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FA Center: How your financial adviser can help you process grief after the loss of a loved one

Your friend or colleague grieves upon the death of a loved one. You’re unsure what to do. Saying “Sorry for your loss” or “If there’s anything I can do” can sound feeble. But it’s how many of us express condolences.

For financial advisers, responding to clients in their grief is increasingly part of the relationship. Now, with many clients losing loved ones to COVID, advisers are offering more support and exploring new ways to comfort those in mourning. “We’re being more proactive in reaching out to people immediately who’ve lost someone,” said Sandra Adams, a certified financial planner in Southfield, Mich.

With an older client base, her 32-employee firm has had support services in place for grieving clients well before the pandemic, including an in-house expert on grief with advanced training in grief support. This expert offers communication tips and other guidance to help the firm’s advisers interact with distraught clients.

“She is there to provide ongoing education and support to our entire staff when it comes to communicating with clients and families around topics related to illness, death and matters of grief,” Adams said.

Adams and members of her team also have attended seminars led by Amy Florian, a grief consultant and author of “No Longer Awkward,” which teaches advisers how to navigate difficult conversations with grieving clients. “You learn the kind of language to use in a [condolence] note, card or email,” Adams said.

With such training, many advisers and their staff may not know what to say in a time of grief. Despite their good intentions, they may wind up making matters worse by resorting to clichés or inadvertently causing a client to feel even sadder.

As more clients face pandemic-related loss, for example, advisers may figure it’s best to say, “I know how you feel.” Then they may volunteer their own stories of loss that are still fresh and raw. But there are far better ways to convey your concern and compassion, Adams says.

When Adams learns that a client is dealing with the passing of a loved one, one of her first responses is, “Oh my gosh, tell me what happened.”

Then she keeps quiet. She girds for silence, because some individuals need to pause for a few seconds and compose themselves before they reply.

Some people don’t want to discuss what happened. They aren’t ready. It’s too painful. Many others, however, welcome the chance to open up. They might share how much the deceased meant to them, the circumstances of the death or other emotions they’re experiencing.

“It’s OK to show emotion and cry with them,” Adams said. “And it’s OK to use the deceased’s name.”

Advisers may feel emotionally depleted after two years of death and dying hitting close to home. Tired of talking about it, they opt for not raising the subject with grieving clients or making a cursory comment and moving on. 

But not bringing up the obvious sorrow that a client feels can drive a wedge into the relationship. Maintaining an emotional distance, while perhaps more expedient in the moment, comes at a cost: you miss a chance to solidify your bond with the client.

On a practical level, Adams and her colleagues give clients an organizer that streamlines the to-do steps they need to take. It helps them proceed at their own pace in getting the deceased’s affairs in order.

“We want to make this as simple and pain-free for clients as possible,” she said. “We want them to concentrate on healing and on their families, and to leave the paperwork to us to handle as much as possible.”

William Harris, an adviser in Duxbury, Mass., created an “After Death Checklist” that he presents to clients after a loved one’s passing. Like Adams, he has found that distributing a worksheet to clients helps them regroup without burdening them with too much, too soon.

More than ever, he’s reinforcing the need for clients to review and update their wills, advance directives and other written instructions to make their wishes clear to those around them. Digital platforms such as MyDirectives.com simplify the process of recording one’s medical treatment preferences, organ donation status and other critical information in an easy-to-access format.

“Too many people never got to see their loved ones again [in person] when they entered a hospital or nursing home in the past few years,” Harris said. “What COVID has really shown us is the gift of preparedness and how important it is.”

More: Like ‘going to hell and back.’ Battling cancer gave this financial adviser skills to build trust and listen better

Also read:‘I need to take care of myself or I won’t be able to keep doing this.’ From hard knocks, a financial adviser now helps families with special-needs challenges

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