Mourning our money

After last year?s market meltdown wiped away huge chunks of their savings, more investors have decided to seek professional help. Just not from a financial adviser.

Manhattan grief counselor Diana Nash, for one, typically sees clients who are struggling with the loss of someone close ? a parent, a child, a spouse. But lately, she?s taken on a handful of clients who want help dealing with a different kind of loss: their gutted retirement account. Though months have passed since the market meltdown, they still can?t deal with the fact that their nest egg is fried. ?Some of them can?t get out of bed,? says Nash.

In some cases employers are footing the bill. Ken LeBeau, director of employee-assistance programs for health care giant Cigna, says that since last fall, call volume grew 25 percent thanks to all the folks grappling with financial fears, while calls seeking immediate counseling rose 60 percent. ?The sense of urgency increased dramatically,? he says. We all feel it to some degree. Unless you were already broke when the markets started crashing last fall, the economy has probably subjected you to a tiresome parade of unpleasant feelings.

In fact, the stages of grief, first identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to describe the experiences of the terminally ill, apply rather neatly to folks who suffer major market losses. There?s the denial: refusing to open your account statement. Then there?s the anger, which explains the ongoing national temper tantrum aimed at targets like AIG and Bernie Madoff. And who among us hasn?t done a little mental bargaining? So maybe we won?t see the Dow at 14000 again in our lifetime ? we?ll settle for keeping our job. Even if our losses

were minor, many of us still get jittery over the headlines: GE?s CEO Jeffrey Immelt recently referred to his daily scan of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as the ?hour of doom.?

While most of us muddle through just fine, some people become completely overwhelmed, says Nassau Guidance & Counseling Centers director Kathleen Dwyer Blair, who counsels several investors. And as anyone who has suffered a major loss can tell you, actions spurred by grief-clouded thinking can make a rough situation worse.

Take it from William Volk, 52, a California entrepreneur. In 2000 he had three kids in private school, a lucrative chief technologist job at a booming dot-com and a few million in employee stock. By 2001 he found himself hounded by bill collectors and scrambling for a consulting gig. Then came the divorce. He recalls one evening when he stopped for gas and realized he had only enough in his bank account to get him home. Not surprisingly, his loss made him a little nutty. ?But at the time, you just aren?t aware of it,? he says.

When his company folded, for example, Volk put on a brave face to his family. They continued the private schools, vacations and restaurants. Had he faced facts earlier, he says, they might have kept the house. Later, he wasted time ruing his mistakes and blogging bitter rants about the dot-com hipsters who ruined things for legitimate businesses. Utterly convinced that life would never improve, he took a series of bad gigs. Things have brightened considerably since then; he?s engaged to be married and managing partner of a mobile technology firm. But life might have turned around faster, he says, if he?d dealt with reality rather than reacting to his loss.

As usual, our friends in government are one step ahead. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently produced a brochure, ?Getting Through Tough Economic Times,? that suggests we ?keep things in perspective? and engage in ?positive thinking.? You have to wonder if the Feds aren?t a little grief-addled themselves. At least there?s one sunny side to the economic mess: more work for grief counselors.

Copyright The New york Times Syndicate