September 29th, 2008
08:45 AM ET

Grief in the house of loss

David Kessler
Author of On Grief and Grieving
with Elisabeth Kübler Ross

As someone who works in the field of grief and loss every day, I have come to realize that next to those we love and our own health, our home is one of the most primal relationships we have. It represents our dreams, our roots, and is the constant backdrop to our lives. To lose your home to a natural disaster or a man-made disaster is truly one of the most underestimated losses we can suffer.

For most people in grief, they may deal with a loss of a loved one, a marriage, a pet, and all of these losses occur within the context of their safe haven that they can retreat to every night. But when you lose your home, the rug is literally pulled out from under you; and, you suddenly find yourself unanchored in a way that you have never imagined.

When I was nine-years-old we lived on the Gulf Coast and in 1969 Hurricane Camille struck. While my parents and I were safe at a shelter, our house was completely decimated by the Hurricane. Because the house was literally covered by the tide there was no insurance that would pay for the flood damage. I was unbelievably sad and utterly grief stricken. I also felt some form of shame that somehow my father could have or should have prevented this with more insurance, better insurance, living somewhere else. As we traveled from one temporary place to the next, I looked at his pained face throughout the ordeal.

Years later, he shared with me that he felt very much like I did; grief stricken and somehow ashamed that this shouldn’t have happened and you’re not supposed to lose your home. In the past few years I’ve seen these pained faces so many times again on television. Now I’m watching the faces of people who have lost their homes not because a hurricane has devastated them but because they find themselves in the midst of a financial devastation.

In the midst of this global financial crisis, for those who lose their homes, many people feel shame that they have failed. If they don’t internally feel it, they externally sense the debate that goes on around them. How did this happen to them? What is their level of responsibility? Was it their fault, or the fault of those who provided a bad mortgage that never should have been issued in the first place? Some may feel a sense of betrayal by bankers and mortgage brokers who assured them they could afford a home. Imagine having to turn to your wife, to your kids, to have to leave the place that you have come to know as home. The emotional toll left behind is a whole other matter.

This does not even begin to cover those who feel the frustration from a government that may find a solution to a current financial crisis – but not in time to save them from losing their home. And the last group that is truly the unknown are all those who are getting behind in their payments, waiting for the other shoe to drop – knowing their house is about to go into foreclosure – living with a loss that is about to happen. For these people, the anticipatory grief is no less painful than the grief they will feel when they do lose their home.

You only have to look at the faces to know the grief is real because the loss is real.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Economy
soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Mary J

    Beautiful article. I have served as a Red Cross volunteer and seen the survivors of horrific loss. As a writer, I have handled everything from the obit column to editorial page. As a volunteer helping recent refugees from Burma and Darfaur, I see and hear their stories and see their daily struggles. But as a a mother who watched her beloved son breathe his last and die, it is difficult for me to see loss of a house as anything close to loss of life, limb to a land mine or loss of eveyone and everything you knew. Some things can not be avoided and my heart goes out to each one regardless of loss. We need to care and help our neighbor. And our neighbor is near and far across the street and around the world.

    September 29, 2008 at 8:58 pm |
  2. Steve Tyler

    Mr. Kessler,
    What a fantastic and refreshing article. It is nice to see compassion for humanity and the human experince. It seems that everywhere we look people are shaking their fingers at other people. "You should have been smarter", "you shouldn't have been so greedy", "you should have had more insurance", "you shouldn't live ..." and the list of shoulds and should nots goes on and on.

    Instead, lets learn from our fellow humans and their experiences both good and bad, move on and help each other as best we can.

    September 29, 2008 at 5:25 pm |
  3. Arlene Houghton

    I think you are so correct about mourning for a house as if it is the death of a loved one...it is. And collectively I think we are also mourning for our larger house – the entire country. The country is our refuge, our haven, and we have been watching not only friends and neighbors lose their homes, but we are losing our country.

    September 29, 2008 at 4:49 pm |
  4. Andrea

    Thanks for this informative article. However a person originally got into their individual housing trouble does not dictate how they will feel when they lose a house. Home is so precious, that I feel for anybody who either made the wrong choice or is victim to a bad system. A little compassion can go a long way these days. If people would stop finding fault with each other and could join hands and help, that would be a great beginning.

    September 29, 2008 at 4:20 pm |
  5. Stan Marks

    One more thing to add to my last comment......

    I lived in L.A. for over 20 years.
    When we moved from Phila., in '62, my parents bought their little two-bdrm home, on a corner half lot, in the Fairfax Dist.
    Purchase price:$22,000.
    In 2000, I sold it for $360,000.
    Today, it's value is around $900,000. (Try to get that today)
    This is typical of Calif. home prices.
    Talk about over inflation.
    What's wrong with this picture?

    September 29, 2008 at 4:17 pm |
  6. Stan Marks

    Excellent article....

    But I must say, people have been taking short-cuts far too long.
    Living beyond their means has been the American dream.
    Buy champagn on a beer budget.

    Cheap mortgage rates with variable term loans has made it way too easy, for UNqualified buyers.
    But who can blame them?
    I also blame the banks & mortgage companies, who took the money & ran.
    Now, THEY are folding & falling into the B.of A.'s of the world.

    Now, it's all coming to a head & biting people in the tuchas.
    So much for the good old days.

    Five years ago, I refinanced my home, after my wife of 23+ years, flew the coop.
    I got a 5 & a third fixed, for 20 years. And I'm NOT straining to make my payment.

    Sometimes I think the Lord should just wipe this earth clean & start all over, again.

    September 29, 2008 at 4:08 pm |
  7. Sharon Kitchen

    No human should feel lost or alone or shame. This is a time that has been brought down on us by those who were to be on watch. They were not. The list of names would be to long to list here.
    Now is the time that everyone,the have's and have nots get toegther and work together to help each other. Those that might think this is "above" them....well do not wait to long to help.....your house may be next ............The house of cards is coming down. HUD build those houses.......list ,what list. The list that were made were made incorrectly. New list time. Everyone grab a friend or a person who will become your friend........build a home......if you loose your home, someone will be there to build your home....keep going...do not give up.....then keep building the next, move someone in. Then everyone on that corner go to the next......keep going......those that have buildng material lend it. Those that can plumb,do it. Those that can wire,wire.Those that can put solar panels on,do it.Every person can do something to help out someone else.

    September 29, 2008 at 4:00 pm |
  8. Heather,Ca

    I agree with Cindy 100%! I bought my house the old fashioned way. I found a house I could afford and put down 25% down. I refuse to bail out people who lied about their income on a loan application. You can't get something for nothing.

    September 29, 2008 at 3:46 pm |
  9. Lisa

    NO ONE is being held accountable for their contribution to this mess. I have seen firsthand the greed involved in these problems. Greed by the consumers to lower their payments to ridiculous levels on Option ARMS so they can go out and buy new cars, RV's, toys AND greed on lender's part so they can rush them through the loan process before they have a chance to read the fine print.

    I have a 5% 30 year fixed rate loan with an UNUSED 2nd Home Equity Line and I have 50% equity in my home. I drive a 5 year old car that is paid for and I'm sorry – I lived a frugal lifestyle and have no problem meeting my obligations. Why should I be made to pay for your greed and avarice? For all these people who are walking away from their homes rather than trying to do whatever they need to in order to save it (get a 2nd job – try to work out a new payment plan), I hope that you have a LONG cooling off period before you are eligible to buy again! I saw loans where people were 2 years out of BK and were able to buy a home. That was when getting a BK was easier – again...no accountability for their actions. Now they want to make BK's easier again. NO WAY!

    Look people, we are living in a society where you give your kids whatever they want and rack up tremendous credit card debt with NO thoughts on how you're going to pay it back. Well, your home is not your source for free-spending and I think the answer is to have people like me teach the "real" economics lessons at our schools so that we have responsible, contributing adults entering our systems at the end of 4 years of high school...not the self-indulgent brats who think they are owed something because their parents gave them whatever they wanted. At some point, we have to pay for all of this...and we're there.

    September 29, 2008 at 3:17 pm |
  10. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    I feel saddened for those who lost homes due to illness, death of a significant other, storm, or job loss. I do not feel sorry for those who were suckered into a bad loan. It's called do your homework before you make that type of investment, talk to others who can give guidance, and don't trust the banker who's going to profit off of you. Banks and mortgage companies aren' t in it for humanitarian reasons but their own bottom dollar. I'm sorry. Home ownership isn't a right. Having a decent roof over your head is a right. Owning a McMansion when you make $30,000 a year isn't a right. It's ludicrous, and you should have known better. YOu don't need grief work but reality therapy instead. Sometimes what's real isn't pretty, but it sure beats trying to explain to your five-year-old why the bank suddenly owns the basketball court and house that you never could afford to provide for him in the first place.

    September 29, 2008 at 2:53 pm |
  11. GF, Los Angeles

    The only people I feel sorry for are those who lost their house due to illness or loss of job. Everyone else was greedy and got in over their heads by buying a house they couldn't afford in hopes that the market would continue to go up so that they could refinance at a lower rate or even sell the house at a profit. Others turned their house into an ATM machine instead of letting it build like an asset. There are so few people saving any money which is why this is hitting so many American's so hard. How many of us have any cushioning to fall back on? This is a huge lesson to live within our means and learn how to save.

    September 29, 2008 at 1:56 pm |
  12. Chris Guerra


    Instead of giving the 700 Billion to the Wall Street and Banking Exec's to buy more mansions and spend lavishly. Why not give this money to the people that are now in Foreclosure – Losing their home ! With the stipulation that the money given them MUST pay off their mortgage(s). Then what do you know, the banks have this money back in their hands again to loan out or do whatever with, but their is a decidedly different outcome to this approach – THE LITTLE GUY WINS BIG TIME – FINALLY !

    September 29, 2008 at 1:21 pm |
  13. Donna

    I could be wrong about this, but I believe banks are preparing to take advantage of the bailout plan to the detriment of the american taxpayers.

    It was announced that Citigroup was taking over Wachovia bank this morning. At first glance, this move struck me as odd, because it's my understanding that Citigroup is also hurting. So why would this takeover (or merger) occur??

    I could only surmise that Citigroup is planning on being bailed out under the Paulson plan. The bad debt of both Citibank and Wachovia bank will be wiped out and Citigroup along with what was Wachovia bank will be stronger and also a larger company than before..

    I'm wondering how others feel about this. Personally, I'm feeling used.

    September 29, 2008 at 12:41 pm |
  14. Debbie Avery

    This is truly a devastating reality. Our house is much more than a physical structure to keep our stuff in, it is an extension of our life and our family. My children have told me this many times what I have talked about moving. Our home is full of all of our memories of holidays and daily life that makes us who we are. I am so saddened to hear about all the families who are tragically losing their homes and forced to move. More should be done to keep this from happening!

    September 29, 2008 at 12:36 pm |
  15. Jaime M. Mesa,AZ

    What a beautifully written and utterly tearing (as in heart-ripping) and well referenced article. You have obviously been able to express the pain you felt as a child. It helps to understand how the effects of losing your home due to disaster physical or financial can effect you for many years and even be formative.

    I lost almost everything I owned as an undergraduate/ research assistant in Hurricane Alicia in Houston in 1983. I still do not think I comprehend the effects this had on me. I had just begun to establish my own home got the first time. I did have Federal Flood Ibsurance and as the water was rising I was telling myself it would be ok because I was insured. No one ever told me the insurance was "current value" depreciated from replacement cost. I had saved for a long time and had bought a new vacuum cleaner 3 days before the hurricane. When the adjuster came I received $8 for it. I was incredulous . I remember yelling at him how could I get another vacuum cleaner for $8? (poor man!)

    I was depressed I think in retrospect and STILL can get angry about certain aspects of that experience. I still look for things such as scrapbooks, or my stamp collection, or irreplacable photographs to this day .

    I remember one realization that made me feel so unhinged and vunerable. You think your home, your refuge for other losses as you beautifully describe is somehow strong and has a dependable permanence. I remember being shocked when workers cut all the walls down to the wooden frame up to a few feet from the ceiling. The sheetrock had crumbled and almost melted away from the flood water. I came down the stairs and could see mud and debris thick on a floor of slab. My first home had no walls. I did not know "home" was so ephemeral and weak and vunerable to destruction. Later everything molded and mildewed. It was awful.

    Now I get heartsick watching it happen to other people and to see places like New Orleans that ate left to their own devices to recover ( and bless all the volunteers who help)

    Thank you for the story
    Jaime Merrifield
    Mesa, AZ

    September 29, 2008 at 12:25 pm |
  16. bess

    What a wonderful compassionate article.. Mr. Kessler hits the nail on the head.. this is beyond party lines.. this goes straight to the heart of being human
    thank you for this

    September 29, 2008 at 11:45 am |
  17. Betty Jiles

    I am a grandmother and home owner that is retired and trying to hold onto what I have worked for all my life, my peice of the american dream. However our government continues to reward the true criminals and rape and pilige the poor. It is a shame and we should be a shame of our selves as americans. Is this america or some third world dictatorship that we live in? It is no small affair that people would consider electing a vice president with the political knowledge of fourth grader. when will we as Americans become more concerned with each others welfare instead of greed, taking over some country, or religous beliefs and influence?

    September 29, 2008 at 11:32 am |
  18. Michelle ,fonthil,ont, canada

    People shouldn't blame themselves for losing thier homes It's not fair that corperate greed has cost hard working families thier homes and the fact that no one seems to care any more about the average working class family who are struggling for week to week just to make payments . Where is the solution ? Whern will there be cange that we so desparatley need?

    September 29, 2008 at 10:03 am |
  19. Trish A

    David I feel the statement made by Chris Dodd says it all. This wasn't a Natural Disaster. This administration has sat on this for a number of years foolishly thinking it would iron itself out! And I think that is at the crux of the disgust and angst of Americans, especially Middle Class Americans. This Administration is responsible for this crisis regardless of which way they want to spin it. The $700 billion is a mere security blanket and nobody knows yet how much security it will actually render to a present hemmoraging economy. The Dems are not the culprits, they are the problem solvers. Everyone should be able to see that the Veto Pen Bush used for the past eight years killed all Democratic Solutions. In fact, Bush was still trying to have it his way right up to Saturday! This President owes Americans an explanation followed by an apology. And they will get neither as he still believes he is above reprimand and the Decider. The Decider whose decisions brought us to where we are today!

    September 29, 2008 at 9:56 am |
  20. Annie Kate


    Thank you for posting this for all to read. We lost our house when I was small; I remember it vaguely but what I remember was that my own little space in my room where I kept my treasures and read my books – the place that I went to for peace and security and stability was gone and it did feel like a death. However you lose your home – by a storm, a financial crisis, a fire, etc. doesn't matter – you've still lost what should be your one safe haven in this world. Its not an experience I would wish on anyone.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    September 29, 2008 at 9:54 am |
  21. Cindy

    For the ones who lost their houses because they tried to live above their means then I have absolutely no sympathy for them. Before they signed that contract to get the loan for the house they knew exactly what they were getting into yet did it anyway. They knew that they couldn't afford the house or mortgage on what they made but they were greedy and just had to have it.

    Well they made their own bed and now they should be made to lie in it. It shouldn't be up to us taxpayers to bail them out. Everyone would love a nice house to live in but not everyone is stupid enough to sign on to one even though they can't afford it. This is a case of their wants really hurting them. They should feel bad...look at what it is doing to us all. We all have to pay for their stupidity.


    September 29, 2008 at 9:02 am |