Psychologists describe 5 stages of grief based on the Kubler-Ross model introduced by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, ‘On Death and Dying’. Although originally ascribed to the emotional stages experienced due to death of a loved one, the model can also be useful to understand the responses to any subjective trauma that a person may go through, for example a relationship breakup, a job loss, or a ‘OMG! I am a US taxpayer’ moment.
The key here is ‘subjective trauma’. Many ‘US persons’ know what it is like to have people roll their eyes, yawn, or wonder why we are so worked up, just because we discover we are subject to FATCA (what’s the big deal? You ARE an American!), or because we discover we are US taxpayers (if you don’t like it why don’t you renounce?). Typically, we do not get the sympathy one would get if we had a serious illness, or lost our job, or divorced our spouse.
Non-US persons for the most part, just do not ‘get’ the ‘US person’ curse, because to be FATCA’d and CBT’d is not within the realm of normal human experiences. We are unique and special in the world that way – thanks to USA’s exceptional treatment of those it deems ‘US persons’. Nevertheless it IS traumatic for those of us who have lived most or all our lives in countries other than the USA, and who have never had a clue we were US taxpayers on our non-US income, to be FATCA’d and CBT’d.
The following are the 5 stages of grief as outlined in the Kubler-Ross model. Keep in mind that these stages are not necessarily linear. One day you may feel like you are angry beyond belief, and the next day you may feel that it just is what it is. Hopefully, at some point, most of your days will fall into the latter category.
The first reaction to hearing one has a terminal illness, or their house burned down, or they are subject to the tax laws of a foreign country, is denial. This just CANNOT be for real. It makes no sense. This has got to be wrong. How could I have lived all these years and NOT known I was a US taxpayer? There must be exceptions for people like me who don’t live in the USA. They surely cannot be referring to ME.
Once the initial shock wears off, anger follows. We want to blame someone or something. We may be angry at the doctor who gives us a bad diagnosis, at the driver who caused the accident, or at ourselves for not doing something to prevent whatever bad thing happened. We are angry at the Canadian government for not standing up for us, at our spouse who thinks we are over reacting, at our neighbour who doesn’t want to listen to our rants, at ourselves for not figuring out years ago that we were US taxpayers, or at the American government for acting like it owns us.
This is the stage where we play games with ourselves, and with others, desperately trying to ‘work it out’ or ‘fix things’, so that we can go back to the way things were before. The person whose romantic relationship is at an end may promise to change their behaviour – anything to not have the relationship end. The dying patient may promise God he/she will be a better person or take better care of himself/herself – anything to not have to die. The newly aware US taxpayer searches for a way to work out their non-compliance: streamlined program? 5 years tax compliance catch-up? – just please don’t penalize me for my ignorance.
Reality is setting in now. There is no easy way out. We are not going to bring our loved one back. Our job is gone forever. The relationship is definitely over. No matter which route we take to solving our ‘US taxpayer status’ we are going to pay – whether that be in taxes, compliance fees, penalties, loss of privacy, loss of US citizenship, or by being forced into hiding. It sucks no matter how you look at it, and this just makes us sad. :(
Psychologists and grief counsellors say you are lucky if you get to this point. Many people get stuck in anger or depression for years or even a lifetime – the widower who becomes a recluse when his wife passes away, the mother who mourns a lifetime for the child she lost, the aspiring athlete who never made it to the big leagues and seems forever lost in his former glory years, the ‘hidden’ US person who cannot shake the mental chains of his unwanted ‘US taxpayer status’ even if he has logistically found a way to deal with it. The luckier people at some point accept the reality of what has happened and find a place to put it so that it does not interfere in their daily lives anymore. The widower finds peacefulness alone, or maybe finds new love. The mom, whose child is gone, remembers the happy times she spent with him/her and stops dwelling on what was lost. The US person, finds a way to deal with his/her own particular situation – stays hidden, or becomes tax compliant, or renounces – and moves on with his/her life.