Robert and Emma* liken their declaration of bankruptcy in 2007, the resulting loss of their house and all their possessions as a result of Robert’s failed business venture, to having the skin removed from their bodies. That painful, yet also, incredulously, freeing. They and their three teenage children managed to come through the financial crisis stronger, clearer about their purpose in life, more loving and accepting of one another, and with a renewed commitment to family time and family fun. They both said, many times during our interview, “It’s all just stuff. The only thing that matters is the love in your family. We had a wake up call to make our family our top priority—not our careers.”
To learn more about how to be a resilient family and harness the kind of courage to climb your way out of difficulty, read on!
*I’ve changed Robert and Emma’s names to protect their privacy.
Robert and Emma credit their ability to thrive despite losing everything they owned, to the fact that they told the truth about their experience to anyone and everyone—including the IRS. They were continually surprised at how many families shared the same sometimes shameful secret of family debt and/or bankruptcy. By sharing their experience openly and honestly with friends and family, they not only gained support, offers for affordable housing, tuition assistance, but new job opportunities to start over also. They felt no shame about their financial situation, which seems to have freed them to be able to quickly transition to new opportunities. In contrast to those families who avoid facing the painful truth about their financial situation, hoping it will all just go away or magically resolve itself, Robert and Emma chose to accept their situation, face it head-on with a daily list of what had to be done to dig themselves out, and modeled for their kids the hard work involved with creating a good life.
The short time that they blamed each other for their financial mess was a disaster for their relationship. As soon as they both decided to work together to clean up their financial mess, the marriage grew stronger and supported them both through the tough times that followed as they auctioned off all their belongings, got recertified in their professions and searched for new jobs—all whilst handling their kids’ own adolescent struggles.
They did not shield their children from the financial crisis their family faced. Instead, they chose to tell them the whole truth of their situation, whilst at the same time educating them about financial responsibility. They developed a family savings plan that would get them back on-track, and everyone in the family contributed as they were able. The kids were free to ask questions, to seek reassurance, and to participate in most family decisions—as appropriate. They all had to make sacrifices, adjust to smaller rental homes and very few extras. At the same time, they made a commitment to sharing at least one meal together each day, to spend time in nature to restore their spirits, and have fun together at least once a week. They relied on friends, a structured daily rhythm, and modeled the hard work and courage necessary to build anew.
Robert has retrained, relicensed, and returned to his work as a physician. Emma became a school teacher, and now works as a cook. They still have several years ahead of serious saving to help the kids with college. During our interview, their kids weave happily in and out of the living room, checking in with mom and dad—their teenage friends in tow. The love between them all is evident, as it is clear that this is a house where their children and all their friends are welcome. Truth and lack of physical pretense provide the supports for this home. Simply decorated, this is their third rental house in as many years. None of the kids is suffering from a lack of material possessions, most are second-hand, but all lovingly cared for. In fact, they all have part-time jobs to supplement any material desires they may want. Everyone in the house is more financially responsible as a result of the bankruptcy. As their children have grown in maturity, they do not take for granted simple family outings or vacations—if only to a park for a picnic together. They certainly do not take for granted the opportunity to take an extracurricular course or buy new clothes. It is evident that they have all had to learn to live with less. Yet, they all agree they have more fun, more family time, connect more, and love each other more as a result of bankruptcy and their commitment to rebuild a good home, a good family, and a good life.
Robert and Emma, towards the end of our interview, shared this advice for families faced with any sort of financial or other crisis:
Trust in your children’s resiliency, and your own.
Dwell in the present moment, don’t scare yourself about the future.
Be flexible, but make a step-by-step plan to rebuild.
Learn from your children, they are wiser than you may think.
They have learned to live more in the present moment. The more they could accept the reality of their losses and forgive the past, the freer and more able they became to start building anew. Though not aligned with any particular spiritual faith, they both developed a deep reverence for finding joy, truth, and beauty in life through losing all their “stuff”. As they both stated, “In the end, we lose it all anyway, and it’s just stuff. We are only left with love, the love we share with others and that we feel for ourselves”. Though humbled by the past few years of relative poverty, this family states that they’ve learned to focus on what they do have: each other, the love in their friends and family, and their health. These gifts, in their estimation, are at the heart of the truth of what truly matters in life.
An update since my interview with Robert and Emma: they have relocated closer to family across the country, bought their first house since declaring bankruptcy four years ago, and are all thriving in work, family life, and in their new community.