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Amy Florian — Leading Through Loss: The 2017 IA 25

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Amy Florian’s road to becoming an expert on grief and transition started with her own loss. Following her husband’s early death and her own processing of grief, she started giving workshops to try to help others.

She said the response to those workshops was “phenomenal. I realized I could give people what I didn’t have. … I could take my hard-earned wisdom and make it easier for other people.”

Florian now has a master’s in pastoral studies, as well as a fellow in thanatology (the study of death and dying) certification from the Association for Death Education and Counseling. She founded her firm, Corgenius, in 2008 to train people in multiple industries how to deal with loss when serving clients and customers.

“Everyone wants to help. Everyone wants to heal. We’ve just never been taught” how, Florian said.

One of Florian’s most important lessons for advisors is to resist the urge to respond with “I’m so sorry” when a client calls to say her husband has died or she was diagnosed with cancer. It may feel unnatural, but Florian knows from experience that even well-meaning “I’m sorry’s” ring hollow to people weighed down by grief.

“Although talking about illness and death and grief seems on the surface to be a terribly uncomfortable topic, underneath it all, people are hungry to share their stories, to be understood, to get the support they need to heal,” she explained.

Instead of offering condolences, invite clients to tell their stories. “Don’t tell, ask. And don’t focus on you – ‘I’m sorry, I’m shocked’ – focus on them,” Florian said. Ask clients if they want to tell you what happened or who they have with them or what you can take off their plate, she suggested. The advisor who can call the insurance company for the client or coordinate with the funeral home will be much more valuable than one who offers sympathies and attends funeral services. 

These skills can also help younger advisors can gain credibility with older clients, Florian said. “When they know what to do and say, they appear wise beyond their years,” she said.

Florian stressed that these lessons will help advisors with clients who are dealing with tragedies beyond the death of a loved one.

“Grief is triggered by any break in attachment,” she said. “These skills come into play not only with death but also with divorce, aging, retirement, empty nest, dementia, job loss, any serious or terminal illness — any time that one chapter closes and another one begins.”

(Related: What Does Divorce Really Cost?)

While advisors should follow their clients’ lead when it comes to talking about a new loss and give them space if they don’t want to tell their story, Florian warned against disengaging too much. “There’s nothing like a tragedy to bring people out of the woodwork telling grieving people where they should go and who they should talk to,” she said. Instead of inviting clients to call them when they’re ready to talk, advisors should check in occasionally to remind clients that they’ve got everything under control.

Florian recommended creating a list for clients of any time-restricted decisions that need to be made like trust funding deadlines or estate tax filings. Conventional wisdom that people shouldn’t make big decisions following a loss is supported by both science and regulators, Florian said.

When a client loses a loved one, keep track of “marker dates” like birthdays, the anniversary of the death or a graduation in the case of a lost child, and reach out to see if the client has someone to talk to.

“What everybody else does is avoid them,” Florian said of these milestone dates, including holidays. “We don’t know what to say so we don’t say anything at all.”

When Grieving Clients Need More Help

“Grief takes a lot longer than we think it does,” Florian pointed out. “It’s absolutely normal for people to get ambushed [by grief] and have crying spells months and even years afterwards.”

However, warning signs for clients who might need more professional help than an advisor can provide include declines in personal grooming or hygiene, rapid weight or loss gain, comments about wishing they were dead or an inability to get out of bed.

“No grieving client really wants to get out of bed in the morning, but most of them manage to do it,” she explained. “It’s not uncommon for clients to say, ‘Why didn’t I just die too? This is so hard; he got the easy role.’ That’s normal.”

Advisors should be concerned, though, if clients start saying things like, “‘I wish I could just go to sleep and not wake up.’”

Florian recommended advisors reach out to churches, hospitals or hospices in their community to find out where they refer people who are grieving. “Who are the respected grief coaches, counselors, psychologists? Where are their support groups?”

Keep a list of these resources, along with suggestions for books on grief, to have on hand in case a client needs objective guidance.

The lessons learned through grief management can be profound, Florian said.

“If we successfully navigate our way through grief, we can come out as more tolerant, more appreciative, wiser, stronger,” she said, “and we carry that through the rest of our lives.”

— Read I Planned for Widowhood but Got a Lot Wrong on ThinkAdvisor.