Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions

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On August 5, 2016
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Picture this scenario, which gets repeated all too frequently: 

A young man goes to college. Two months later he is rushed to the hospital and into the operating room for an emergency appendectomy. His mother calls the hospital in a panic and asks to know what is happening with her son. The hospital says, “I’m sorry; I cannot give you that information.” She says “But I’m his mother!” The response: “That doesn’t matter. For all of our adult patients, we can only give information to those authorized to receive it, and you are not authorized.” 

You’ve educated your clients on the need for a Power of Attorney for Healthcare (aka healthcare proxy) for themselves, listing who can make their medical treatment decisions if they are unconscious or incapable of making those decisions. Clients may also be aware that HIPAA forms, which they regularly fill out at the doctor’s office when they have appointments, detail who can have access to their medical records.

What most clients don’t realize is that their kids need to have these documents in place as soon as they turn 18. Then they are legal adults, and no one gets access to their medical records or treatment information without express permission. 

To avoid nightmare scenarios, take the following steps: 

  1. Ensure all of your clients complete the Power of Attorney for Healthcare, listing a trusted person and at least one alternate in case the designee cannot serve. Also remind them that when they update their HIPAA forms with their doctors, they need to include those same trusted people and perhaps other family members as well. 
  2.  Keep track of clients’ children as they age. Offer to start educating the children about financial matters as soon as they are old enough, so that over time they learn about building a budget, the value of compound interest, the cost of long-term debt like a mortgage or lengthy car payment plan, the benefits of regular savings, and the realities of paying for college. Then, as soon as they turn 18, make sure the now-adult children have a Power of Attorney for Healthcare, hopefully naming the parents as their healthcare proxies, and that they fill out the HIPAA forms at their doctor’s office.
  3. When an adult child goes to college, recommend that parents ensure the child fills out a HIPAA form at the Student Health Service and at the hospital in the town, listing the parents and perhaps other trusted family members as people who can have access to medical records.

If the aforementioned young man had these documents in place, his panicked mother would have been given full access to his medical records and the details of his situation. She would also have had the right to make treatment decisions on his behalf while he was unconscious and unable to make them himself. 

Especially given the state of our healthcare system, your clients and their family members need to take control of assuring who has access to medical information and the right to make treatment decisions. Addressing these areas with your clients helps you protect them and also extends your reach into the next generation. Any client who encounters such a situation will be forever grateful for your wise and prescient guidance. 

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On July 14, 2016
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753 Views

A salesperson called me a few days ago. He was so convinced of the value of his product that after our initial pleasantries, he praised its attributes for several minutes. I asked one question and he talked on for several more minutes. His mistake was that he didn’t stop talking long enough to find out why I might need his product or how it could best serve me. He lost the deal because he knew how to talk about what he was selling but he didn’t know how to listen to me.

How does this relate to serving clients experiencing loss or transition? Like the worst salespeople, the least supportive advisors are those that don’t know how to ask good questions and listen. There is often a chorus of objections at this point. Usually they sound like these: 

  • I am a financial professional, not a psychologist. I’m not going to ask my clients about their grief.
  • I don’t want to make my clients cry in my office. That’s bad for business. 
  • I don’t want to get in over my head. I’ll ask questions, but only about investments. 
  • I don’t want to intrude into a client’s personal life, or force myself into areas where I don’t belong. 
  • If clients bring it up, I will be happy to listen. But the last thing I want to do is ask about their difficult experience. 

Sound familiar? Let’s look closer. 

First of all, consider the flip side. What are the consequences of refusing to ask questions? If you carefully avoid the topic and do not bring your client’s grief into the room, there is a big white elephant sitting on the table between you. You both know it’s there but you are trying to ignore it, look over it, slide it to the side, or otherwise pretend it’s not there. It adds a level of tension as you participate in the game of mutual deception.

This feels very familiar to grieving clients, because they encounter it everywhere. Most people, from family to casual acquaintances, don’t know what to say so they say nothing at all. They talk about anything and everything except the person who died. They try to cheer grievers up, hoping to make them feel better. The bereaved people, not wanting to make others uncomfortable, go along with it, but it feels inauthentic and they walk away alone, isolated, and unsupported. Is that how you want your clients to leave your office?

The minute you acknowledge the truth, the big white elephant disappears. For instance, you can ask something simple such as: “What do you wish people knew about what it’s like for you now, a month after Paul died?” or “What has surprised you about the experience of going through Paul’s death?” When you ask an invitational, open-ended question like these, the big white elephant disappears and the tension evaporates. They know you care enough to ask, whether or not they choose to accept your invitation and talk about it. They know you aren’t avoiding the topic or hiding behind your spreadsheets.

Additionally, if they do choose to tell the story and you listen with care, you offer them support they aren’t getting from others. You genuinely help and comfort them, and at the same time you distinguish yourself in the field. You build a level of trust and loyalty you can’t get anywhere else. It’s good for your clients, and it just happens to also be good for business. 

The bottom line: You have a lot to lose if you don’t ask; you have nothing to lose if you do. 

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On June 10, 2016
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Grief hurts—psychologically, emotionally, and physically. A duo of psychiatrists (Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe) created the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) after research with over 5000 patients. They found a high correlation (0.118) between stressful life events and physical illness, and their results were validated in subsequent studies. On this scale, the two most stress-inducing events are death of a spouse and divorce. This comes as no surprise, since these two events change every moment of one’s life.

What is surprising, though, is that three of the top ten are positive transitions, including marriage, retirement, and marital reconciliation. Likewise, the top twenty includes positive events like pregnancy, gaining a new family member, a change in financial state (for worse or for better), and changing to a different line of work (whether unwanted or, more often, a positive choice). Outstanding personal achievement ranks as 25th in stress-inducing events. We think of these as happy occurrences, worthy of parties and celebrations. Yet each one carries a high level of stress and grief as people move from one state of life to another. 

In other words, your clients grieve when they go through positive transitions as well as negative. Can you be the wise advisor who recognizes their mixed emotions? Distinguish yourself by asking good open-ended questions so clients know you understand in ways that others don’t.

A few examples:

  • “It’s wonderful to finally reach retirement, but you have to leave a lot behind as well. What do you really miss about your old life?”
  • “I know you’ve been looking forward to having a family for a long time. Parenting is not easy, though. Taking a guess, I imagine you miss things like a good night’s sleep or the ability to go out without carrying a minor U-Haul. Is that right, or what else have you found challenging about having a baby?”
  • “It sounds like people are reacting to the news of your divorce in ways that run the gamut from wanting to throw you a party to crying in disbelief. What do you wish people knew about what you are experiencing?”
  • “The new job is so exciting, but it has to be a real challenge, too. In what ways is your life different now, both positive and negative?” 
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On May 25, 2016
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Picture a scenario in which your client’s father dies after a lengthy illness. Countless people come through the services and say to the family, “At least he’s no longer suffering.” They intend to be comforting, to help the family feel better and focus on the positive. But that’s not what happens. Instead, what survivors hear behind those words is “It’s not right for you to be sad over his death. You should be relieved and happy that he’s out of pain, and instead you’re focusing on yourself. How can you be so selfish?”

The reality is that survivors are indeed glad he’s no longer suffering. They are also relieved that they don’t have to suffer any more watching him die inch by inch. At the very same time, though, they miss him. They long for his presence, his smile, his hug. At times they focus on the relief, and at times they are overwhelmed by the void. Death is a “both-and” event, both happy AND sad, both relieved AND lost. 

It is much better to acknowledge both sides of the equation. Instead of saying “At least he’s no longer suffering,” say “We’re all relieved that he’s no longer suffering. No one would want him to suffer. And yet, we’re really going to miss him.” Ideally, follow that up with an anecdote that illustrates the loss, i.e. “I’m especially going to miss his big bear hugs. No one could hug like that!” 

If you can't offer an anecdote yourself (many advisors have not met the father of their clients), then after you remark that no one would want him to suffer, ask the client for a memory: “And yet, your family is really going to miss him. In fact, tell me something you will miss, or some story you hope people will remember about him.” Using techniques like this to authentically recognize the intensely mixed emotions of grief demonstrates profound understanding and offers genuine comfort. Your clients will not forget it….nor will they forget you.

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On April 10, 2016
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You may have seen the news: We have another drug that is showing some promise in slowing Alzheimer’s disease. This is how it works: 


Beta amyloid plaques, or build-up of “sticky” proteins on the neurons, is one characteristic of the disease. Not all people who have beta amyloid plaques have Alzheimer’s, but every person with Alzheimer’s has beta amyloid plaques. With the aid of improved brain scan techniques that more accurately detect them plaques, one focus of research is to prevent, slow, or dissolve the proteins. 

Many antibodies have been in clinical trials for some time. Crenezumab, for instance, is showing some promise in early-onset Alzheimer’s. But recently another antibody called Solanezumab became the first one proven to show definitive results in slowing beta amyloid plaque build-up on neurons, at least temporarily.  


We are still a long way from a cure. There is no drug or treatment, including Solanezumab, which is capable of preventing or curing Alzheimer’s. All we can do is slow the progression of symptoms for anywhere from a few months to a few years. There is no “fix”. Sooner or later the disease takes over again. Yet every step helps. 

What can you do? 

  1. Note that research into Alzheimer’s is dramatically underfunded compared to other diseases that affect large portions of the population. So consider making a donation to the Alzheimer’s Association in memory of any clients who are diagnosed with or die from this cruel disease. 

  2. Include informational tips in your newsletters so you are giving your clients something besides just financial news. You can get information from these newsletters, from the Alzheimer’s Association itself or your local chapter, or from the government (see http://tinyurl.com/h4wmac4  or http://tinyurl.com/pj7gbbg ).

  3. Ensure that your clients and their aging parents have valid and updated advance directives listing the treatment they want or don’t want if they are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

  4. Create a branded page of resources so you are prepared when a client is concerned about a family member. Include the names of the memory care facilities in the area and make sure you meet the directors so you can make a personal introduction with clients. Ask those directors for the names of geriatric care specialists and doctors who specialize in memory care, so you can have them on your list. Discover where there is adult day care and/or respite care available for those who hope to keep their loved ones at home. Research the availability of meal delivery services, bill payment services, in-home spa services (haircut, massage, manicure/pedicure, etc.), and any other services you find that may help patients or their in-home caregivers.

  5. Consider partnering with the Alzheimer’s Association and/or Corgenius to host a client education seminar on what to watch for, how to prepare ahead of time, and what resources are available if there is a diagnosis. 


    Remember, one in nine people aged 65 and over have Alzheimer’s disease and someone is diagnosed in the U. S. every 67 seconds. Inevitably, at least some and possibly most of your clients will be affected sooner or later. Prepare them now, and let them know you care about their lives and health, not just their money. 
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On March 28, 2016
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The population is aging and the ranks of widows, currently consisting of 11.3 million women, will continue to swell. This devastating transition prompts a high percentage to switch financial advisors or seek one out for the first time. They are aware that hundreds of thousands of advisors can invest their money, but they want more. They look for a competent professional who understands their grief and the challenges of their lives, and that is where they will place their business.

For future success, it is therefore crucial that financial professionals educate themselves so they understand the grief process and are equipped to communicate with and support widows. Use these five easy starting points to improve your service to widowed women:

  1. Ask good questions and really listen to her answers. Too many people tell a grieving widow they know how she feels, or they offer advice on how she should feel. Distinguish yourself by being willing to invite her story so you find out how she actually does feel. Ask non-invasive questions like “What do you wish people knew about what you’re going through?” or “What things have people said that were helpful, and what have they said that was unintentionally hurtful to you?” Listen well, and ask further questions based on what she tells you.

  2. Every time you talk to the widow, whether on the phone or in person, give her the next time you will call to check in. Grieving people are often anxious about becoming a burden to others. Calling anyone to ask for assistance takes courage and the willingness to risk rejection, both of which are in short supply. It is incredibly reassuring to know that you will call her instead. When you call, begin by asking what kind of a day it is for her and listen to her experience before going on to ask what questions she has for you.

  3. Act in straightforward ways that build her competence. Widowed women are afraid others will take advantage of them. Take great care not to speak in a condescending tone or to convey the impression she is incapable, deficient, or less than a full partner in the process. Assess her level of knowledge and educate her to the depth she desires. Keep her updated with easy-to-understand bullet points and summaries of your activities together, including the basic rationale behind them.

  4. Consider providing non-financial resource lists. Use input from clients, friends, and associates to build a non-financial resource-and-referral list. Then if she needs a professional service (anything from car maintenance to a plumber), she doesn’t have to pick someone out of the yellow pages. Remind her that your list is based on input from many people and you are continually refining it, so you look forward to getting her feedback afterwards. When you follow up, thank her for helping you make it easier for others in her situation who need services in the future.

  5. Be patient with her.
    Grief is a lengthy and somewhat unpredictable process, especially after such a major loss. Expect ups and downs, with frequent sad periods for months. Many widows describe the second year as even harder than the first, since the reality has fully sunk in and they’ve let go of so much, but they have not yet developed new goals or a meaningful purpose in life. Be among the few people who are willing to listen and support her over the long haul.

These are just a few of the concepts to put into practice so you can serve the ever-growing numbers of widowed women who will cross your path.

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On February 9, 2016
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The dinner reservation at his favorite restaurant goes unmade. The bouquet of her favorite flowers goes unordered. The "airbrushed feelings" card goes unpurchased and words of love go unwritten. For many of your clients, this Valentine's Day will be different from all the much-anticipated ones that preceded it because their loved one is no longer present in their life. Indeed, for widowed spouses, the day can feel cold and bleak. Hearing the ads and watching couples make goo-goo eyes at each other just increases the pain and isolation they feel. 
 
The worst thing you can do is ignore your clients, as so many other people will do. Even small things make a difference. For instance, send a card that says something like: “No gift could make up for Jim’s absence. Still, I hope you can enjoy a few chocolates from someone who cares. We are thinking of you today.”  Or “A single rose in memory of Karen. Her love for you and for so many people lives on in our hearts forever.”
 
If you really want to make a long-term impression, consider organizing a 90-minute breakfast or brunch and do it up right. Invite your widowed clients regardless of how long it's been, and tell them you welcome their friends as well. Have a nice meal, an attractive centerpiece, and attentive staff, so they feel pampered. Print a list of questions for discussion and place it at each table to break the ice and get them sharing with each other. Examples: Tell how you and your spouse met each other. Tell one thing that drove you crazy about your spouse. Tell one well-meaning thing someone said to you after your spouse died that was unintentionally hurtful to you. 
 
When all are seated, welcome the group, saying you know Valentine’s Day can be difficult for widowed people and you wanted to provide a moment of respite from the pain the day is sure to bring. Point out the conversation starters, and invite them to share with others at their table before the meal is served. Allow 15 - 20 minutes for conversation, and then serve the food. You'll find they continue talking through the meal.  
 
To conclude the event, thank everyone for coming and tell them you plan to make this an annual occasion so they can anticipate it and return the next year. Perhaps have a drawing for the centerpieces at each table. As your guests leave, give them a small token such as a real or chocolate flower. Tell them you will call in a week or two to see what they liked best and if they have any suggestions for how you could improve the event next year. Then, of course, do call and take their feedback seriously.
 
These suggestions bracket a range of possibilities. The important thing is to be there for your clients in ways that most other people aren’t. When you demonstrate that you understand their grief and you care about more than just the money, you gain a client for life. And when their friends and associates are widowed, what will they tell them about their uncommonly wise and compassionate advisor?
 
Do you want to learn more about supporting clients through aging, divorce, death, empty nest, retirement, dementia, and all the transitions of their lives? Join us for our 2-day class in May. See the side bar for information. Learn to serve your clients in ways that others don't, and build lasting loyalty and trust.

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On January 21, 2016
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It happens all too often these days. You pick up the phone and there is an angry client on the other end. The market has dropped yet again. More money disappeared. Emotions are at the boiling point. How do you handle it? 

Most advisers try to calm clients by “talking them down,” logically explaining the reasons why they should not be angry, or at least not angry at them. In some cases, this seems to work. Yet once clients hang up the phone, they are just as likely to mutter, “Yeah, that's what they all say.” 

You can more effectively address these strong emotions when you realize that your clients are angry because they are grieving. They feel they are losing something very important to them. Their attachment to their money is deep and complex because of what that money represents. For example, money can represent security, success, self-worth and identity. When money gets taken from them against their will, they are thrown into grief over their many and varied losses, and anger is a normal response to that grief. In addition, people often use anger as a cover emotion for a host of other feelings like fear, and they naturally search for someone to yell at or to blame. 

The trick is to allow clients to yell and vent their emotions to you without becoming the person they blame for the loss. In simplified terms, you need to recognize, name and allow their emotions, taking everything they have to dish out. Then, when their anger is spent, you can more calmly talk with them about how you will handle things together. So how do you do that? 

First, take a deep breath. Keep your voice measured and even. One useful tool is to make yourself smile. When you smile, your voice is automatically more calming, and it is easier to keep your own emotions in check. 
Then, to validate your clients and encourage them to talk it out, you can say things like: 

  1. “I can see that you feel very angry about this, and I can see why. Tell me more.” 
  2. “Yes, it is scary not knowing when the slide will stop. What are you most worried about?” 
  3. “You're absolutely right. We're all vulnerable and at the mercy of the markets right now. Everyone I talk with is upset and anxious. Have you found anyone who isn't?” 
Notice how each of these phrases authenticates emotions your client is feeling, and then invites them further into a conversation of partnership rather than conflict. It lets them know you are on their side and you understand. If clients start to blame you anyway, always try to climb back into their boat. Use the word “we” frequently. Keep them focused on the future, rather than the past. Request their input. 

For example: 

  1. “Yes, it is a helpless feeling to see the markets at least temporarily take away some of the fruits of our work together.” 
  2. “We always positioned you in the best way possible to withstand volatility like this. In fact, if we had it to do over again, knowing only what we knew at the time, I think we would have done the same things. What do you think?” 

Continue this pattern, always asking questions based on what the client is saying. You will notice the pitch of the voice lowering, longer pauses and slowed breathing as the anger gets spent and the client calms. Only then can you begin talking about what you can do together as you go forward. Ask what steps the client would like to take. Make appropriate suggestions for portfolio review, redistribution of assets, or simply keeping in contact every week or two. 


At the end of the conversation, make sure you thank clients for being honest with you. Tell them your door is always open, and you will listen even when it is hard. Reassure them that although times are really tough right now, you can weather the storm together and come out on the other side. 

If you can master these skills, your clients will come out of even angry conversations feeling heard, supported, and most of all, loyal to you. 

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On January 15, 2016
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It is inevitable. As a professional with long-term clients, soon or later you will be face-to-face with a client in grief or transition. What do you do? What do you say? 

If you find yourself at a loss for words, you are not alone. There has never been a financial advisor’s guide that explains what to say (or what not to say) and how to handle these potentially challenging and professionally awkward situations. When I became a 25-year-old widow with a 7-month-old baby boy, believe me, no one knew the right thing to do or say around me, including the financial professionals I needed to rely on.  And I’ve heard the same stories countless times since then, from more than 2000 grieving people. Instead, what most professionals do is either ignore the painful reality and stick to business, or pick up what other people say and inadvertently perpetuate the mistakes. 

You can do better than that. You can learn to do the right things and offer genuine comfort and support, no matter what your clients go through. 

One example: 
It is never a good idea to say “I know how you feel” or “I understand just what you’re going through” because you don’t. You are always wrong, and you will alienate your client immediately. What professionals often say instead is “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” That is better, and in the past, I have endorsed that phrase.

However, as I continue to get feedback from research and in my support groups, I find that many grieving people don’t appreciate it. They especially resent it when, as sometimes happens, the words are dripping with drama – “I can’t IMAGINE what this is like for you!” Yet even if you take care not to go over the top when you say it, you risk isolating people. They hear your implication that they are so crazy or outside the realm of normalcy that no one else can even imagine what it’s like. And since no one can imagine it, no one can be there and help. It builds a moat around your grieving client that can’t be crossed.  

Besides, it ultimately is not true. We have very active emotional imaginations. Most of us can indeed imagine something of the pain and loss, the empty chair, the unanswered phone. In fact, imagining it is one key to building empathy, which is core to who we are as human beings and serves a crucial function in binding us together in mutually helpful ways. 

So if you aren’t supposed to say “I know how you feel” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”, what do you say instead? Consider asking one of the following questions, modified for the situation if necessary:

  • “I’m trying to imagine what you’re going through – would you like to tell me?” 
  • "I think if my child died, my body would actually hurt and I’d wonder whether I could trust the view I’ve always had of life. Is it anything like that, or what is your experience?”
  • “You probably have people telling you that they can’t imagine what you’re going through. If you could enter their imaginations and tell them, what would you want them to know?” 

Never assume you know what someone else is experiencing. Instead, ask open-ended questions and allow a grieving client to tell you, and then let your imagination take you as close as possible. That allows you to respond more effectively and serve your clients in ways others don’t know how to do.

When you know how to walk your clients through the toughest times of life, you build trust, loyalty, and referrals.

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On September 12, 2015
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1510 Views

Imagine a usual day. You grab a coffee and settle in at your desk. You conduct two productive client meetings and go for lunch before the afternoon’s tasks. There’s nothing unusual; it’s just a typical day. Then you answer the phone, you hear the hospital chaplain’s voice …..and nothing is ever the same again. 

Now imagine it’s the 5th anniversary. That fateful day is seared into your consciousness and it will never be just typical. Though others may expect you to be “over it” by now, you will never forget what happened or the person you so loved. 

Perhaps we can learn something from our public memorials of tragic days. Everyone older than 50 remembers exactly where they were when JFK was assassinated, and can still hear Walter Kronkite’s somber voice. It has been 25 years since the Shuttle Challenger exploded, but we remember the name McAuliffe as we mark the day. Ten years after 9-11’s smoke, sirens, and crashing buildings, we pause on the anniversary to show videos, tell stories of heroes, wipe away a tear, and proclaim that we will never forget. Whenever we experience a major loss as a nation, we remember, celebrate, and honor that loss for years to come. 

As these examples illustrate, when you are supporting grieving clients and friends, acknowledge that the goal of grief is not to forget or “put this behind us and get on with life”. Instead, we move on precisely because we remember, because we create an enduring memory to carry with us into a future that is different than anything we could have imagined before. We tell the stories and share appreciation for the privilege of having these people in our lives. We try to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening to someone else. We change in more ways than we thought possible. We live with grief and healing, allowing both to co-exist in the everlasting interplay between loss and gratitude, sorrow and joy. 

In your practice, never assume your clients are “finished” with their grief at a particular point in time. Honor their need to remember and let them know you understand.

Two simple steps you can take: 

  1. Don’t be afraid to say the name of the one who died. Your clients never want to forget, and they hope others don’t either. Too often, people talk about anything and everything except the person who died, avoiding the issue for fear they will open old wounds or “make” the survivor cry. In reality, saying the name assures survivors that someone else remembers and cares, and it opens the door for them to talk about their loved one if they choose. If tears arise, they were there anyway; you simply give permission for the tears to be accepted. Three examples that you can say in person or write in a card: - “It must be difficult to have these meetings without Jim; after all, it’s only been four months. Yet I think we’ve made good progress as we work together to honor his legacy and protect your future.” - “By now you’ve encountered well-meaning people who are afraid to mention Kathy’s name. Though not everyone will be open to it, I hope you still find opportunities to speak her name and tell her story.” - “When I read the newspaper story about the charity golf event, I remembered how Alan used to recruit everyone he knew to play in it. He made such a contribution to the cause.” (Substitute any story or memory that is appropriate and honest.)

  2. Gently acknowledge the anniversaries of a loved one’s death for several years afterwards. Do the same for birthdays and other special events. Call, send a card or note, and perhaps include a “comfort gift”. Examples: Call or leave a voice message that says, “Today is sure to bring a mix of emotions as you mark Helen’s birthday. I just wanted you to know I’m thinking of you.” Send a single flower with a note that says, “Those we love are forever remembered. I’m thinking of you on this 4th anniversary of Anne’s death.” Send a gift certificate with a card that says, “November 18 will never be just another day on your calendar again. Although I cannot take away your loss, perhaps you can at least enjoy a cup of your favorite coffee with this gift card.” When you acknowledge their loss, even years later, they know why they chose you as their financial professional – because you understand their experience in a way few others do.
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