I picked up my phone and heard the familiar edge of panic in the advisor’s voice. “One of my top clients just died. I will attend the services, but I’m afraid I’ll say and do all the wrong things. Help!”
He was right to be worried. Research tells us that more than 90 percent of adult children and 70 percent of widows switch to a different financial professional after the estate is settled. You need to use every bit of knowledge at your disposal to offer compassion and to help ensure you keep those assets under your management. Yet few financial professionals are ever taught what to say or do at the formal services or in subsequent appointments in the office. Most pick up the “standard” phrases everyone uses, not realizing most of them are at best minimally comforting. Besides, when you say the same things everyone else says, you become indistinguishable from all the other faces in the crowd.
Can you do something instead to be memorable for being truly helpful, and to set yourself apart as an exceptional advisor who understands grief and supports the family in authentic ways?
Here are a few general principles that can guide you, combined with some specific do’s and don'ts:
- Keep the focus on the grieving person. Too many supposedly helpful phrases reflect what you feel rather than what the grieving person feels. One example: “I’m so sorry.” This is intended to let someone know you care about their loss, yet there are three problems with it.
- Outside of a grief situation, we use the words “I’m so sorry” when we apologize for doing something wrong. Unconsciously, then, when a grieving person hears those words there can be an instinct to say, “It’s OK. It wasn’t your fault.” In other words, they feel they need to comfort you instead of the other way around.
- It stops the conversation because there is no easy way to reply. They may respond with “Thank you” but that doesn't quite fit when you think about it. And then what? It leaves you no logical conversational path.
- You risk a more serious negative reaction. Recently a widow told me she was so tired of hearing it that if one more person said he was sorry, she was going to snap back with “Not half as sorry as I am!”
- Every grief is unique. One’s grief is affected by the relationship with the deceased person, personality, available support systems, prior experience with loss, faith, culture and many other factors. Because of this, even two widows whose husbands die at the same age of the same cause on the same day in the same town will experience grief differently. If you tell someone “I know how you feel” or "I understand what you're going through," you will immediately alienate that person because you are always wrong.
- Don’t minimize or compare the loss. Avoid saying anything that starts with “At least... ” or that highlights only the positive side. For example: “At least you still have your children” or “At least he’s no longer suffering” or "At least you're young and you can marry again." Most people are well aware of all the things for which they are grateful, yet at the same time they are desperately sad because this person has died. When you point out what they haven't lost or concentrate on only positives, you tell the family that you don't understand at all. They feel you are telling them what they should feel—grateful—rather than acknowledging what they do feel—intensely mixed emotions.
- There are no time limits. Do not tell grievers they will feel better in three months or six months. Do not tell them to "put it behind them" or "get over it." Grief has no timetable, and it takes far longer than most people realize. The family needs support for a long time after the services have ended.
Now that you know a few things to avoid, what phrases should you use? The following are far more helpful:
"I came tonight because I wanted to honor Jim. He was such a great guy, and in fact one thing I will always remember about him is.... We are really going to miss him."
“It’s a relief to know she isn’t in pain any more, but this world just won’t be the same without her. Tell me, what is something you hope people will remember about her?”
"What do you wish people knew about what this is like for you?”
“There are a lot of people around you right now. They have to go home soon, but your grief will last longer than that. I’ll call you next week, just to see how it's going at that point. Then I will be in touch for the long haul, doing whatever I can to help make this process a little bit easier for you and the family.”
That dreaded phone call announcing a client’s death is bound to come. Keep these principles and suggestions handy, so you can rise above the crowd as an advisor of wisdom and compassion.
Amy Florian is the CEO of Corgenius, combining neuroscience and psychology to train financial professionals in how to build strong relationships with clients through all the losses and transitions of life.