Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
At the opening session, I sat with over 300 other widowed people. The diversity amazed me – all ages, cultures, sexual orientations, and length of marriage (including several who were engaged or unmarried but committed to being together for life). I saw significant numbers in their 20’s, along with the grey-crested faces of older age. Some had young children, many had older kids or adult children, while others had no children at all. For some, the death was sudden, unexpected, and tragic; for others, it had been a long struggle with cancer or illness that finally took their spouse. A few were widowed only weeks before they came; for others it had been months or years.
Throughout the weekend, tissue boxes were everywhere and, for some, tears sometimes flowed like rain, as one expects and welcomes without reservation. But there were also lots of hugs, and it was anything but a sorrowful cry-fest. In fact, I’ve never been around so many widowed people and had so much fun! People were eager to share their stories and honor the love they had, but their main purpose was to gain wisdom and support as they grappled with the challenges of building lives that would be very different from what they had planned. It was comfortable and comforting, and people walked away with new friends plus a good dose of hope.
All of this is made possible by a non-profit organization titled Soaring Spirits International. Founded by a determined young widow, Michele Neff-Hernandez, the group now offers three Camp Widow® events a year (Tampa, San Diego, and Toronto), online support, a packet for newly widowed people, and a host of other resources. I am so impressed with this organization that I am now a member of the Advisory Board.
In my professional and personal spheres, I work to shine a light into the darkness of grief, to educate those who want to support the people they care about when they are grieving, and to help people heal. That is also the mission of Soaring Spirits. If you have widowed clients – men or women, young or old – feel confident in referring them to www.soaringspirits.org for resources and help. Perhaps I’ll even see them at an upcoming Camp Widow ® weekend!
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.
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:
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.
Have you ever seriously worried about having to live on the streets? Interestingly, that is one of the most common fears of a widow, even if she has more money than she’s ever had due to insurance proceeds. She is afraid it will somehow disappear and she will become a bag lady. In some cases, her situation is precarious enough that the fear is justified and you have to work carefully to preserve whatever funds she has. In many cases, though, the fear is irrational
Allow me a parallel example. My son Steven threw fits at bedtime, because he was convinced the ghosts in the closet would come out at night and “get” him. I used all the logic at my disposal. We turned on the lights and examined every square inch of the closet without finding any ghosts. I sat with him for hours in the dark waiting in vain for ghosts to appear. I garnered the testimony of his older brothers. Nothing worked.
Finally, instead of trying to talk him out of his belief, I acknowledged it as if it were true. “OK, Steven, since there are ghosts in the closet who could come out at night and get you, what would help you feel safe?” We brainstormed ideas until he decided he needed two things: a night light by his bed, and an adult to firmly close the closet door and tell the ghosts they had to stay put until morning. When I implemented his simple solutions he peacefully drifted off to sleep.
With a widow or with any other client with irrational fears, then, do not try to talk her out of being afraid, no matter how compelling the evidence of her safety. She will not feel heard or understood by you unless you acknowledge her fears and find ways to help her feel safe.
This strategy may help:
When you follow this simple procedure, you provide something for a fearful client that few others ever do. You hear her, take her fears seriously, and develop effective strategies for coping with them. That is a sure way to build long-term trust and lifetime loyalty.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.