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.
It’s almost time to send out holiday greetings to your clients. Yet what if your client’s family member died this year? If you send them a card wishing “Happy Holidays”, then at best you tell them you treat your clients generically, sending the same card regardless. At worst, it lets them know you don’t understand at all and, like the rest of society, expect them to paste on a smiley-face and “be happy for the sake of the season”.
In either case, the card heads straight to the trash, never to be remembered.
Instead, here are other possibilities.
Consider text like the following along with a gift card for a cup of coffee, a movie, a massage, or something else comforting:
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.
Our speaking engagements put us in contact with many of you smack dab in the mayhem of one of the stock market’s most volatile 60-day periods in memory and the worst December since 1929. Clients have a "relationship" with their money, and when that deeply personal relationship ends or takes a unilateral relational break, they grieve. So when this period happened, and when it inevitably happens again, what do you say to frightened, angry, grieving clients?
Many advisors told us they said (in language that was sometimes more colorful to emphasize the point): "I know how you feel. My portfolio is doing the same thing, and it hurts!" We saw similar words in various sources, but the gist of the message was the same: "I get it. I know exactly what you're going through because I have money in the market, too."
I understand the good intent. You want to reassure clients they are not alone in their sorrow over wild volatility and steep market declines, since your portfolio took the same proportional hit. Still, the basic grief support principle holds: each person’s grief is unique, even it’s a similar loss. Saying “I know how you feel” during market volatility is as unhelpful as saying it when your client’s parent dies.
Seek First to Understand
The old saw "seek first to understand" is precisely the correct tool to use here. It is fine to acknowledge that you have a similar experience, but don’t stop there. Allow for each client’s uniqueness by asking questions that allow them to tell their story and get you on the same team.
One option could be something like this: “I’m a financial professional, but when things like this happens in the market, everyone gets twitchy. I know it's not rational when I feel that knot in my stomach. I know it’s not going to last because I always allocate every client’s portfolio just like my own, in ways designed to withstand these market swings. But logic doesn't dictate emotions, and so I still feel it. Do you feel it that way when you hear the market news, or how is your reaction different?” This helps allay the fear and blame, because you are treating the client’s portfolio as if it were your own. It also creates a sense of teamwork and problem-solving.
If you rode out the 2008/2009 mayhem with clients, you can include: "In your mind, how is this one similar or different from 2008? Are there things we did or discussed then that might be helpful for us this time?"
Then you can follow up with: “So tell me, what is the worst that you could imagine happening to you financially right now?” Keep asking “What else?” and saying “Tell me more” until you have all the major fears on the table. Then ask, “Since these are your worst fears, what can we do together to keep you safe? I think we’ve done good work together to set you up to weather the storm, but we can always tweak things if you want. Perhaps we should stay in closer touch during this time, too. What seems right to you?”
When you ask open-ended questions like these, you find out what's going on in their heads. Knowing those things doesn't make money come back. It doesn't mean you haven't got work to do to help them sort out their choices and stay the course. But it might make the difference between clients switching away from you vs. ensuring that you are moving in lock-step together through frightening times.