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When the Holidays Are Not So Cheery

Differentiate yourself by choosing to offer authenticity and genuine comfort.

Despite all the joy and cheer around them, the holiday season can be especially painful for your clients who’ve experienced a loss, diagnosis, death, or serious illness in the past year. You need to understand why it’s difficult and have strategies that offer comfort rather than alienate them.

There are three main reasons why this is a tough time:

  1. Everyone is expected to be happy. The family gathers around the menorah or sings “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” or “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” In this milieu, grieving people feel like they are swimming upstream against the joyful tide or at least standing alone on the riverbanks while everyone else enjoys the water.
  2. It’s a family time, when everyone gathers together. It also means the absence of a beloved person who leaves an unmistakable void. He’s not in his chair at the head of the table, she’s not lighting the candles or he isn’t ripping open presents with unbridled delight. The yawning void is inescapable.
  3. The holidays only happen once a year, so a grieving person doesn’t have to face them very often or develop ways to cope. The season is a sort of time-out-of-time for everyone, but for a grieving person it feels particularly surreal, and many times they just can’t wait until they’re over.

Because of the difficult mixed emotions of the season, don’t send the same card to a grieving client that you send to everyone else. Advisors sometimes tell me they’d rather take the risk of being overly cheerful than take the risk of making a client cry or bringing them down by sending something that reminds them of their grief. In other words, most professionals (and most people in general) are far more comfortable allowing the big white elephant to remain firmly in place and avoiding any mention of the sad situation.

If you do, it tells the grieving clients that you are generic; that you treat them like everyone else even in the toughest times of their lives. Or, perhaps worse, it tells clients that you don’t understand them. Like everyone else in society, you expect them to put their sorrows aside for the sake of the season and paste on a happy face. Yet they are aching for someone to recognize what they’re going through and truly support them instead of just trying to “cheer them up.” Besides, grief is a healthy process. Crying is healing and relieves stress in physiological, chemical ways. Bottling up grief and pretending the loss didn’t happen won’t make it go away. Differentiate yourself by choosing to offer authenticity and genuine comfort.

The first step is to select a card that does not say Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays or the like. Choose one that either has no words or that wishes peace or hope. Consider including a gift card for a cup of coffee, a movie, a massage or something else comforting. 

Then include a handwritten note inside. Here are some possibilities:

“Wishing you Happy Holidays at a time like this seems hollow. Instead, I wish you peace. I wish you healing. I wish you hope.” 

“During the holiday season, [name]’s absence is sure to be painful. It may be made even worse because most of the people around you will be afraid to say the name for fear of making you sad. I know I can’t make this void disappear, but I hope you can at least catch a moment of respite with the enclosed gift card. I am thinking of you and remembering your loss, especially now.” 

“The holidays will bring a mix of emotions as you remember the happy times with [name] and yet mourn [his/her] absence. I hope you can allow yourself to experience it in your own way, acknowledging the happy and the sad, so you can come out on the other side with greater hope and peace. I’ll call you soon to check in and see how it’s going.” 

“During this holiday time, I wish you moments of lightness in the midst of the pain. I wish you companionship of beloved people in the midst of the loneliness. I wish you healing as you learn to survive these days. Most of all, I wish you peace.” 

“You may find that few people understand what you experience during this holiday season. Try to be patient with yourself and others as you find your way through the ups and downs that this time will surely bring. In the meantime, do what seems right to you and take care of yourself. Concentrate on what is most important, and know that I am here for you.” 

This should give you some ideas to go on so you can create personalized holiday cards that support your clients in ways that others don’t. They will notice, and they will deeply appreciate it. 

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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