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crying grief Copyright Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

The Psychology of Grieving Clients

The grief process takes longer than most people think, and it’s a very individual process.

In the coming years, your aging clients will face retirement, diminished capacity, grief and death. While most advisors are adept at guiding clients through the financial implications of these major life transitions, far fewer have the skills to support them through their grief process. In Part 1 of this two-part series, I provide solid education about grief. In Part 2, I teach you practical steps that implement these teachings and make a difference for your clients.

Grief occurs any time there is a break in an attachment. The more complex or intertwined the attachment, the deeper and more complex the grief when it’s broken. Death or divorce breaks many attachments and results in profound grief. So does a change in one’s functional ability, or the delivery of a serious diagnosis.

Whether from a market downturn or being laid off, loss of money is also a break in attachment, and it’s different for everyone because of the type of attachment money holds for them. For some of clients, money is simply a tool. For others, their money represents security. For still others, money is a major source of their self-esteem, with their salary or their portfolio defining their worth as a person. 

Most people don’t realize that grief can even result from positive transitions. For instance, when your client gets a promotion or a new job, they receive more money, a nicer office and more important responsibilities. But they still must leave behind what they had before—their old office, camaraderie with colleagues whose desks were nearby, the normal routine of their day and the feeling of competence arising from their comfort and expertise in that role. 

Whether it arises from a loss or a positive transition, the grief process is similar. It helps to understand the principles of grief, which can then be applied in different client situations, regardless of what triggered the break in attachment.

Understanding the grief process: Are there really five stages?

In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote a groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying. It was the first time in the history of psychology that anyone studied the emotional processes of dying patients. She classified the emotional responses she observed into five categories she called “stages.” In the field, we affectionately call them by the acronym DABDA - denial, anger, bargaining, despair or depression, and acceptance. These responses actually can apply any time we get bad news, including the catastrophic news of impending death.   

Simple example: You try to start your car to drive to a very important client meeting and realize you have a dead battery. The first thing you do is turn the key and try it again, right? You say to yourself, “No, no, no, I don’t have a dead battery.” When the car simply won’t start despite repeated tries, perhaps you slam the steering wheel or let out a few choice swear words. Then you start bargaining with it: “Come on, baby, please start for me. I’ll detail you; I’ll do anything. Just please start!” Then you despair: “I can’t believe I have a dead battery. This meeting is too important to be late. What am I going to do?” Finally you say, “Okay, I’ve got a dead battery. I’ll call AAA, or maybe get an Uber or Lyft, and of course I’ll call the client and explain what happened.” In 10 minutes, you’ve gone through DABDA. 

Although the stages have legitimacy in examples like this, there are multiple problems with DABDA. If you have a client who is grieving, the first thing you need to understand is that even though our popular culture has called them the five stages of grief, they are not. The reason: If you are dying, you have to let go of everything, including life itself, in order to die. If you survive the death of someone you love, you have to do all that letting go and then you have to go on. You have to assimilate the loss into your life, face the tough emotions, redefine your identity and build something that wasn’t there before. … In other words, the grief process is much longer and more complicated than the dying process.

Many contemporary psychologists, in fact, believe people don’t enter the tough part of grieving until they reach what DABDA says is the final stage—accepting the fact that the death occurred. In addition, current research shows that such clearly defined stages force the bereaved into an artificial model, where everyone’s experience is alike and predictable. It would have us believe that first you’re in denial; when you’re done being in denial, you get angry; when you’re done being angry, you bargain; etc. In the not-too-distant past, I’ve had advisors ask, “Shouldn’t I wait until they’re in the bargaining stage before I suggest that strategy?”

That’s not the way it works. Not every one of your clients will experience all of these responses. It’s perfectly normal that some people never get angry when they’re grieving, for instance. As your clients grieve, they will also experience many more responses that aren’t included in the five stages. With all the research conducted since 1969, the most frequently used formulations of grief focus more on tasks that must be achieved to resolve grief, or behaviors people exhibit as they grieve.

No matter which emotions or responses arise, grief is not a straightforward, linear or predictable process. It’s more like a roller coaster—up and down, and back and forth. Commonly, your grieving clients will feel like they’re taking three steps forward and two steps back followed by four steps forward and another two back. The grief process takes longer than most people think, and it’s a very individual process.

While grief is complex and volatile, you can say and do specific things that support your clients through it. If you can master those and truly accompany clients through the toughest times of their lives, you distinguish yourself from all the other advisors who don’t know what to do, and you build trust and loyalty that lasts.

Next month I teach you skills you can implement to do that.

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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