The original version of this article ran May 17, 2017.
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.”
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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.