From the May 2014 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Grieving Clients, Sensitive Advisors

Communication with the bereaved is an increasingly important advisory skill

Illustration by Jon Krause Illustration by Jon Krause

Six years ago, over dinner, a financial advisor asked bereavement consultant Amy Florian for advice on how to deal with grieving clients.

“I have one client whose husband just died and another couple whose son took his own life. Those clients are coming in this week and I don't have a clue about what to say to them,” the advisor told her. “Can you help?”

Soon after, Florian, who has worked in grief education for 25 years, formed Corgenius, a firm in Hoffman Estates, Ill., that trains financial professionals to sensitively support clients who are navigating the tricky terrain of grief.

“We live in a culture where people try to fix it, especially in a field like financial advising. The problem with grieving is they don't need to be fixed, they need to be companioned,” says Florian. “They aren't broken; they’re grieving. When you try to fix them, you alienate them. We think we’re doing a good job because we don't know better. But most of what we say to people when they are grieving is wrong or neutral at best.”

Florian, author of the recently published guidebook, No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients Through the Toughest Times of Life, was among the first to shine a light on a topic that has been largely overlooked in industry circles. There are some indicators that could be changing.

A popular speaker at conferences, Florian herself says interest from advisors has “exploded.” She notes: “It's coming to the fore. A lot of advisors I talk to say ‘Wow, I thought I was really good at this. You just opened my eyes to all the things I’ve been doing wrong.’ Then they’ll say: ‘I want more.’”

Kathleen Rehl, author of Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows, sold her financial planning firm late last year to work exclusively with financial advisors and estate planners on matters of widows and their financial and emotional issues. A webinar Rehl headlined two months ago for Protective Life Insurance drew 700 advisors, a record for the firm.

“Advisors are getting it that if they want to retain clients who are going through widowhood and grief, they’ve got to know how to speak language that's appropriate,” says Rehl. “For most advisors, this isn't intuitive. They are more comfortable with the charts, the numbers, the graphs, what the euro is doing and how Crimea is affecting markets. But let's face it. Widows are one of the fastest growing demographic groups. These are potential new clients and for many that's a highly motivating factor.”

A Grief Primer

Why grief, why now? The simple answer is that a lot of aging advisors have aging clients who are dying. Rehl knows one advisor who attended 14 client funerals last year. And it's not just about grief associated with death—but divorce, illness, economic status, job downsizing, even retirement.

“Any transitional moment is an opportunity for grief to manifest itself,” says Scott Neal, who heads D. Scott Neal, an advisory firm in Kentucky with $179 million in assets under management. “Our language has associated grief with death but in reality grief happens any time there is significant loss. It's the loss of a dream.”

Neal points to two recent examples in his own practice: one, a physician with early stage dementia who was forced to quit working; the other, a woman whose troubled daughter turned out not to be her mother's dream.

“If you’re a problem solver and someone starts crying, you want to stop the crying. But what we really need to do is be empathetic, listen, be sensitive to their feelings and give space for the clients to express themselves,” says Neal, who got a master's in divinity in order to better serve his clients. “It's a time-consuming process, which is one of the reasons people in our business don't want to deal with it. It can also be painful. But it adds a dimension to this job that is incredibly satisfying.”

Cheryl Sherrard, director of financial planning for Clearview Wealth Management in Charlotte, N.C., trained with the faith-based Stephen Ministry to teach her how to help people in crisis. Today, Sherrard listens much more attentively to clients in grief and she pays special attention to non-verbal cues. In the past, she would fill silence with her own talking. She no longer does that.

“You get those who are very stoic and just want to work through the details and don't want to show emotion. You get those who are a wreck and can't function,” says Sherrard. “For me, it's about being comfortable no matter what the reaction is and to know when not to push.”

After examining his aging client base and his own exit strategy, advisor Rod Carson, who heads Spectrum Wealth Advisors in Overland Park, Kansas, began to worry about the viability of his business model.

“I was seeing a lot of deaths occurring around my clients. I felt I maybe wasn't communicating with them on the level they wanted. And, with an older client base, I wondered if my business was in a downward spiral,” says Carson, who manages $150 million in assets. “Would someone pay me top dollar for this without a system in place to make sure we are retaining clients after a spouse or parent dies?”

After bringing Florian in for on-site training with his team, Carson made some big changes. Previously, he let staff handle bereaved clients as much as possible and he would “work” them into his schedule haphazardly. Now, they get priority. Instead of offering condolences, Carson offers memories of the person who died. If he didn't know the deceased, he asks the survivor to share favorite memories. He and his staff even role-play in advance.

“It's recognizing there has been a death versus trying to talk around it. It's about making a comfortable environment for them. I am now comfortable. My staff is comfortable. When they are with us, they are in a safe comfortable environment where they can show their emotions,” says Carson.

“And that's not lost on other family members. They see how we help them through the grieving. This is definitely a way to retain assets and gain additional assets. From a valuation and business perspective, it's huge,” he adds. “But it's even bigger than that. I’ve made a very nice living. I’ve saved very well. When you can have a positive emotional impact on your clients’ lives, their children's lives, to me that's my purpose.”

Emerging Niche

Could grief actually play a part in the development of a business niche? It's not unthinkable.

Last year, advisor Bryan Wisda, president of Summit Wealth Management in Carefree, Ariz., added this tagline to his LinkedIn profile: Wealth Manager to Widows & Their Families.

And Larry Moskat, who heads RII Advisors in Scottsdale, Ariz., on his website offers crisis financial counseling associated with retirement, inheritances, caregiving and joblessness.

Half of Wisda's clients are widows—a demographic he has long been passionate about after watching all three of his grandfathers (including a step-grandfather) die within a six-month period. But after connecting early this year with Rehl and Susan Bradley of the Sudden Money Institute, Wisda has changed course.

He has subbed his traditional wealth management role of “stepping in and taking over, so speak” for something he calls “space of mind,” helping clients transition from being married to widowed.

“What I’ve done is help them organize life into now, soon and later,” says Wisda, who manages $50 million in assets for 68 clients. “Now, clients will tell their friends ‘I’m working with someone that specializes in helping widows transition from married to widowed financially and emotionally.’ It's an entirely different approach.”

With a graduate degree in clinical psychology, Moskat is naturally fascinated by grief and loss, particularly when they reside in these two unlikely places: retirement and sudden wealth.

“Everyone in this business talks about retirement and inheritance as financial events. There's so much more to it than that,” says Moskat. Retirement can result in the loss of identity and purpose, as an example, while sudden wealth can provoke guilt. Grieving clients, he believes, require special handling.

When one client received a seven-figure wrongful death settlement associated with his deceased son, Moskat asked him first to share stories about the young man. When he learned that the son had been passionate about cars, Moskat suggested setting up a memorial scholarship at an automotive mechanics training school. Any financial planning came after.

“While I’m not wearing a therapist's hat I do bring some well-trained listening skills to the table. They have been reconstituted into purposeful actions within financial planning that have opened the doorway to more productive financial counseling,” says Moskat.

“I do the same money stuff that everyone does but how it's delivered and when it's delivered is a bit different because I’m broadening my effort to include a little mental health adjustment,” he adds. “You can't help someone in a terrible loss situation unless it's dealt with in some way. The advisor who is simply talking about money isn't greedy or stupid. It just means they haven't had their antenna up on this topic. And that's too bad for the client.”

What not to say:

You have my sympathy. I know how you feel. Time heals all wounds. Call me anytime. You look good. Be strong. Your loved one is in a better place. How are you? Put it behind you and get on with life now. There's nothing more we can do for you. You should be grateful that….

What to say:

I can't imagine what this is like for you. Would you like to tell me about it? I’ll call you. Healing doesn't mean getting over it. I’ll do whatever I can as a professional to make this difficult process easier for you. I know your grief won't be over in a week, a month or even a year. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep breathing. This will take a long time and I’ll be here for you.

Source: Amy Florian

Compassion, Competence

When Barbara Pal is honored in June as Securities America's Assistant of the Year for 2013, she will be recognized for her commitment and competence—and also for her compassion.

“Every time we have been hit with a challenge, Barbara immediately goes into solution mode,” observes Brad Schlang, a partner at Cedar Brook Financial in Cleveland, Securities America's second-largest branch in terms of revenue with $1.5 billion in assets under management. “She simply buckles down and solves the issue.”

Never was Pal's competence more in evidence than two years ago when a close colleague of Schlang's died unexpectedly, leaving 100 clients who needed to be notified, comforted and transitioned.

“She understood immediately that these clients needed to be comforted—and comfortable. In our world, we really are a member of our clients’ families. When suddenly your advisor and friend is gone, you wonder where your money is, how you’re going to take distributions,” says Schlang. “Barbara recognized all of that along with a sense of urgency that these families had to be reached out to very quickly.”

Without pause, he added, Pal in a four-day period scheduled 100 appointments and prepared client reviews in anticipation of Schlang's meetings with the bereaved.

“Our main mission was to make contact immediately and provide soothing conversation and hand-holding. There was a lot of gold emphasis on that meeting because clients were meeting a new face,” says Pal, 55. “We had to show these clients love, empathy and we did a lot of listening. Everyone at Cedar Brook has big hearts. It's just the way we are.” —EU

Camping With Grief

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that a life insurance company would require its agents and advisors to have training on bereavement. But New York Life, with its philanthropic focus on childhood grief, introduced the issue to a national audience with the debut in April of HBO's “One Last Hug: 3 Days at Grief Camp.”

The documentary, underwritten by New York Life, offers an inside look at Camp Erin, a three-day program that encourages grieving children from six to 17 to share their feelings and memories of lost loved ones with other kids. The camp, which takes place in 43 locations nationwide, was founded by baseball star Jamie Moyer and his wife Karen in memory of Erin Metcalf, a fan who died of cancer at 17.

“This is a crescendo in terms of what one as a company can do,” according to Jerry Fish, managing partner of the firm's Los Angeles office. “We’re heavily involved in raising money at the local level for Camp Erin and the bereavement centers that support it. Bereavement is part of our everyday conversation. It's part of who we are and what we do. And our involvement in bereavement from a volunteer perspective is pretty significant. It's become part of our culture.”

The documentary was filmed at Camp Erin Los Angeles, which is managed by OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center. One in seven American children experiences the death of loved one before age 20. “We’re so proud of you campers,” Lauren Schneider, clinical director of OUR HOUSE, says at the top of the film. “It takes a lot of courage to come to grief camp.” —EU

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