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What Not to Say, Part 2: When Someone Loses a Home


By Alison Hodgson

A house fire is the pin-up girl of personal tragedy.

Our home was still smoking when the gifts began pouring in from family and friends, our church, neighbors, acquaintances and total strangers.

The day of the fire, a mother from my younger daughter’s school tenaciously tried to contact us. She left a note in our mailbox, called my cell phone, messaged me on Facebook and sent me an email. The Facebook message was brief, opening her home to us, but the email was longer. It opened with this:

“Hi guys.  I don't even know what to say other than we are grateful the fire didn't claim your family. I know you're still processing and mourning right now so let me be your thinking brain beyond, 'What do we do today?' I already have a small group coming over here tomorrow morning to strategize immediate, mid-term, and long-term help/donations.”

“Where have you been all my life?” I wrote back, only half joking.

And this was just one kind lady; my family would continue to be astonished by the extraordinary kindness and generosity of our community. Wherever we went people gleamed concern and handed us gift cards.

A few months after the fire I was talking to a group of kindly acquaintances and I mentioned that I had been thinking about home loss in general. We live in Michigan, where record-high layoffs, foreclosures and short sales were in the news every day. I considered the many people, nationwide, who had lost their homes and felt for them.

“But you lost everything,” one lady said, with a gentle tone of correction, “those people still have all their things.” Everyone else nodded.

Things. Schmings. I wanted to say, but Kenny Rogers has taught me you have to know when to hold em, and this was one of those times.

When I was in high school our family business was embezzled and my parents sold our home to avoid bankruptcy. Although selling the house was right and honorable, we all felt a pervasive and palpable sense of embarrassment and shame.

Talking to others who have lost a home through foreclosure or a forced sale, embarrassment and shame always come up and, regardless of the circumstances, there is deep self-blame. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of support for those going through this.

One reason is that those struggling try to keep it private.


A dear friend lost her family’s “forever” home to foreclosure after her husband’s layoff, despite trying to sell for two years.  They had worked hard and saved to buy the house. They hadn’t overextended, and could easily afford it before the job loss. They had done nothing wrong but the embarrassment was immense:  “The worst part was having so many people offer us Dave Ramsey’s financial planning material. Got it. No job = no income = nothing to set up an awesome budget.”

My friends felt humiliated. Their fear was that it was all their fault and everyone around them seemed to agree.

If people you care about have lost a home, they have experienced a devastating loss. Unless they ask, it’s not the time for advice. If you want to support them, stand down with your books and spreadsheets.

  • Say, “I’m so sorry.”
  • Write an encouraging note.
  • Give gift cards for groceries.
  • Make a meal.
  • Help them move….repeatedly, if necessary.
  • Keep an eye out for jobs or housing. My husband, who works at a large and thriving corporation, became a quasi headhunter for various friends and acquaintances, letting people know about positions and writing recommendations.
  • If they have children, buy little gifts. Your friends are feeling like terrible parents right now, and a gift to their child is a gift to them.

Whenever anything terrible happens, it’s as if the edge of a continent has broken away and those affected are bobbing alone on an island.  It can be so easy to feel adrift in our circumstances. The things we say and do for those in need should be a bridge to keep them connected.

Alison Hodgson is the expert on the etiquette of perilous times. She blogs at The image of a house on fire is used by permission of

Topics: Ethics, Money & Giving
Beliefs: Interfaith
Tags: alison hodgson, etiquette, flunking sainthood, how to help someone who has lost a home, jana riess, what not to say

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