Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
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:
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.
Advisors are increasingly faced with deaths among their clients and the clients’ families. In large firms, there may be more than one a month. If you can serve clients really well in those most difficult times, you create a bond of loyalty with the client and with the family members. Those who don’t know how to talk with grieving people are going to lose clients to those who do. Here are a few ideas to consider when communicating with a client after the death of a loved one:
Welcome the client
When a client comes into the office for that first appointment after the funeral, you can recognize the reality that is right in front of you and yet genuinely make them feel welcome with something like this: “I’m so glad you were able to make it in today. I only wish it were under better circumstances. Still, there is so much we can do together and I’ll do everything I can to make this very difficult process just a little easier for you and your family.”
Then, before you get to business, remember that grieving people hunger to talk to anyone who is willing to listen. So invite clients to tell you about their experience. They will let you know if they don’t want to talk and you always follow a client’s lead, but most of the time telling the story is the most healing and cathartic thing they can do.
So ask an open-ended question such as:
Even if you had a similar grief experience, do not say “I know how you feel” or “I understand just what you’re going through.” Doing so is a sure way to alienate grieving clients because you are always wrong.
Instead, let them know you’ve had a similar experience or have some knowledge of the grief process, but then allow for their unique situation by asking a question such as “How is it different?” or “But what is it like for you?”
For instance: “When my mom died, I kept picking up the phone to call her before I remembered there wouldn’t be an answer on the other side, and that was one of the hardest things for me to accept. Is it like that for you? What do you struggle to accept?” This so much better than “I know how you feel” because you don’t.
Tell your clients that some things have to happen on a timeline, such as estate tax filings and trust funding deadlines. Show the list of those things and reassure them that you will make sure they get done without letting anything fall through the cracks.
Other than that, most financial professionals understand that it’s not a good idea to make major decisions too soon, especially if they are irrevocable. In practice, though, this too often means advisors leave clients alone until they call to say they’re ready to talk. That is a mistake, because surely clients will be inundated with ideas from others about what they should do with their money, who they should talk to, or how they should handle things.
Instead, after reassuring about the timeline, say something like: “Did you know that both science and financial regulations say that it’s better not to make major decisions right now? Physiologically, your brain just isn’t ready yet. So this is my recommendation. Take some time to breathe, take care of yourself and your family, get the estate settled, and just put one foot in front of the other. I will be calling you every week or two just to check in and see whether you have any questions or ideas you’d like to talk about. In fact, if someone offers you an idea that sounds good, bring them in. I’ll help you objectively look at whether that’s the best thing to do, and whether it’s best to do it right now. We’ll work together to make sure we’re protecting your loved one’s legacy and your financial future.”
These are just three examples of skills that distinguish you in the field and build lifetime loyalty. Remember, when deaths occur, as they inevitably will, survivors have their choice of hundreds of thousands of financial professionals who do a really good job investing money, insuring people, advising on retirement plans, and more. What is the differentiator clients want? They look for relationship and a financial advisor who understands their lives and knows how to support them in their grief. That is who will get their business.
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.
We sometimes hear advisors assert that they don’t need training in grief support because their client base skews younger. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First of all, remember that grief is triggered by any break in attachment. In other words, any life transition. So a client or a client’s child will grieve when they go to college, break up with a significant other, don’t make the sports team or get knocked out of a competition earlier than hoped, have a pet die, lose a job or get hired for a new one, get married, move to another part of the country, and so much more. In addition, over 1/3 of college students are within two years of the death of a family member or friend, and just over 30% of college students experience a death each year. This figure has always been partly due to accidents, but is increasing due to the rise in suicide rates and opioid overdoses. It is not just elderly parents or grandparents who die; it is too often classmates, friends, or siblings.
As advisors, ignoring these facts serves no one. Acknowledging and addressing them places you front and center with your clients as the go-to resource for the entire family, not just the parents. So what do you do?
Consider developing a program for teens in your office. Hold a one-hour session on financial literacy periodically and invite the high-school-aged children and grandchildren of all your clients. (Need more than information to attract them? Try pizza. It seems to be the Universal Attractant for teens!) Cover how to set up a budget, the facts about compound interest and how that affects both student loans and savings programs. Talk about accounts to begin putting money aside now, and teach them how to use the Wolfram Alpha Retirement Calculator. The quants in your crowd will especially love it, and best of all, it's an app. What’s not to like?
Then include a brief segment on the grief. Acknowledge the many grief triggers, and the fact that so few people learn how to help themselves or each other get through it. Consider giving them the Corgenius book “A Friend Indeed: Help Those You Love When They Grieve,” telling them to keep it with them so they know what to say and do when a friend is going through a loss or transition. (Of course, it will also help them in their own grief, but it’s easier to put the focus on what is often so important for young people – helping their friends.) Among others, another potential resource is the Young Adult Grief Camps, which are specifically intended for ages 18 -22 and hosted by Actively Moving Forward.
Finally, let the teens know they can always come to you with questions. If the questions or situation is non-financial and out of your sphere of expertise, you will help them get the answers they need.
Following a protocol like this helps build your business for the future, ensures better retention of assets when they pass to the next generation, and builds personal satisfaction as you know you are making a difference in young people’s lives.
Financial expertise alone is insufficient to gain and retain clients. Clients expect more. They want you to understand their personal experience, and be equipped to walk them through whatever life throws at them. Can you?
Welcome to our new complimentary podcast series, Clients for Life. Click here to listen to our inaugural interviews. Each of these short interviews features an advisor who completed the Corgenius Master Class on guiding clients through the most difficult transitions of their lives. They describe the skills and best practices they implemented in their firms, both large and small, that are having the most impact on client satisfaction, loyalty, and referrals.
Take a few minutes to listen and pick up some new ideas on how you, too, can more confidently serve clients through the toughest times of their lives. The podcast series is also available here as an RSS Feed and on iTunes via the Podcast app (Search for "Clients for Life").
We’d love to hear what you think of our new series. Please email us with your comments and ideas.