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grieving crying Copyright Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Because You Can’t Fix Your Client’s Grief

While the natural impulse is to explain death in hopes of lessening pain, this is often unhelpful to clients or even alienates them.

How many times in the last six to eight months have you gotten the news that a client or a client’s family member died? Combine the aging client base with an uptick in deaths at younger ages due to opioids and suicides, advisors are facing increased incidents of death events. When that happens to you, you’re expected to guide clients in financial ways, but also to know how to support them emotionally.

One challenge arises because we are a society of “fixers” who sincerely want to make things better. In fact, advisors may be particularly prone to this because your overall job is not only to “fix” your clients’ financial situations, but also to relieve their anxieties and provide assurance, security and peace of mind. While the natural result of this impulse is to explain the death in hopes of lessening the pain, this is often not helpful to clients or may even alienate them. Advisors, then, need to be especially aware of the potential for mistakes and learn how to avoid them.

Recognize the Mixed Emotions of Grief

Here are a few examples of what to avoid and some alternatives:

She’s in a better place.

This is a presumptive statement that assumes your client has a strong belief in an afterlife. In reality, even if that has generally been the client’s faith stance, at that moment they may be calling into question the beliefs they so easily ascribed to before tragedy hit. In addition, because we don’t know the back story of the deceased’s private life, it’s possible to encounter grieving families who are not altogether certain of their loved one’s present location.

Finally, even if clients firmly believe and draw comfort from their belief that their loved one is in a better place, at the exact same time that they’re happy for their loved one, they are sad for themselves because they miss them. In fact, they may have a hard time imagining a better place than right there by their side. Both sides of that equation—the gratitude/relief and the pain/longing—need to be acknowledged and respected.

What to Say Instead.

Regardless of the situation, it’s better not to offer this sentiment to a grieving person. Acknowledge the mixed emotions, even when clients say it themselves, by saying, “Yes, it’s wonderful to know she’s in a better place and at rest, and yet we’re sure going to miss her here. The world will never be the same.”

At least he’s no longer suffering.

Similar to the rationale above, when a loved one dies, grieving family members experience a swirling range of emotions. If the deceased was in pain and suffering through an extended illness, they are indeed grateful that his pain has ended. They are also relieved for themselves, knowing that they are no longer suffering watching their beloved die over time.

Yet, they are suffering now in a new way. The loved one is free of pain, but the family’s pain has shifted and often intensified as they deal with the loss of physical presence, laughs, hugs, shared memories and more. They may not realize the extent of this shift in the initial instance, when relief takes precedence. Over the first days and weeks, though, as they relentlessly face that his absence and they attempt to redefine life without him, the pain becomes the prominent feature.

What to Say Instead.

There are several options that offer true comfort, with your choice of words dependent on how well you know the situation and whether you’re talking to the family immediately after the death or after a little time has passed. Here are two suggestions to consider using or modifying:

  • “Now that the journey is over, it has to be a relief to know <their name> is out of pain and that you aren’t faced every day with the struggles of the illness. Yet no one wants to just remember the final illness. So tell me, what is something you hope people remember about <name>? What stories or memories will you carry most closely in your heart?” Then listen as your clients talk about the one they loved and cared for.
  • “Yes it’s good to know that <name> is no longer suffering. Yet you are, because the world is different now without <name> in it.  You will probably find that every aspect of your life is affected and it will take a while to rebuild something new. As you go forward, we’ll help in any way we can to honor <name’s> memory and create a living legacy to the love you shared.”

Overall, remember that your job is not to “fix” your grieving clients nor to make sense of this reality for them. In the quiet of their own homes, they experience both the relief and the pain, and you provide great comfort when you legitimize both sides. So set yourself apart. Companion your clients where they are, and provide the kind of understanding they don’t get elsewhere.  

Amy Florian is the CEO of Corgenius, combining neuroscience and psychology to train financial professions in how to build strong relationships with clients through all the losses and transitions of life.  

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