Ideas. Lessons Learned, and Occasionally, Opinions
When a parent with young children is diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, the emotional devastation disrupts every facet of a family’s life. It is a nightmare all of us hope we never have to face. But, at this very moment, you may well have this occurring in your corner of the world.
Do you know what to do when this nightmare strikes one of your clients?
Beyond financial advice, how can you do more to serve these clients? One way to start is by learning to ask thoughtful, open-ended questions and following their lead on how much they’d like to talk. Excellent questions are things like:
For the kids themselves, there is a relatively new resource on the market that you can give as a gift. It is titled “Sammy’s Story” by Erica Sirrine. This simple, 25-page book is a tenderly written and colorfully illustrated read-aloud book for children ages 3 – 7 who are facing a parent’s death. It sensitively conveys concepts about illness and death, including what children can expect as the illness progresses. It also thoughtfully gives ideas on how the child can maintain a continued bond with the parent even after the death. Intended as a resource to be read with caring adults, it is perfect for family members or other adults as they support children through this most difficult anticipatory grief and what will follow.
Don’t let your own discomfort keep you away. Be there for your client and the family. You will make more of a difference than you know.
When your client is grieving the death of someone significant, how do you distinguish between normal deep grief and a situation where they need professional help? It is important first to understand that the majority of people navigate their way through grief without major dysfunctions. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Even in normal grief, many physical, emotional, and spiritual responses can seem like clinical depression. One major difference is that with normal grief, the intensity of these responses fluctuates and gradually subsides.
You may observe that sadness, longing, and other grief expressions remain for a long time, and clients may get “ambushed” even years later by triggers that remind them of the deceased. Yet the symptoms come and go at various points rather than being constant companions as grieving clients increasingly return to a normal degree of functioning in the world. Over time, they can live and once again find enjoyment in activities and with loved ones.
However, on some occasions, you may encounter clients with more profound and complicated grief that can signal depression. Warning signs of clinical depression or a client requiring professional help include:
The more of these symptoms you observe, the greater the chance that intervention is needed. Medical professionals treat clinical depression with counseling therapy, medication, or usually a combination of the two.
We recommend you prepare ahead of time by creating a list of professionals in your area who treat depression, especially as a result of grief. A good way to build your list is to ask hospices, places of worship, and hospitals for the professionals they provide, or those to whom they refer people when help is required.
If you have a Diminishing Capacity Letter, you also have permission from clients to call their powers of attorney and other trusted people who may be effective in getting help for clients because of their relationship with them. Because figuring out where to go can seem like a huge obstacle, your clients will be especially grateful if you can provide names and resources from your research.
Remember that most people will get through their grief, often aided by their already-existing support network plus available groups and counselors. Yet you provide invaluable service to your clients and their families when you are prepared for those “sometimes” cases when extra help may turn the corner or even save a life.
No matter their age, it is always tragic for a child when a parent or other significant person dies. It is particularly difficult because so few people know how to accompany a grieving child, and so few of their peers have any experience or wisdom to draw on to help.
These are two recently published books for young children that you can add to those already listed in our book, No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients During the Toughest Times of Life.
Sammy’s Story by Erica Sirrine is a tenderly written, brief, read-aloud book for children ages 3-7 who are anticipating a parent’s death. Colorfully engaging illustrations accompany the text, which honestly conveys the likely sequence of a life-threatening illness. In addition to concepts about illness, dying, and death, the book addresses the complex subject of helping the bereaved child maintain a continued bond with a parent following the death.
Sad Isn’t Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss by Michaelene Mundy is a helpful and hopeful workbook aimed at children ages 4 - 8. It gives images and language to describe their experience and guides them to recognize and cope with the losses in their lives in healthy ways. Parents and grandparents will benefit from working through the book with them.
Another wonderful resource is Camp Kangaroo. This camp, created by Seasons Hospice Foundation, brings together children who have recently experienced the death of a loved one so they can share their grief in a safe and supportive atmosphere, learn that they are normal, and build friendships with other grieving kids, all combined with fun camp activities. It is the only national bereavement camp of its kind based in psychotherapy and creative arts therapy. Kids learn effective coping strategies that will serve them for life and find new meaning following the death of their loved ones. The camps are free for most attendees, being supported entirely by donations. You can learn more, including the locations of the camps in
various states, on their website. You may also wish to have your firm sponsor a camper and encourage clients to do so as well.
Recommend these resources to your clients to help kids heal at a time when they need it the most.
We have an unprecedented crisis happening in our country. Every day, 115 people die of an opioid overdose. From 1999 to 2016, 350,000 people have died. A recent survey by the AP and Center for Public Affairs Research found that 1 in 10 Americans know a relative or close family member who died of an opioid overdose. In April, the Surgeon General issued the first national health advisory since 2005, urging families and friends of addicts to carry naloxone, the drug that can reverse the acute effects of an overdose and give a greater chance of survival.
Clearly, we have a huge public health problem with more people dying per day due to opioids than were dying of AIDS at the height of that epidemic. Just as we found the will and resources to combat AIDS over 30 years ago, we need to do it now for opioids.
In addition to scope, there is another aspect of these two epidemics that is similar. When people died of AIDS, their family members were often reluctant to tell others the cause of death because of the stigma. The same is true with the opioid crisis, leaving families unsupported and isolated. It’s bad enough that our society knows so little about how to effectively support the survivors of a loved one’s death; with a stigmatized death, the situation is exponentially worse.
Many people don’t realize that opioid addicts generally begin taking the drugs to relieve intense pain from a medical condition, not to get high. Yet one of the ways opioids work is to increase the levels of dopamine in the body, resulting in a feeling of euphoria while relieving some of the pain. Even if all the pain is not relieved, that which remains seems tolerable because of the underlying “high”.
Addiction begins when the drug rewires the reward centers of the brain, causing the person to perceive anything less than the euphoria as being painful and creating a physiological craving for more of the drug. Tolerance requires higher doses, the euphoria increases, the drug continues to affect the brain, and the addict sinks into an ever-deepening need for opioids just to feel normal. For those who try to reduce or quit, withdrawal symptoms are intense, and they often give up, relapsing into drug abuse to eliminate the pain. It reaches the point where an addict will do anything to get the next hit.
How to Help
After an overdose death, the grief is profound. The family loses a beloved family member. They lose the future they hoped for with that person and the unique place that person held in the family structure. They have exhausted themselves with worry and attempts to help. There are feelings of guilt and inadequacy that the loved one couldn’t be saved. These reactions are combined with anger at the lack of resources for addiction and resentment towards the addict who wasn’t able to kick the habit despite whatever help the family could offer. At the same time, rather than the outpouring of support they would receive if their loved one died of something like cancer, the support is muted, tentative, or absent, replaced by judgment or simply the would-be comforter’s inability to know what to say.
Here are a few suggestions on how you can help a client, friend or family member dealing with this kind of loss:
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 your client dies, who owns the pictures on their Facebook page? Who has control of their electronic bill-payment sites or Bitcoin account? Who is responsible for shutting down or memorializing social media sites? Digital rights ownership is an increasingly complex issue as our online lives continue to expand. Are your clients prepared to safeguard these assets after they die?
If your client does nothing in advance, disposition of digital assets goes according to the TOS (terms of service) of each individual site, which vary widely. In fact, many survivors have been shocked by sites that do not allow transfer of ownership or access upon death, or that complicate the settlement of the estate. Rules have been more flexible for minors in states that allow parents or guardians to manage deceased children’s accounts. Yet some families have had to get court orders to obtain rights to their loved one’s digital accounts, a process that can take months or years.
The Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act
Several states began to take action by passing a Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act. This gave the executor access to all digital accounts and allowed digital assets to pass according to the decedent’s will. However, it ran into legal trouble based on privacy. Some people, for instance, did not want their executor to see highly personal information such as their history of emails and texts, and lawsuits ensued.
The acts were gradually amended to resolve these issues until finally, in 2017, states began passing the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA). (http://www.uniformlaws.org/Act.aspx?title=Fiduciary%20Access%20to%20Digital%20Assets%20Act,%20Revised%20(2015). Forty states have now made it law, and it’s pending in five more plus Washington D.C. It will soon be nationwide. What does this mean for financial advisors and estate planners? Digital property now needs to be part of the estate planning process, and you need to help your clients prepare now for their digital afterlife.
Access to Digital Assets
RUFADAA allows the executor or another fiduciary appointed in the will to have access to any electronic or digital sites “necessary” to settle the estate. The necessary sites are largely those involving finances or financial assets, including shopping accounts, automatic bill-paying, online banking, etc. That very narrow provision protects privacy, as it does not allow the executor to access texts, emails, and more private information.
Yet RUFADAA allows for further permissions if the decedent clearly states so in the will. These permissions can cover desires such as whether a Facebook page is closed or maintained as a memorial page, whether a blog is deleted or archived and kept, and all your client’s other desires for digital sites.
Sites that fall under RUFADAA are required to give access to the named fiduciary or executor, but that process can take time and involves proving to the site that the client died. If usernames and passwords are accessible immediately, airline miles can be transferred, sites can be closed, and other desired actions can happen with less complication. It is important to note, though, that clients should never include usernames and passwords in the will, as it becomes a public document upon death.
Your Two-Step Process
There are two crucial steps to take with your clients:
1. Ensure the will includes your client’s intent for the executor or another named fiduciary to have access to digital accounts, how broad those permissions are, and your client’s wishes for disposition. Example: Can the named person see all the tweets, emails, and private personal information, or does access only extend to closing such accounts? What are your client’s desires for each site or each category of sites?
2. Ensure that your client completes another document giving more specific instructions (i.e. to whom they wish to transfer their airline miles and hotel points), and including usernames and passwords. This document should be signed, dated, and preferably notarized, and kept with the will so instructions are accessible to the executor.
To facilitate this, recommend that clients use one of the available services (i.e. LassPass.com) that generate secure passwords for every site and store the entire array of information necessary for access. The document then only needs to include the master password to that service, plus instructions for any two-factor authentication, so the named fiduciary can easily open the entire vault of usernames and passwords. Since the password storage service is dynamic, it also allows clients to maintain security by changing passwords regularly, without having to re-do the document.
Instead of allowing individual sites to determine disposition, take these steps to keep your clients in control and remove at least some post-death headaches. They will never forget it!
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.