Advisors who work with middle-age or older couples need to be mindful that one day they may well be working with the surviving spouse. It would serve them well to put themselves in the survivor’s shoes if possible, and to realize that the most innocuous, well-meaning comment can grate on a newly minted widow or widower. Depending how raw the wound is, such comments can lead the widow to think, “This person is a jerk,”  “man, they don’t get it” and “I’m outta here,” as opposed to “I’m in good hands.”

Things Not to Say to a Widow

  • Have a nice day.

    • From a widow’s perspective: “I told you my husband recently died. Do you really think I’m having a nice day?”

  • He’s in a better place.

    • You really think so?

  • Honey, I’ll take care of you.

    • How condescending can you get?  I don’t need you to take care of me. I need you to take care of my money and educate me.

  • Trust me.

    • Every alarm in my head goes off.

People in general, although well-meaning, don’t understand how trite and superficial remarks such as these can be. It can set the tone of the relationship or lack thereof.

More Mistakes to Avoid

Often, it’s not the words that are said but the business-as-usual attitude that is also grating. The broker has incorrectly planned for an hour meeting and wants to move things along. Surviving spouses, especially those that did not handle the money — be they men or women — need more time. What may normally take one appointment can often take two or three.

The surviving spouse may be totally ignorant of what they own, where it’s held, or even what they’re looking for. And once they find the papers, they may be at a complete loss as to what to do with them. What may seem simple and logical to the broker or their staff is meaningless to the spouse. Brokers tend to forget that the language of finance is intimidating and bewildering to the average layman. Add a layer of self-doubt and confusion to the mix and the poor client is befuddled. No wonder they don’t know what to do or who to trust.

The professional has lost sight of the fact that the survivor has lost the person they used to process this kind of information with. 

More About Widows

Money is an emotionally charged topic, and to be dealing with it for the first time by themselves and under stress is a horror show. Often, widows don’t want their kids to know about their finances and generally won’t discuss their money with friends, leaving them in a very vulnerable and lonely place. They came into the broker’s office hoping that they would make things simple and straightforward. That they would leave feeling comfortable, and having a good understanding of both their holdings and their financial future. More often than not, they are more confused when they leave than when they walked in the door. If possible, they feel even lonelier at the end of the appointment than at the beginning.

New widows and widowers have trouble concentrating. They will forget to bring in the papers, or not understand or remember what has been told to them. They are exhausted, anxious, frightened and stressed. When people are that anxious, they cannot properly process language. Generally speaking, they know they’re not getting, it which exacerbates the situation. People need to remember they are not dumb, just numb.  

It is important to remember that the length of time a person has been alone is not a gauge of how well they’re doing. Short of losing a child, losing a spouse is probably the worst loss one can experience. The hurt never goes away. The person just learns to coexist with it. Hearing someone say “Buying that stock was stupid” is painful. Now, buying the stock may have been a poor decision but it is easy to personalize the comment.  

People know that they need the help. They are hopeful that the person who had been handling their money would be able to provide them with the necessary information to move forward in a comfortable, secure manner. When they perceive that someone is being patronizing toward them, they react negatively.

The broker who has enough foresight and compassion to understand that the surviving spouse needs someone who is honest yet kind and is willing to take the time to explain in detail more than once what they own, why they own it, how it works, and what its goal is and can compassionately guide them going forward will have a client for life.