through this, we found there's a lot of judgments: 'you should have known better, you should have known that you would have been laid off,'" said Bertrand.

While blame, loss and guilt can surface whenever someone finally losses a home, experts say victims handle these feelings differently in a financial blowout compared to a devastating storm, fire or earthquake.

"There are similarities in that both cases people are going to have a sense of loss -- a degree of feeling helpless, impotent in the face of what went on," said Goodstein, a clinical professor of psychiatry and a psychoanalyst at New York University.

But in the case of a natural disaster, "In what people have heard of as 'acts of God,' you can't really direct it at someone. It's kind of unseen, more nebulous," said Goodstein.

For Annie Smith, a fourth-generation New Orleans native, the worst part of Hurricane Katrina centered more on the unknown than on the damage she saw in her house.

Smith and her husband, Guy, were trapped for four days on the upper story of their home while flood waters destroyed the first floor.

"You just watched it and you just realized it was an unbelievable mess, I mean the refrigerator was floating upside down," said Smith. Eventually she and her husband were rescued by boat and evacuated to Atlanta. Then she got a call from contractors.

"They said if you send us some money [to Houston] we'll come back and start gutting your house," said Smith. But it was nine months before Smith could return to the city and take charge of the situation.

From afar in Atlanta, Smith said she had misplaced fear, not blame.

"I think one of the scariest things to me, and it turned out be unfounded, was people coming into your house and stealing things," said Smith. "I just thought they would come and take things, but nothing was taken."

When Betrand faced losing his home, he suffered a very focused but prolonged dread.

"It's living in a house that is like an albatross around your neck -- you go to sleep in the house, and you wake up in the house," said Bertrand. "It got to the point to where we had been through so much stress that it wasn't worth it to put anymore energy into it. That's when I decided, you know this house is emotionally killing us and it's time to move on."

"Once we moved out and got into a rental we felt so much better," said Bertrand.

Feeling Better

Experts say Betrands efforts to help people live through foreclosure are precisely the kinds of efforts that help victims of traumatic storms.

In her research, Kalayjian has found that the proper support within a community can make a big difference. Support can actually leave disaster victims feeling stronger and more satisfied with their lives.

"Actually 30 percent find the positive who transform themselves from the disaster to the 'meaning-making' as we call it," said Kalayjian. "I hope that we can do some interventions and increase that rate to 70 percent."

Smith thinks she's one in that 30 percent. "A lot of people are critical, I'm just not that critical," said Smith. "The good is people helping people -- we've had so many volunteers that have come from New Orleans."