Practice Management

Don't ignore the death of a loved one

Offering comfort and understanding to a grieving client will help build trust and loyalty

May 16, 2010 @ 12:01 am

By Amy Florian

For better or worse, professionals rely on our society's standard conventions and accepted phrases to offer solace at a wake or funeral.

But what are the standard conventions for financial advisers when it comes to post-funeral appointments? The absence of guidance in this area makes even seasoned advisers feel awkward at a crucial time in the client relationship.

For instance, imagine that a widow comes in for an appointment six months after her husband's death. Do you bring up his name, knowing that it could open wounds and cause unnecessary pain?

The prevailing wisdom is that you should avoid mentioning her deceased husband; after all, you don't want to risk making a client cry, or bring up something you don't know how to handle.

So rather than potentially alienating the client by saying the wrong thing, we assume that it is better to say nothing at all.

But the prevailing wisdom is wrong.

Avoiding the issue is exactly the kind of thinking that makes grieving people feel isolated and alone. Their memories are still very much alive, and their love for the deceased remains strong.

They long to remember, to hear stories and to know that people haven't forgotten.

HELPING CREATE MEMORIES

Although healing necessarily involves letting go of the physical presence of that person, it doesn't mean forgetting. Quite the contrary; as people heal, they take memories of the past with them into a future that is very different from what they thought it was going to be.

Creating those memories and carrying them forward require saying the name, telling the story and remembering.

Although sadness is often involved at first, eventually, the memories and stories bring more smiles than tears, and they become a source of great solace and comfort. It is often refreshing even to hear someone else say the name and talk about what a difference his or her loved one made when he or she was alive.

There is an old African tribal saying: “No one is truly dead until there is not a person left alive who speaks their name and tells their story.” When you bring up the name, you do your client a service and give them a type of comfort that few people around them are providing.

INITIATING CONVERSATION

How do you bring up the name thoughtfully? When you first sit down, say something like: “It's odd to sit down with you and not have Jim here. He was such a great guy, and we all miss him. I can't imagine what it's been like for you since his death, and I know it will take a long time yet before you are healed. I just hope you have opportunities to talk about him, remember him and feel whatever you are feeling at the time.”

Then see how your client reacts and follow her lead. If she shuts the door and cuts off the conversation, allow her that right. However, if she wants to talk about it, be willing to spend the time to listen.

If you knew her husband personally, have a couple of memories in mind that you can share.

If your only relationship with him was strictly professional, you can still say something like, “One thing that impressed me was how carefully Jim considered the options available. He always tried to do the best thing for you and the family.”

Will it make her cry? Possibly.

Yet you didn't cause the tears; they were there anyway.

Crying over a deceased loved one doesn't stop for a very long time, and the tears need to be released.

Let her know you are comfortable with her tears by nodding toward the tissue box on your desk and saying, “You can use my tissues if you'd like. It's up to you.”

If she apologizes because she begins to cry, tell her that she never needs to apologize for her tears in your office. You understand that tears are our most human response to a loss such as this.

In fact, there are physiological chemicals in tears that relieve stress. We are intended to cry when we are sad, and it is healthier to do so.

These simple steps let your client know you can accept her grief, you understand her tears and her need to remember, and your office is a safe place to be.

In a business where so much of client retention depends on building trust and loyalty, those are incredibly powerful messages.

Amy Florian is chief executive of Corgenius Inc. (corgenius.com), which specializes in training financial professionals how to interact with grieving clients.

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