Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
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:
When a client or colleague receives serious diagnosis or needs to undergo surgery, chemotherapy, or other treatments, people often rally around with support. They offer to bring food, provide rides to doctor’s appointments, watch the kids, etc. While grateful for all the offers, most people are still overwhelmed by trying to keep their network informed of medical progress, juggling responsibilities at work, and coordinating the needed help, all in the midst of the intense emotional and physical drain of the situation.
You can help alleviate that stress. There are several ways you can provide support that is different than what most people do. For example,
Spare your client or colleague the legwork by providing resources like these. Depending on your relationship, you may even wish to participate in offering practical help to the family. Regardless, let them know you care by providing concrete assistance at a tough time
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?
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.
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.
When I was a young widow, there was no such thing as a support group to help me through. There was no such thing as online resources. There were no retreats for widowed people to share their experience. I sometimes thought I recognized the sadness in another person’s face, but I didn’t dare ask if we had a common thread of grief between us. Despite all the well-intentioned people who loved me, I felt alone and lost. I had to figure out this grief thing by myself and find some way to put the pieces back together, heal, and refashion my life.
No widow should grieve alone -- nor do they have to. While there is now a wide variety of places to help widows get counsel, sympathy and share their feelings, one of the most healing is the non-profit organization Soaring Spirits International. Founded by a young widow, Michele Neff-Hernandez, the group offers Camp Widow®, a weekend this program for widowed persons rebuilding their lives, in different parts of the country as well as a variety of other resources. The value this organization offers is inspiring and I am now a member of their Advisory Board and I teach at their events.
If you have a client who is widowed, I encourage you to tell them about Soaring Spirits. Suggest they chat on its forum, get a pen-pal, read the blog posts of other widowed people, find a regional meeting, check out the long list of recommended resources, register for Camp Widow, gain hope, and know that they are not alone.
And there are other ways you can help, too.
You have the financial expertise to help your clients, now raise the bar in other areas by learning how to do more to support a client through difficult life transitions. Serve your clients well through the toughest times of their lives, and you help them as well as your business.