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How to Get Clients to Talk About Death

It protects them in financial and non-financial ways.

Our society has lost most of our previously taboo subjects. Sex, for instance, used to be a major taboo, but no longer, at least in the public arena. Sexual harassment and abuse prompted recent firings of prominent figures in politics, entertainment and business. Sex advice is widely available from counselors, books and media, and sexual orientation is not a major issue. Sex education is required in schools, and more websites center on sex than any other topic.

Money is in a similar category. Its the topic of endless conversations, speculation and media coverage. Well-known pundits spout opinions on all things financial, and morning news shows regularly interview investment experts. Politicians consider who has money, who spends it and how, as central issues. Although it can still be a sensitive topic for couples to discuss, money hardly seems a taboo subject now. What, then, IS the final taboo? 

Check your own response when you read the word—death. Most people recoil at the very thought of it. There are no key spokespersons giving information and advice about the process or how to deal with it. Death education is not a part of school curriculum, and the grieving process is widely misunderstood.

Interestingly, death used to be familiar. In times past, generations of families lived together or close by. When elders got sick, the family cared for them at home. When elders died, family members lovingly washed and clothed the body, and the wake occurred in the living room before the body was carried in a handmade casket to be buried in the local church cemetery. Children were exposed to death as a natural and normal part of life as the entire clan gathered to remember the one who died. 

But then families began to scatter and both spouses started working. With no full-time caregivers at home, old and/or sick elders were cared for in nursing homes. Medical technology prolonged life, but often required hospitalization, even as it seemingly conquered or at least forestalled death. Once death did occur, care of the body was shifted to funeral home personnel who quietly performed their duties out of sight. In other words, we outsourced death.

As a result, public perception shifted. Rather than an expected, natural part of normal life, death is perceived as an unexpected, unnatural interruption to normal life. We seem to believe that death is not inevitable, that it won’t happen to us or to anyone we love (at least not for a very long time) and we actively avoid talking or even thinking about it.

The last taboo, then, is not sex or money. It is death.

Getting Tough Conversations Started

In this milieu, how do you initiate conversations or get people to think about life insurance, advance directives or completing a will? How do you guide them to prepare not only for living longer than expected but the possibility of dying sooner than they believed?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Re-frame the conversation. Tell clients you’d like to help them maintain as much control of their lives as possible right until the end, and at the same time, reduce the burden on their family. Explain that doing so will require having conversations about things that make some people uncomfortable, but you believe they have the courage and foresight to do it.

    Then introduce life insurance, wills, powers of attorney (healthcare and finance), and advance directives as the tools that make it possible to accomplish three major goals:

    1. Help ensure their wishes will determine what actually occurs in their care;
    2. Relieve family of having to make decisions without knowing what they want; and
    3. Allow family to grieve without also worrying about whether they can keep the house, send kids to college, or pay outstanding medical bills.

    In other words, tell clients: “These tools allow you to call the shots. They help you be the protector you want to be for your loved ones. Ultimately, they are not about you dying, they are about your family living.” 
  • Familiarize your clients with these websites that help initiate and guide discussions:

    The Conversation Project: Provides a practical, useful Starter Kit plus tools to prompt conversations, ask questions and clarify desires. Also includes a Starter Kit for families affected by dementia.

    Prepare For Your Care: An easy-to-understand site that includes illustrative videos and helpful knowledge to aid the decision-making process.  
  • Encourage clients to think about their kids and grandkids as well. Ask whether their adult kids have a will that names a guardian for the grandkids or whether they want the courts to decide who will raise them. Ask whether your clients know what medical decisions to make for the adult kids if there were a terrible accident or whether they even have permission to access the medical information. Prompting clients to think about their kids reinforces the necessity of thinking about themselves too, plus it widens your sphere of influence.

Break through the taboo of death. It’s the right thing to do for your clients. It protects them in financial and non-financial ways. It allows you to serve them more compassionately, genuinely and effectively, and builds your reputation for understanding a client’s experience in a way that few other professionals do. And all of that can’t help but be good for your business.

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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