Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
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.
For many in our society, closure means leaving grief behind, a milestone they usually expect within a matter of weeks or months. Closure means being “normal”, getting back to your old self, no longer crying or being affected by the death. It means “moving on with life” and leaving the past behind, even to the extent of forgetting it or ignoring it. Yet for those who have experienced death, this kind of closure is not only impossible but indeed undesirable.
Closure, if one even chooses to use the term, is more of a process than a defined moment. The initial part of closure is accepting the reality. At first, survivors keep hoping or wishing that it weren’t true. They expect their loved one to walk through the door. They wait for someone to tell them it was all a huge mistake. They just can’t accept that this person has died, that they will never physically see their loved one again or hear the voice, feel the hug, or get that valued input on a tough decision. Usually it takes weeks or even months for the reality to finally sink in. In time, they come to know, in both their heads and their hearts, that their loved one has died and is not coming back. They still don’t like it, but they accept it as true.
As your clients accept this reality, they can more actively make forward-looking choices that help them heal. They slowly begin to envision a life different from what they had planned before, a life in which they no longer expect their loved one to be there. They still feel the pain and loss, but except for short periods of time, they are not crippled by it.
For most of your clients, especially if it was a significant person who died, this healing phase is long and slow, and it involves a lot of back-and-forthing. They may alternate between tears and joy, fears and confidence, despair and hope. Sometimes they feel like they are taking three steps forward and two steps back.
It is important to give clients permission for whatever they are experiencing. Everyone else is telling them to put it behind them and get on with life. Set yourself apart by encouraging them to tell the stories and build memories that they will never “put behind them”. Reassure them that healing does not mean forgetting; it means taking the life, love, and lessons into the future with them.
Eventually your clients are able to let go of what can no longer be. Yet at the same time they realize they are taking the past, with all its pain and pleasure, into a new tomorrow. They become different and hopefully better, more compassionate, more appreciative, more tolerant people. They fully embrace life again, connecting, laughing, and loving with a full heart.
Still, there is no point of “final closure.” There is no point at which your clients can say, “Ah, now I have finally completed my grief.” Or “Yes, now I have healed.” There is no point at which they stop missing their loved one or wondering what life would be like if they were still alive. There is no point at which they will never cry again, although as time goes on the tears are bittersweet and less common. Because we never forget, we carry our loved ones with us forever.
“Closure”? No, or at least not in the way people usually use that term. Acceptance – yes. Peace – yes. A future enriched with love, joy, and hope – absolutely. But putting a period behind the final sentence, closing the door and locking it behind you? No, life and love are much too complex for that. This part of your client’s story does not end; instead it awaits the next chapter, which will undoubtedly build on all that came before.
Stand with your clients as they grieve. Let them know they do not have to forget or leave the past behind. Encourage them to create memories out of what can no longer be, and to live their lives as fully as possible enriched by those memories. Offer them the patience and understanding that few other advisors do. You will reap rewards both personally and professionally.
The holidays are over and now you face winter with its longer, darker days. If you have recently lost a loved one, here are some ideas to help you get through and come out on the other side with greater hope and peace.
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 2019.
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.
Imagine a scenario: In the course of a regularly scheduled meeting, you notice that your normally astute and proper client has grown visibly thinner and isn’t dressed to the usual standard. You also observe disturbing memory lapses and mental mistakes, including trouble understanding the concepts you explain.
You express concern, ask the client about it, and encourage him or her to make an appointment for evaluation or medical assistance, but then what? Can you call a family member? How do you avoid violating privacy and confidentiality while still taking action you believe is in your client’s best interest?
There is a simple but highly effective way to resolve this dilemma that goes one step farther than the usual emergency contact forms that are standard issue in business: Ensure that each of your clients signs a Diminishing Capacity LetterTM. A simple template is as follows:
“I, [name], give [your name(s); company name; location] permission to call the following people in case of illness, emergency, or 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 name, address, relationship to the client, and contact information. Your client signs it, preferably in the presence of a notary public, who dates and notarizes the document. Every year, you revisit the form to see whether names or items of contact information need updating.
Once the Diminishing Capacity Letter is in place, you no longer need to worry about violating privacy or confidentiality. The client has explicitly given you permission to call specific people, not just for emergencies or medical illness, but also if you are concerned about their cognitive or mental state.
Making the Call
When you call, remember not to make a diagnosis, i.e. “I think your mom might be heading toward dementia.” While it is typical to think diminished capacity is related to aging or dementia, remember that there are other reasons for cognitive difficulty that have nothing to do with dementia, such as interactions of medications, infections, a vitamin B12 deficiency, emotional trauma or grief, and more. Regardless of the cause, it is always important to first talk to your client and then to follow up with their contacts if the client does not respond promptly and appropriately.
So rather than suggest a cause, simply list what you see. “I am calling to let you know that I have observed some disturbing signs when I am in contact with your mom. She asked the same question three times in 25 minutes, even though I’d answered it each time, and had trouble following a conversation that normally would be no problem. She also had to think for several minutes before she remembered her grandson’s name. I want you to be aware of what I’m seeing in case you or other family members observe similar things, and you may wish to get her to a doctor for evaluation of the cause.”
Be sure to document your observations and the phone call itself as evidence that you are doing everything you can to protect your client in all aspects of life. Be a wise guide for your clients in all the situations they may encounter.
We do a lot of training at Corgenius in choosing appropriate cards and knowing what to write in them, especially when there has been a loss or life-changing transition. Countless times, people have asked me why I don’t just create a line of cards. That’s not something I have time or interest for, but today I offer you the next best thing.
I met Anne Kertz Kernion a couple of years ago and now I buy a majority of my cards from her company, Cards by Anne (www.CardsByAnne.com). These hand-designed cards are thoughtful, beautiful, and high-quality. Most agree with the principles I teach at Corgenius. And they are an incredible bargain at only $1.25 each.
Another benefit - you can now get a condolence card with one of my quotes on the cover. Recently, Anne encouraged me to submit quotes for her consideration in designing cards. She then sent a mailing to her very large database and asked them to vote on a wide range of submitted quotes, promising that the top three vote-getters would be incorporated into cards. One of my quotes won by a landslide. (I even out-ranked Pope Francis! I don't imagine that will happen again!)
Of course, Anne's cards still don't solve the problem of what you will write inside. To learn more about this sometimes thorny issue, consider checking out my book “No Longer Awkward”, which contains over 100 texts that you can modify and use for various purposes.
So when you go to the Cards by Anne web site, you will see my card displayed there. Hopefully there will be more in the future. I encourage you to peruse Anne’s other cards as well. I suspect you’ll find yourself returning there again and again for both personal and professional purposes.