In the aftermath of September’s terrorist attacks, many planners and their clients find themselves in a whole new world, psychologically and on every other level.
Throughout the years, I have encouraged you to take your role as a therapeutic educator seriously and develop it to the fullest possible extent. Never has this seemed more necessary, or more appropriate, than in the present climate.
Here are some situations you may be confronting in your personal and professional lives these days, and my suggestions on how to address them.
After the terrifying attacks, a panicky client asked me for an appointment to discuss his financial plan. He’s insistent on doing the right thing for his children, but when I asked him to sit down with me and revisit his goals, he just couldn’t seem to think straight. In view of his anxiety, how can I help him see if his plan is still appropriate? In the wake of a cataclysm like the one we have experienced, this is a process of moving past the primitive survival mode (which is always somewhat dysfunctional) to rediscover one’s rational thriving self.
To make this easier for him, listen patiently to his feelings and fears. Help him explore what he needs to do to reestablish balance in his own life. This might entail spending more time with his family and friends, volunteering to assist the relief effort, or simply doing whatever calms and relaxes him.
In the meantime, if you allow him to hang in there with you, your patience will be rewarded. As he finds more inner peace, he will slowly be able to turn his mind toward his financial goals. Eventually he will feel rational enough to review his needs, and explore with you whether his money is in the right places to meet those needs.
My clients lost their only son in the World Trade Center attack. They know they need to change their estate plan, but whenever we try to talk about it, the father chokes up and the mother begins weeping. I know they need time to come to grips with this tragedy, but since they’re already in questionable health, I hate to delay too long. How can I help them make these important decisions without losing more time? You can’t, so don’t even try. Now is not the time for decisions. It’s time for them to mourn their horrific loss, as they begin moving through their grief and anger toward healing.
The best way you can help them now is to listen compassionately. Allow the mother to cry to her heart’s content, and the father to grieve in his own way. As you sympathetically witness this wrenching process, you can ever so slowly begin discussing their choices with them. You might also consider sending them articles that suggest options, such as leaving a gift to a meaningful charity or starting a foundation in their son’s memory.
Despite their shaky health, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of giving them time to make the right decisions with a clear head. If you push them to take action before they’re emotionally ready, they may make decisions they’ll regret later, or flee your insistent urging and never return.
I lost a brother-in-law at the Pentagon in September–he was about my age, and we’d been close for years. I thought it would be best to get back to my job as quickly as possible, but I find myself unable to concentrate, doing poor work, and being easily upset by clients and colleagues. My sister and her family are leaning on me for emotional support that I feel less and less able to give. What should I do? It would be wonderful to keep letting your sister’s family lean on you, but if your own emotional engine is running on empty, you can’t be much help to them or yourself. Your first priority should be your own need to mourn your brother-in-law, and to heal the raw wound of his loss.
Make time to take stock of your own thoughts and feelings. Writing them down may help you deal with them. Or stop multitasking for a while and listen quietly to great music that opens your heart. Consider a visit to your own source of comfort–a church, synagogue, or community organization–and participate in a way that helps you feel more connected to life and more hopeful about the future.
If you don’t feel up to taking on this effort by yourself, or it doesn’t seem to be helping you, consider seeing a grief counselor or therapist who can lend a hand. By caring for yourself in this way, you will not only restore your own emotional well-being, but be of greater service to your family, your colleagues, and your clients.
Since September 11, my clients have inundated me with phone calls. Sometimes it concerns their portfolio, but often it’s about other aspects of their lives. I’m exhausted by this outpouring of need. How can I handle it without getting swallowed up? Consider writing your clients personal letters or e-mails sharing your compassionate understanding of what they’re going through.
You might mention that even though you want to be fully accessible to them, you have sometimes felt overwhelmed. To help yourself stay balanced and able to help them, you are setting aside a certain time each day for their calls–perhaps an hour in the morning, or half an hour at each end of the day.
This letter or note would also give you an opportunity to suggest other healing resources your clients may want to consult, such as charitable or community organizations, religious groups, and therapists or grief counselors. Include phone numbers or Web addresses if you can.
You want to do this in a sensitive way that makes clients feel cared for, not rejected or abandoned. By suggesting these alternatives, and limiting the impact of their emotions on your own schedule, I think you’ll feel more whole-heartedly available to them when you are willing to be consulted.
In the meantime, don’t feel the slightest bit guilty about being unable to cope with their intense neediness. Your reaction is perfectly natural. In fact, the very reason why psychotherapists like me so often burn out is because we forget to practice healthy life balance and self-care.
My client’s fianc? has been so unnerved by the terrorist attacks and the prospect of war that he’s asked her to liquidate her investments so they can buy land in Canada, build a cabin, and live self-sufficiently. She’s deeply in love with him and feels she should go along with this. I think it could be a huge financial mistake. How far should I go in making my opinion felt? Don’t be surprised if your client doesn’t seem like her usually sensible self. Being in love is an altered state like a trance in which one’s own personality and values may be subsumed for the sake of the love relationship.
I think your approach should be to honor her commitment to this relationship, while encouraging her to step back and assess her goals. Point out the importance of basing a marriage on mutual respect, with enough space for both individuals to live out their desire for a meaningful life. Is she really sure this kind of lifestyle is right for her, or is she surrendering her own needs to her fianc?’s fears?
If you are willing and she agrees, you might ask him to join the two of you to discuss the action he is contemplating. See if you can empathize with his fears and stresses, while reminding him that many other people feel equally worried and even panicky. Don’t reject outright his idea of moving to a cabin in the woods (this crisis, after all, may be a long-awaited opportunity to make a major change in his life), but do counsel him to consider all the options calmly and rationally. See if you can lead him into a less drastic long-term strategy for himself and his fianc?e.
If he’s still determined to head for the hills, get together with your client by herself and help her understand the risks of losing her nest egg. What if she and her husband find that this lifestyle isn’t quite what they expected? Or what if something happens to him, leaving her alone? You might suggest that she set aside her portfolio (perhaps in a revocable trust) while she tries on this new life to see if it works for her. By making it possible for her to return to a more traditional lifestyle if she wishes, you could be giving her a gift of incalculable value.
Amid the reality of terrorism, the threat of biological warfare, and other horrific possibilities, it’s often difficult to help people slow down enough to reintegrate their thinking and their feeling functions. The more you can encourage them to reflect on their long-term values and goals and not just hit the ground running, the more rational their decision-making will be.
A new client came to me after inheriting close to $200,000 from his father, who was killed aboard one of the hijacked airliners. I’ve asked the young man what his goals are for this money, but he only says vaguely, “I just need to take care of it.” Some of it is in fairly risky and illiquid investments, but he gets defensive and upset when I suggest trying to unwind these positions. I’m not really sure why he came to see me in the first place. What should I do? Your client’s behavior is a very common response to grief and loss. Trauma to the heart and soul takes as much time to heal, if not more, than injury to the body. So allow him a period of recuperation before you suggest any changes to the portfolio.
If he’s willing, you might encourage him to talk about his father. What means most to him about the kind of person his dad was, and how he lived his life? By helping your client honor his memories of his father more fully, you may eventually be able to open the door to a discussion of the specific financial legacy he has received.
At that point, he may be willing to listen to your recommendation that he move the money into more suitable investments. It may be possible to frame this as a fulfillment of the father’s deep desire to help his son feel true financial security and serenity on his own terms.
In all these cases, the essential first step is making time for clients to get over their shock and move through the natural stages of mourning and healing. If you rush these stages or are not adequately attuned to them, you risk leaving your clients feeling upset and slighted. By slowing down and empathizing with their shock, grief, or fear, you will be able to lead them toward sensible financial decisions when they are truly ready.
Be sure to give yourself the same space for healing. This replenishment of your mental and emotional coffers will allow you to provide wiser and more balanced advice, making you a better planner for having “walked your talk.” For you as well as your clients, a little extra care and patience can go a long way in setting things right again when the world seems to have turned upside down.
(See complete coverage of 9/11: Ten Years After on AdvisorOne.)