Advisors report that they are attending more funerals these days than they’ve ever had to attend before. That is not surprising, given our aging population. A few background statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau American FactFinder tool:
- There are currently about 75 million baby boomers in the U.S. (down from the peak of 78.8 million).
- As of 2015, there were almost 32 million people older than the baby boomers.
- Since 2004, there has been a 28 percent increase in the number of people older than 64.
What does this mean for mortality? Just as we had a baby boom, we are in for a death boom. The necessity of attending funerals and guiding grieving clients is dramatically increasing and will continue to do so for years.
At the same time, we, in the United States, are not taught how to deal with death and grief. Instead, we are taught to suppress it, deny it, and rely on time-worn but ultimately unhelpful phrases to offer our consolation.
Think about your own experience. Were you ever explicitly taught what to say at a wake, beyond “I’m so sorry for your loss”? No one is, and most people therefore avoid wakes because they feel so uncomfortable. Advisors who make it a point to go (a highly recommended practice), don’t know what to say. Most often, they offer well-meaning platitudes and perhaps offer to make an appointment in a week or two. Sound familiar?
Afterwards, when grieving family members come into the office, the awkwardness continues. Few advisors were ever taught how to act around a person whose spouse died last month, or three months ago, or six. So they avoid mentioning the name of the one who died, stick strictly to business in hopes that emotional topics never surface and keep tissues close by so they can hand one over immediately should any tears arise. None of these are good protocols to follow, but most people simply don’t know any better.
Keep Clients in the Center
With all the client families experiencing deaths, putting them at the center of the equation means knowing how to help them make it through these tough times; not just by investing their money wisely, but by understanding their grief, letting them know they are heard and understood, providing valid information and support and walking with them as they heal.
Where do you start?
- Ask the right questions. Before the conversation turns to finances, ask open-ended question that invite your clients to tell the story and give you a window into their lives and experiences in light of the loss. This is healing for your clients and also provides valuable information that helps you serve them better. This can be as simple as asking things like:
“What kind of a day is it today? Is this an "up" day, a "down" day, or an all-over-the-place day?”
“There is no way to prepare yourself for what it’s like when a loved one dies. What is harder than you expected? What is easier? What has surprised you? What do you wish people knew about what you’re experiencing?”
“How do you wish people would act around you? Do you wish they’d talk about him/her, ignore it, bring you food or leave you alone?”
- Prepare and protect. A loved one’s death often highlights all the ways that the person failed to prepare ahead of time. For instance, is the family having trouble finding the birth and marriage certificates, car keys and titles, mortgage papers, passwords and other essential information? Did their loved one have sufficient life insurance, powers of attorney, advance directives and a will? Use this as an opportunity to help your clients and their families gather all that data, complete documents themselves and store it all in one place so it is easily accessible whenever needed. Consider offering a digital lock-box service, so the “one place” can be with you. Doing so helps you become the point person for the entire family’s information and documents.
- Educate yourself. You are already educated on the financial needs of grieving clients. Ensure that you become equally educated on grief support. Remember that there are hundreds of thousands of advisors who know what to do with the money. Your clients look for those that also provide skilled non-financial support and guidance. There are many informative books and resources available. Take advantage of them, for yourself and for your staff.
With a little knowledge, you can become the financial advisor who understands how to talk with and support clients through their most difficult times. In the process, you set yourself apart from the others, especially in this increasingly competitive marketplace.
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.