Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
The president and CEO of a prominent asset management firm recently proposed that although sex was a taboo subject for a long time, the last remaining taboo in our society is money. I’d like to take issue with that assertion.
It does seem that sex is no longer taboo, at least in the public arena. Sex is used to sell everything from clothes to vacations, sex education is required in schools, and sex is the subject of more web sites than any other topic. There are a number of gurus dispensing advice on sexual matters, and in recent years companies selling remedies for sexual dysfunction have recruited prominent politicians and entertainers as spokespeople. Indeed, sex is no longer taboo.
Yet money seems to be in a similar category. It is the subject of endless conversations, speculation, and media coverage. Well-known pundits spout opinions and give advice on all things financial. Morning news shows regularly interview investment experts. Magazines, newspapers, and online columns wax eloquently about economics, savings rates, the best stock picks, and IRA’s. Political candidates consider money – who has it, who spends it, and where it is spent – to be a central issue. Money hardly seems a taboo subject.
What, then, IS the final taboo? What issue has no talk show pundits or advice columnists offering tips? What is generally pushed out of our collective consciousness, suppressed, denied, and avoided?
Check your own response when you read the word "death". If you are like most people, you recoil at the very thought of it. There are no key spokespersons giving information and advice about the process and how to deal with it. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was long recognized as an expert, but her book On Death and Dying was published in 1969 and Elisabeth herself died several years ago. She temporarily opened the topic, but most of us simply avoid talking about death or facing its inevitability.
The interesting thing is that death used to be familiar. In generations past, grandparents lived with or near their kids and grandkids. When elders got sick, the family cared for them at home. When they died, family members lovingly washed and clothed the body, and the wake occurred in the living room. Children were exposed to death as a natural and normal part of life as the entire clan gathered to remember the one who died.
In recent generations, families began to scatter and both spouses started working. With no fulltime caregivers at home, sick and dying people were moved into hospitals and nursing homes. Medical technology prolonged life, often seemingly conquering death. Once death did occur, care of the body was shifted to funeral home personnel who quietly performed their duties out of sight.
As a result of these changes, public perception shifted. Death was no longer considered a normal, natural, and expected part of life. It became the unexpected and unnatural interruption to normal life. In modern society, we seem to believe that death is not inevitable, that it won’t happen to us or to anyone we love (at least not until we’re 99 years old and ready to die anyway). We actively avoid talking or even thinking about it. When death happens, we are shocked and look for someone to sue.
The last taboo, then, is not sex or money. It is death. This means most people you encounter, both professionals and clients alike, are unconsciously ignorant about what to say, what to do, and how to support someone who is facing death or grieving the death of a loved one. The flip side of the equation is that if you do know what to say, what to do, and how to support grieving people, you immediately distinguish yourself in the field. You serve your clients more compassionately, genuinely, and effectively, and build a reputation for understanding a client’s experience in a way that few other professionals do.
It is very good for your clients, and consequently it is very good indeed for your business.
Let me be clear at the outset: it was Terrance's prerogative to make his end-of-life decisions as he saw fit. It was his prerogative to include his wife Amanda in those decisions apparently as co-equal partner during the long final chapter of his life. With that firmly in mind, let's consider what she has to say about that journey.
In this Ted Talk film (“We need a heroic narrative of death”, October 15, 2013), Amanda Bennett is a fine story teller, occasionally poetic in her own voice and concluding with a quote from and for the ages. There are nuggets of utility in here and her final thesis -- there is a way to have a courageous and graceful goodbye -- is imperative to absorb. Her narrative has an almost connect-a-quote corniness about it despite its obviously heartfelt and sincerely sorrowful nature. However, because most of us know that a long and gradual decline is how we will die, Ms. Bennett's notion of "hope” is flawed, despite some utility.
She says "hope is part of our DNA as humans" but inaccurately and unhelpfully conflates acceptance of her husband’s approaching death with "you're prohibiting me from hoping." Her statement, "it's not a bug, it's a feature," is an intellectual sleight of hand that serves no one because she and her husband were, in fact, in profound denial that Terrance would soon die until the final six days of his life.
Again she says, "[I hoped], you might say irrationally, that I could keep him alive forever." I do say "irrationally" because hoping for what one can reasonably know is impossible is denial. That circle can't be squared. Although Bennett insists she was “redefining hope", in reality she kept extending a singular definition of hope (in this case a cure) until it was long-past possible. There is nothing in her narrative to suggest she was "redefining" hope.
She continues by asserting that "what the experts call denial I call hope." False. Once again intellectual and emotional sleight of hand. "Redefining hope" actually means that hope exists until we take our last breath or until our loved one takes her last breath. But, and this is the necessary and essential notion, hope changes. Initially we hope for a cure. Then, when we know that a cure is impossible, we hope to live until our daughter's wedding or our trip to Norway is complete or we finish painting the boat, or . Then, when that hope is fulfilled, or becomes impossible to realize, our hopes change again, until the final hope is to die in the presence of our most treasured loved ones in peace and in as little pain as possible.
That is what redefining hope looks like.
Here is one more example of the sleight of hand she practiced on herself: She claims "our system isn't built to accommodate it [hope and a graceful goodbye]." Actually, there were systemic accommodations available for Terrance and Amanda and they proactively chose to reject the most obvious one, the services of hospice. That's a textbook, Brittanica-grade example of denial.
Amanda and Terrance's correct response to his oncologist's assertion that "better days are ahead" was "I'll discuss that with my rabbi or priest or spiritual leader. As for you, medical profession, tell me the truth, please. Do so with warmth, compassion, humility, and sorrow for me and what you cannot achieve, but just do it."
Indicting an entire group of people is seldom efficacious and never fair but for expediency I do so here: The medical profession is flagrantly wrong to use phrases like "there's nothing more we can do for you” (the dying person) because there is always more we can do for a dying person. It may be true that there is nothing we can medically do but there is always something we can do to achieve Ms. Bennett's goal for each of us "… bid her farewell the Alexandria you are losing."
New FINRA regulations that passed in 2017 will take effect on February 5. One major provision requires every broker-dealer to make a good-faith attempt to keep on file an alternate contact form for every client. This will function somewhat like the medical HIPAA forms, giving permission for a specific person who can be called if the client can’t be reached or there is an emergency. I’m delighted to see this development, as I’ve been calling for this protocol for many years as a way to protect both your clients and your firm.
I believe, however, that the FINRA rule is only a start. As you may recall, I developed a Corgenius Diminishing Capacity LetterTM. It goes beyond the minimum required for compliance with the FINRA rule, since it allows clients to name more than one person plus the powers of attorney and it gives broader permissions for contacting those in the client’s trusted circle when there is a potential problem.
My simple template is as follows:
“I, [client name], give [advisor names] of [company name and location] permission to call my Durable Powers of Attorney and the following people if they suspect any diminishment in my physical, cognitive, mental, or psychological capacity.”
The form then has space to list at least three people, with their names, addresses, relationship to the client, and contact information. Your clients sign and date it, and you keep it in their files. Every year, you revisit the form to see whether names or items of contact information need updating.
With this form, you have greater leeway, as an emergency or inability to reach the client is not the triggering factor. If you have noticed worrisome signs and suspect a problem in any of these areas, you have explicit permission to call others, including those the client designated as having decision-making power over financial and healthcare matters.
In that call, of course, remember not to make a diagnosis, i.e. “I think your mom might have dementia” or “Your dad appears to be in a serious depression.” Instead, list what you see. “I’m calling to let you know I observed some disturbing signs in my appointments with your mom. She asked the same question three times in 25 minutes, even though I’d answered it each time. She has been unable to follow multi-step directions and forgets decisions we made at the last appointment. There may be an underlying medical cause, and I want you to be aware of it so you or other family members can watch for similar things and take appropriate steps. In the meantime, I am contacting my compliance department to make sure we are protecting your mom’s financial well-being in case there is an issue with her capacity.”
Be sure to document your observations and the phone call itself as evidence that you are doing everything you can to protect your client. This may also help you connect to other family members, who see you as a comprehensive advisor who cares about more than just your clients’ money. Be a wise guide for your clients, even in cases of diminished capacity.
Perhaps you have noticed that those who most effectively teach skills and protocols to others are sometimes the most remiss in their own recommendations. For example, I know a doctor who ignored her own early warning signs of cancer, and an insurance agent who left his wife with nothing because he let his life insurance policies lapse. While it’s easy to roll your eyes, consider yourself as a financial professional and whether you have your own house in order.
Mid-winter can be a difficult time no matter your life circumstances. The weather is colder, days are darker, and it can seem like life retreats for a while. This is especially true when you enter a new year without a beloved person who died. How do you cope?
Here are ten tips for finding comfort in 2017.
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:
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.