Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
The holiday season is laced with minefields for grieving people, especially if they are facing the first holiday season without loved one. Homes get decorated with sentimental ornaments, candles, and trimmings. Songs carry unbidden emotions. There are countless gatherings of friends and family where the empty chair is all too evident. And because expectations for joy and cheer are so high, these mourners often feel lost, alone, and sad. Your employees, clients, and associates will never forget it if you reach out compassionately during this time, letting them know you understand how hard it is.
Remember not to write cards and notes wishing a “Happy” or “Merry” holiday. Instead, choose texts that wish peace or hope. Then include a hand-written message acknowledging their reality. Here is one possibility: “Wishing you Happy Holidays at a time like this seems hollow. Instead, I wish you peace. I wish you healing. I wish you hope.”
Or: “During this holiday time, I wish you moments of lightness in the midst of the pain. I wish you companionship of beloved people in the midst of the loneliness. I wish you healing as you learn to survive these days. Most of all, I wish you peace.”
Or: “You may find that few people understand what you experience during this holiday season. Try to be patient with yourself and others, as you find your way through the ups and downs it will surely bring. In the meantime, do what seems right to you and take care of yourself. Concentrate on what is most important, and know that I am here for you.”
You may also wish to give or recommend these helpful books:
You may wish to give one or both books to your grieving employees, clients, or associates. These books are small, easy to navigate, cost less than $15 each. With the different formats, the recipients and everyone in their families will be able to find understanding, consolation, and practical help in these pages.
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.
It is never a good idea to wish “Happy Holidays” to people going through the toughest time of their lives. Instead, you can offer authenticity and genuine comfort, distinguishing yourself from everyone else and helping your client at the same time. The first step is to choose a card that does not say Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, etc. Choose one that either has no words or that wishes peace or hope. Then include a hand-written note inside and consider including a gift card for a cup of coffee, a movie, a massage, or something else comforting.
Here are some possibilities:
In the past, the holiday season was a time of warmth, surprises, celebration, and hugs. Yet for grieving people, these days are cold and bleak. Hearing holiday songs, reading the ads, and walking into festively decorated stores only serves to rub the scab raw and thrusts the cold spear deeper into broken hearts.
The worst thing you can do is ignore your recently bereaved clients in this painful time. The second worst thing is sending them the same “Happy Holidays” card that you send to everyone else. Do something a little extra for a grieving client that acknowledges the loss. Send a card wishing Peace instead of Happiness. Consider sending a small gift with a card that reads: “Nothing could make up for Jim’s absence this season. Still, I hope you can enjoy this small gift from someone who cares. We are thinking of you, especially at this time of year.” Or “A single rose in memory of Karen. Her love for you and for so many people lives on in our hearts forever.” Or “It may feel out of place as everyone raises a glass in celebration this holiday season. We hope that in your own way, you can use this little bottle of Nate’s favorite wine to toast the memories of past holidays with him and the love that you carry with you through all the holidays yet to come. We’re raising a glass in his honor with you.”
If you really want to make a long-term impression, consider organizing an event early in December for clients whose loved one has died. You can segment if you’d like, i.e. by inviting your widowed clients. Host them for a breakfast or brunch, and do it up right. Have a nice meal, an attractive centerpiece, and attentive staff, so they feel pampered. When all are seated, welcome the group, saying you know the holidays can be difficult for grieving people and you wanted to give them something fun to anticipate along with the pain the coming weeks are sure to bring.
Print a list of questions for discussion and have them placed at each table to break the ice and get them sharing with each other. Introduce it by saying that everyone grieves in their own way, so what one person finds helpful may not be helpful to someone else. However, most grieving people do find some comfort in sharing experiences. Invite them to pick one card at a time and go around the table with answers, accepting whatever someone else has to say.
Examples for the questions: Tell one thing you loved about the person who died, and one thing that drove you crazy. Tell one well-meaning thing that someone said to you after the death that was unintentionally hurtful to you. Tell one thing you wish people would do or not do around you this holiday season.
After the meal, thank everyone for coming and tell them you plan to make this an annual event so they can return the next year. Perhaps have a drawing for the centerpieces at each table. Tell them you will call after the holidays to see what they liked best and if they have any suggestions for how you could improve the event next year. Then, of course, do call and take their feedback seriously.
These suggestions bracket the range of possibilities. The important thing is to be there for your clients in ways that most other people aren’t. When you demonstrate that you understand their grief and you care about more than just the money, you gain a client for life. And when their friends and associates experience a death in the family, what will your clients tell them about their uncommonly wise and compassionate advisor?
When Bill Gates pledged $100 million for research on controlling or curing Alzheimer’s disease in our lifetimes, it focused much-needed attention on this dread disease. At Corgenius, when we teach about preparing for it, signs to watch for, and protocols to follow, we often ask the audience how many have a family member affected by Alzheimer’s. Well over half of the hands in the room go up; often it’s nearly unanimous.
Statistically, 1 in 8 people aged 65 and above have Alzheimer’s disease. Every five years after the 65th birthday the chance of diagnosis doubles. Nearly half of people at age 85 have Alzheimer’s, and one of every three seniors dies with the illness. This epidemic has profound implications for all of us, and especially for financial advisors, who are charged with guiding clients through their elder years in ways that protect their best interests and their financial viability. Here are some resources to help.
For your own education: Our vote for the best recent resource is “In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer’s” by Joseph Jebelli. This British neuroscientist has carefully crafted an understandable and comprehensive examination of the history of the disease, causes and characteristics, past and current research, and currently available treatment options. He details the major drug testing failures in the past several years, but ends with hope that in 10 years we reduce Alzheimer’s to a manageable chronic disease like diabetes rather than the debilitating fatal illness is currently is. If you want the best education on the subject and if you appreciated “The Emperor of All Maladies” (which was published in 2010 and examined cancer in the same way), this book is for you.
For your clients with a diagnosis in the family: “The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for People Who Have Alzheimer Disease, Related Dementias, and Memory Loss” by Nancy Mace and Peter Rabins is a comprehensive listing of what to expect from someone with Alzheimer’s disease along with a wealth of information, tips, skills, and language. The authors incorporate humor, compassion, and realism as they help caregivers and family members cope with the progression of cognitive and physical diminishment while maintaining as much communication and life as possible. Give it to clients and their families as a reliable and highly practical guide.
For everyone: The Alzheimer’s Association. This dedicated organization offers a wealth of resources and services for anyone concerned about or affected by Alzheimer’s disease. They provide in-home care consults, tracking programs for those who wander, free brochures you can provide in your office, a trial match so clients or their family members can be enrolled in appropriate clinical trials, and more. Check out what your local chapter has to offer.
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:
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?
We teach about grief and transition, and usually our focus is on helping you to support and communicate with your clients. There is another aspect, though, because it’s not just clients who are aging. So are your co-workers and colleagues. As data from Cerulli Associates suggests, the average age of a financial advisor in the U.S. is now over 50. Only 23% are under 50.
As a result, you need to learn the skills of grief support for your team as well as for your clients. A few things to look at:
Do you have a compassionate bereavement leave policy? There is no federal law requiring one, but most firms give three to five days for an immediate family member. Consider expanding that to allow at least a week, and to include any relationship that is very important. For some people, for instance, an aunt was more influential than their mother, and her death has great impact. A best friend’s death, especially if it is sudden, can be as difficult as a sibling’s. Be as generous as you can with bereavement leave in your office.
When someone returns from bereavement leave, don’t ignore what just happened. Hug. Have a big box of tissues and a card on the person’s desk, perhaps with a little comfort food like a small box of chocolates. Ask what it’s like now, a week after the funeral, and listen to the stories.
Give more flexibility and support than usual for at least a month or two, recognizing the normal lack of focus and the up-and-down nature of grief. Allow a more flexible work schedule, more breaks, and a back-up person to catch errors that may occur (with assurance that performance reviews won’t suffer during this time).
Continue to check in regularly, saying the name of the one who died. Be particularly mindful of days like a birthday or wedding anniversary, and do something such as taking the grieving person to coffee or bringing in a cake. Acknowledge the void of such a day, while trying to make it a little easier to bear.
You can get more information on how to support your colleagues by reading this article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in which I am interviewed.
Resolve that in 2019, you will learn to better practice effective, compassionate grief support for your clients, your team, and all those who are important to you. Make a difference when they need it the most.