Grief and loss of some kind is almost always present in our lives. In my previous two articles for WealthManagement.com, you learned about relationship loss and intra-psychic loss. Now we turn to another type of grief-inducing change that clients experience throughout life: role loss.
One’s role is their accustomed “place” in a friendship network, family, workplace or other social construct. We get highly attached to our roles, especially when they become part of our self-identity. When they change, we grieve. Some examples:
- A natural caregiver must become a care receiver. Caregivers often pride themselves on taking care of other people while not needing much care themselves. It can be humbling and difficult to accept limitations and ask for or accept help.
- A widowed or divorced client is no longer part of a married couple. They frequently feel like a third wheel or fifth wheel. How do they play cards or go dancing without a partner? Married friends aren’t sure how to act around them and may even play matchmaker in an attempt to get back to a sense of normalcy and “fit.”
- A breadwinner is laid off. One may think of this as solely a financial loss, but losing a job is devastating on many levels. An integral part of their self-identity may have been tied up in their success at work or their perception of being indispensable to the company. They could feel like they’ve failed in their role of providing for the family and may even question their self-worth as a person.
- Clients became in-home teachers to their kids during COVID-19. Parental teaching and supervision were particularly time-consuming and intense for those with younger children who could not log in, read instructions or engage with the teacher in the ways they always did in person. Some parents even left their jobs to care for the family. Regardless, they often felt inadequate, overwhelmed, and angry at the deficits they perceived in their children’s learning and social development.
Like many types of grief, role loss can even be triggered during positive life events. For example:
- A graduate leaves school and enters the workforce. This may be experienced by the children of clients or a middle-aged client who’s gone back to graduate school. Regardless, being a student has a rhythm and purpose all its own and provides a concrete sense of working toward something. Once that goal is achieved, it can be disorienting, especially if the schooling was full time and the person’s entire life changes.
- A couple has a baby and leaves behind child-free life. Most couples look forward to having a child with great anticipation. Yet once the child arrives, there can be a substantial amount of grief. If their friends are not yet parents, they may feel out of place or like their friends don’t understand. They often grieve over the lack of sleep or the way this little person takes over their lives. They may resent having to plan so far ahead even for simple things like going out to eat as a couple. While everyone around the new parents expects unbridled joy, this is often actually a time of deeply mixed emotions.
- An employee gets promoted to a new role. As exciting as the extra money and prestige is, the employee may no longer feel confident that they know how to do this job. Expectations and responsibilities are different, they probably report to a new boss, perhaps they move to a different office, and they lose the easy day-to-day interactions with previous co-workers. Everything is different and uncertain, and stress levels are generally high.
- A long-term member of the workforce retires. Many newly retired clients are thrilled not to have to work, but they also grieve for what they’ve left behind. They lose their title and prestige, purpose in life, standard routine, including their reason to get out of bed in the morning, regular cognitive stimulation, daily interactions with colleagues and more. Research shows that men who retire (more so than women) tend to drink more, watch more TV, have fewer social interactions, become more sedentary and are at higher risk of illness.
These types of changes can create a “both-and” emotional state, where a client feels joy about some aspects of a transition and sadness about others. Of course, this is not true of every person, but it is something to watch for as clients adjust to new roles.
So what do you do to best support them? Your biggest task is to acknowledge their experience and listen to their story. In the case of a retiree, for example, here are some questions you can ask:
- What do you most miss about your job or going to work?
- How often are you still in touch with colleagues you enjoyed?
- What is it like when people ask what you do, and you answer, “Well, I used to … but now I’m retired”?
- What gets you out of bed in the morning now that you aren’t going to work?
- Is it easier or harder to get a good level of physical activity now?
- What do you find most satisfying about your new role in life, and what is most challenging about it?
- How are the family dynamics different now that you’re retired?
As they talk, continue to ask open-ended questions to help the client process and to help you understand their experience so you can serve them better.
For other types of role loss, the principles remain the same: think about all the implications of their change in role, both positive and negative, and use similar questions that invite the client to share the varied and complex emotions they are experiencing.
Whenever you address this type of loss and the grief it entails, you set yourself apart because few others are doing so. Clients know you understand them and serve them in ways other advisors don’t, which is always a good thing!
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.