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The Right Ways Advisors Can Help Grieving Clients

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“If you help a client through the toughest time of their lives, you’ve got a client for life,” said Amy Florian.

Not only that, but “doing what’s right” for your client who is grieving, due to death or another major issue like divorce, is also “doing what’s right for your business,” the CEO of Corgenius told a standing-room-only crowd at the Financial Planning Association’s annual conference Wednesday.

In addition to gaining that client for life, if you follow best practices in helping a client who is grieving you’re also more likely to gain additional clients from among the original client’s family, friends and colleagues.

Florian began her session by speaking about a topic most Americans avoid: death. “We live in a death-denying society. We can’t even say the words,” she said, though we do tend to use words like “dead” and “death” in conversation “until a person actually dies.”

Florian got the crowd laughing about a topic that’s uncomfortable to most by reciting a litany of “death” phrases in common parlance: “Dead broke, dead drunk, food that’s to die for,” for instance. Once a person does die, we tend to use euphemisms rather than saying the word “dead,” such as “passed, passed away, no longer with us, gone to their reward; pushing up daisies.”

Florian quoted a Chinese proverb when talking about the first step in intelligently helping a grieving client: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.”

So what should advisors say when a client faces a deeply felt loss like the death of a spouse or other loved one? Since “most people you’ll run into don’t know what to do or say, when you do, you immediately set yourself apart,” she said.

Florian reported that “99% of Americans” will first say “I’m sorry” when speaking to a grieving person, but she told the assembled advisors “you can do so much better.” Florian related the feelings of one widow who told her, “I wish people would stop apologizing for my husband’s death.”

Instead, what you say is less important than asking open-ended, invitational questions to the grieving person “that allows a client to tell their story.” In “letting the client lead” the conversation, “you’ve opened a door; grieving people are so hungry to tell their story.” So instead, ask, “Can you tell me what happened?” After all, grieving people “want to tell their story,” since, by doing so, “we make it real by repeating” the story “over and over again.” And if they say something like, “‘I can’t talk now; I have a lot of phone calls to make,’ offer to make some of those calls yourself.”

“My favorite question” to ask a grieving person, Florian said, is, “‘What do you wish people knew about what you’re going through?’” since so often well-meaning people will say to a grieving person, “I know exactly what you’re going through” or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” though those phrases have the effect of “pushing people away” from a shared human experience. “We’re intelligent people,” she said, “ we CAN imagine” what a grieving person is going through.

She pointed out that people grieve not just after a loved one’s death. Grief can be “triggered by many things,” including any king of “break in an attachment,” including leaving your job (retirement), moving across the country or even having to give up on a long-held dream. “Death, yes,” but also “divorce; getting a serious medical diagnosis” can trigger the grieving process, she said. “Even positive transitions can trigger grief,” such as when a person retires from a job that provided them with status, income and even a reason for “getting out of bed in the morning.”

Is there a difference between the way women and men grieve? No, said Florian, though there are two main ways that people express their grief. One is an “instrumental” approach, in which the person experiences grief “more in the head than in the heart.” These people want to take action to deal with their grief, such as cleaning out the dead person’s closet quickly.

The other main way people grieve is the “intuitive” approach. Such people are “talkers,” Florian said, who experience grief “more in their hearts than in their heads,” and who want to talk to others to get help rather than take action.

While men tend to be more “instrumental” and women tend to be more “intuitive,” she urged advisors not to pigeonhole their grieving clients by gender, since many people exhibit a mix of approaches.

In an hour-long session that was listened to intently by the audience, Florian provided many additional tips, but perhaps her most poignant suggestion was that advisors realize that each grieving person has his or her own personal timeline in dealing with death or a significant loss. And she encouraged advisors to not just provide support right after a client experiences a loss, but subsequently as well.

Right after a loss, many people provide emotional and physical support to a person in grief, but she asked, “Who’s bringing food on a six month anniversary” of a loved one’s death to a widow or widower? “Or on his birthday?” On those anniversaries, she suggested, send the grieving person a card acknowledging the importance of the date, because the grieving person certainly is thinking of their dead loved one at that time.

Florian ended her session by citing a Maya Angelou poem, with obvious implications for advisors.

Angelou wrote: “People won’t remember what you said or what you did; they’ll always remember how you made them feel.”

— See more on Amy Florian: When Clients’ Mental Capacity Diminishes: An Advisor’s Role