Life happens quickly, bringing a continuous mix of opportunities, uncertainty and even potential peril. The British saying from World War II Keep Calm and Carry On gives us insight into how a population kept themselves together when faced with grave and prolonged uncertainty. Now in the 21st century we need a new version of this motto, Keep Calm and Carry Very Little. We also need a skill set to put the motto into action. At Northstar, we talk about How to Thrive While Life Happens.
There’s no law that says devastating events must happen one at a time. For example, it’s not a stretch to picture facing a personal event—retirement, illness, divorce or death—at the same time a weather event upsets your ability to do the most routine tasks like returning to their home at the end of a work day. You can look back on the past six month to find a number of previously unthinkable local disasters—fires, floods, earthquakes, mudslides, tornadoes, and blizzards—and some of them in places they’re not supposed to happen. At the time of those disasters, people are living their lives, which includes getting ill, getting divorced, and grieving.
How we handle ourselves at these pivotal moments could set the stage for how the rest of our lives look. They create the space where competent decision-making is more important than ever, yet less likely than ever. Without help, most people would emerge from the other side at a grave disadvantage rather than positioned to thrive.
Let’s deconstruct Keep Calm and Carry Very Little.
Let’s face it, life changes bring lots of changes both personally and financially often requiring decision making. When you are overwhelmed, your behavior changes. Your sleep patterns are off and your brain activity is disconnected throughout the day. Your interactions with others are often compromised. You are disconnected from your competencies and sometimes even your values, but you might not even see it.
Obviously, this is not the best time to make big decisions. Your brain and body aren’t meant to be in a state of prolonged stress, and your goal is to lower your stress level. You need to find coping mechanisms that don’t involve making major decisions that might be regrettable.
Some self-care strategies to increase your sense of calm include:
• Structuring your life to optimize your quality sleep
• Eating well
• Meditation is a powerful tool to calm the mind and body and everyone should be part of the daily routine.
• Accepting/asking for help• Finding things to be grateful for each day• Focus on things you can do that are in your control
Carry Very Little
Carrying very little involves designing a life that is as streamlined as possible. Life transitions are more difficult and take longer than most people realize.
Giving yourself the space and time to adapt to the change in your life is critical and will help you make better long-term decisions. Prioritize what needs to get done and put the rest on the back burner. Getting help with the financial complexities (we recommend a Financial Transitionist or CFP) is a key step, even if you feel that you should be able to handle it on your own. The risk of getting it wrong is often too high. Develop processes that help you manage the change and move forward slowly without taxing you too much financially, emotionally or physically.Let’s look at how this looks in real life . . .
Michelle is a widow client whose husband passed away six months ago. She has a great support network and was doing okay with her grieving process. She was just starting to recover enough to begin organizing, which felt soothing. She started with the house, room by room, and though she went to sleep exhausted each night, she preferred that to crying herself to sleep.
Just when this routine became comfortable and she was feeling like she was emerging from the fog, her home suffered property damage from an unexpected flood. She didn’t even live in an area that had ever flooded, and she suddenly needed to move out of her home and find a way to repair it. And she had to do that while continuing to pay the bills for the house in addition to rent for an apartment.
She was feeling very alone, even though she had family members helping her. They noticed she was showing signs of stress: her hair was falling out, she had bags under eyes, and she was always “too tired” to come over for a meal. And then she started talking about selling the house without fixing it and just staying in the apartment. She said she liked the simplicity of that idea because it meant she didn’t have to do anything.
Michelle was overwhelmed and didn’t even realize it. She needed to step back, figure out what all of her options were, and then make a smart financial decision. And she had to do so from a place of calm rather than emotional reaction.
Keeping calm, for Michelle, should begin with getting help on a few basic questions such as:• Could she afford the financial loss of selling house without repairing it?
• Does she need all the space, as the house is expensive to maintain?• Would the proceeds from the sale make a big difference for her retirement?
• Would the apartment serve her family needs?
Once Michelle realized she needed help, we met with her to work through her options. As a result, Michelle made the easy decision of selling after repairing the house.
However, she still needed a system and a budget for repairing the house. And she needed a flood specialist to help with a plan, as repairing to sell is different from repairing to live in a home. Finally, she needed a plan to sell the house. All of this would take a year.
The big and necessary decision of repairing the house for sale was made, and experts were taking care of the related construction. But there were still details to take care of, and Michelle’s agreed to do one thing each day. Maybe it was a phone call, but just one specific thing.
In addition, Michelle needed to develop a stress reduction program. She began by taking a yoga class and meditating. She met new people and eventually a group of them started a morning walking group, which was as powerful for her healing as the yoga.
Michelle went from being about to make a decision from a state of panic and overwhelm, to having a reasonable plan mapped out for her. Add that to a program for stress management, and the result is calm.Carrying very little, for Michelle, involved not getting distracted by unnecessary things. For instance, Michelle didn’t need to be writing out checks to pay bills. We helped her set up automatic bill pay, which removed a series of actions she didn’t need to take. We also arranged a meeting with her and the contractor who would manage the repair project created by the flood specialist. They explained the budget and answered all of her questions.
Keeping calm and carrying very little is about not making regrettable or unnecessary decisions. Michelle was about to make a regrettable decision, and getting the help she needed to work through her options helped prevent that in addition to removing unnecessary decisions and actions.
Healing from grief and from the trauma of a disaster takes time, maybe years. But it is possible to set up systems and to seek guidance that allows you to feel a sense of hope and forward movement while the healing continues.