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Lost Horizons

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We Americans like to feel we are a “can-do” nation, strong and adaptable. With jaw-gritting determination, we began after September 11 to adjust our horizons to a new world of risk and loss. But all it took to send us back to Ground Zero in our hearts was a plane crashing in Queens.

The stresses on your clients may be accumulating on many levels: the possible loss of friends, colleagues, or even family members; the lost sense of security in everyday life; and the backdrop of economic and market loss that may have drastically affected their plans for the future. Here are some ways to help them cope.

At a portfolio review session, a client who is a divorced mother of two asked me for advice about her young children. Even though her family knew no one who died in the recent disasters, the kids are having temper tantrums when she leaves for work, and refuse to sleep alone. She’s concerned about whether this reaction is normal, and if not, what she should do. Help! Whether or not the children knew any of the victims personally, it is very normal for them to experience these symptoms. Many kids are hypersensitive to what goes on around them, and they’ve probably tuned into the underlying apprehension that has swept over many adults in waves since September 11.

While reassuring your client that this reaction is natural, consider suggesting some resources that might help. Has she talked to anyone at the children’s school? If not, she might start by discussing her concerns with their teachers and guidance counselors.

Also, encourage her to keep talking to her kids about their fears. It’s not a good idea to paint an unrealistic picture that may fly in the face of alarming announcements they will hear about or see on TV. Instead, she should try to reassure them with truths suited to their ages and worries (“Sweetheart, brave soldiers from many nations are helping us find these bad men so we can stop them” or “Honey, haven’t I always come home from work?”).

If the kids won’t open up about their specific anxieties, she might try telling them a story (or acting it out with stuffed animals or dolls) about “other kids” with similar symptoms, asking her children to suggest why the imaginary kids are upset. For more in-depth therapeutic support, consider assembling a list of good psychological resources for children and adults. This mom may need a little counseling herself.

Eventually, you may be able to shift your client’s focus to her financial situation. But first address her worries about her children.

At the start of a year-end review of their investments and insurance, clients of mine erupted in a terrible fight. The husband complained that his wife is making his life crazy by overreacting to the threat of terrorism. She is extremely wary of crowds and unexpected mail, won’t travel, and insists on having a survival and evacuation plan. She accuses him of being in total denial about the danger. How should I deal with these folks? Remember that in times of high anxiety, people tend to revert to their oldest, most primitive survival mode. This couple is doing it in spades.

To address their reactions, you need to seat yourself emotionally smack in the middle between them. Assure them that even though the ways they are handling this stressful situation look extreme to each other, both responses are normal. Some people are comforted by taking action against the danger they fear, while others find it more calming to return as quickly as possible to the routines of everyday life. Both approaches can be healing.

If you’re willing to serve these clients as a “therapeutic educator,” ask if they can possibly move toward a middle ground. You may want to mention my comment about people’s tendency to retreat under stress to survival mode–which, although totally normal, is rarely the most rational or functional way to act. If you can help the husband agree to take some steps that will reassure his wife, and encourage her to pull back a bit from her hypervigilance, they may be able to move on to a discussion of their financial needs.

What can I say to a client who appears to have lost confidence in me? He says that after buying wholeheartedly into my view of stocks as the engine of investment success, he feels “betrayed” that I am now advocating bonds. Incidentally, his portfolio is down about 20% since the stock market’s height. How can I regain his trust? The difficulty of explaining a more conservative viewpoint has become a concern for many planners, and no doubt for more than a few clients. So before focusing on this particular individual, I would take time to consider just how many of your clients understand why you have changed your tack.

Have you written or called them to discuss the changing economic outlook and how you recommend coping with it? Some planners have invited their clients to group events or one-on-one get-togethers to thank them, calm their fears and soothe their losses, and communicate how to handle the changes life may have in store.

In any case, this message is probably just what your “betrayed” client needs to hear. Empathize with his disappointment and frustration, while reassuring him that your goal is to help him protect his portfolio against future losses. Make sure he understands that you have not changed your long-term fundamental views, but merely advocate a tactical shift to reduce volatility and adapt to current market conditions.

With his portfolio decimated by the market slump, a distraught client has begun to realize that he may have to abandon his long-awaited early retirement and go back to work. I can’t see any other good alternative, but is there anything I can say to cushion the loss of his dreams? You can definitely sympathize with his disappointment, without encouraging him to wallow in it. Though it may mean a major shift in his life plan, he is far from alone in having been set back by the market. Once he knows you understand his frustration, see if you can help him brainstorm ways to make a return to work more exciting and satisfying–perhaps even rejuvenating.

What did he really enjoy about what he used to do? Is there a type of job that will let him do more of it? Or has he always wanted to try another productive line of work? Now might be a good time to experiment.

In addition, you may be able to help him reduce the drain on his assets by downsizing his lifestyle. Many people who have chosen this route have ended up feeling happier and more peaceful as a result. A reduction in living expenses could also make the difference between having to work full-time versus just a few hours a week.

This exploration will put you somewhat in the position of a career coach. If you’re not comfortable with this role, suggest that your client consult a career professional to help him prepare for a fulfilling return to work.

As a sole practitioner for 15 years, I was taken aback when a client recently told me she’d be totally lost if anything happened to me. She’s also concerned that if my records are destroyed through some calamity, her finances could be ruined. Her worry struck me as a natural reaction to the turmoil we’ve all been experiencing. I think I reassured her, but how can I head off this concern with my other clients? This vital question is one you need to address in detail. If anything did happen to you, whom would you want your clients to turn to?

Do you have an associate who is ready to be trained for more responsibility? If not, should you think of hiring someone to back you up? Or you might prefer to make an arrangement with other sole practitioners to take each other’s clients in case of necessity. Whatever the solution, let your clients know you have put in place a succession plan to ensure continuity in their moneylives.

On the matter of financial records, make sure you have backup systems in place so clients’ account information will be safe even if your office disappears. By addressing these two concerns promptly and firmly, you can assure your clients that they are well protected against the risk of potential loss.

A longtime client was badly shaken by the death of old friends on one of the hijacked planes. She has asked me about selling her mutual funds and buying annuities, so her grandchildren will be guaranteed a death benefit no matter what happens to her or the market. And even though she is well provided with life insurance, she plans to quadruple her coverage instead of buying the vacation home she’s wanted for a long time. When I ask her to consider whether she’s overreacting to recent events, she doesn’t seem to focus on what I say. What should I do to help her? This client needs to be able to air her fear and sadness about what has happened before she can think rationally about what makes good financial planning sense. If you can provide a safe “holding space” for her to talk and be listened to with compassion, she may be ready sooner to make truly appropriate decisions about her loved ones’ needs and her own.

You’ll probably want to schedule several visits with her about this, if you can. In between, she may be willing to read literature you provide about her choices. But be prepared to find that at a deep level, she’s still in shock and may need extra patience and guidance to make good decisions.

Underneath all the angers and fears triggered by the cataclysmic events that have unfolded, many of us feel a profound sense of sadness that life will never again feel as safe as it once did. Even if that safety was an illusion, our perception of it was tremendously comforting. Without it, we need to connect more deeply with one another, and with our own personal sources of healing, to rediscover our strengths.

Watching the volunteers at Ground Zero in New York City, we are reminded that even in the midst of unspeakable loss, we have the potential to gain personal meaning and connection. By providing a safe and caring place for your clients to share their grief, uncertainty, and fear, and helping them reconnect with their inner strengths and their source of hope, you can pave the way for relationships that withstand even the most traumatic change and loss.


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