Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
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:
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.
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?
Too much wisdom is lost every day in this country because we devalue our elders. When we highly value them, and take the time to listen and learn from the wealth of their life experience, it can be eye-opening, informative, and quite a delight for the storyteller and listener alike.
My sister and I recently embarked on a project to capture more of my Mom’s life story before it was lost to us. Over a period of several visits we asked her many things - what it was like growing up in a household with six brothers, what stood out about her Mom’s death from cancer at the too-young age of 52, her happiest and most troublesome memories, how people who knew her as a young woman would describe her, and what she hopes people will remember about her after she dies. Together we laughed, cried, and grew closer. We also learned many things we had never known. For example, we were surprised to find out that she’d had two dogs as a teenager, and she was not very fond of Frank Sinatra, even though all of her friends and classmates swooned over him!
In addition to passing on wisdom and life lessons, these stories are important for another reason. As we age, we are increasingly susceptible to the diseases that cause dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. When people have Alzheimer’s, they lose their short-term memory first. Family members who gather long-term memories build a way to maintain their relationships, because even if their beloved elder can’t remember what she had for lunch, she may well remember that dog or the kind of music she loved in high school.
So, as you meet with clients to close out the year, encourage them to take time over the holiday season with the older generation, asking for their wisdom and life lessons, and gathering their stories and memories. Your clients will often learn things they never knew before, and may deepen their relationship with parents or grandparents. In the process, they may find themselves wiser, more tolerant, and with greater appreciation for those who comprise their heritage.
Of course, if your clients ARE the older generation, encourage the same thing in reverse. Recommend that they write or record their own memories and stories, along with the wisdom, hard-won lessons, and messages they wish to pass on to their families. The compilation could be a welcome gift of lasting value. Regardless of which direction the information flows, it is an exercise your clients will likely never regret. While you’re at it, perhaps you can do it in your family as well. Give the gift of time, curiosity, memory, and wisdom this holiday season. It costs so little, yet it is priceless.
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!