Practice Management

Talking to clients about losing a loved one

Financial advisers should honor that a grieving client needs to remember, not forget

Jan 15, 2012 @ 12:01 am

Imagine a typical day. You grab a coffee and settle in at your desk. You conduct two productive client meetings and go for lunch before the afternoon's tasks.

Then you answer the phone, and you hear the hospital chaplain's voice — and nothing is ever the same again.

Now imagine it is the fifth anniversary. That fateful day is seared into your consciousness, and it will never be just typical.

Although others may expect you to be “over it” by now, you will never forget what happened or the person you so loved.

Perhaps we can learn something from our public memorials of tragic days.

Everyone older than 50 remembers where they were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and can still hear CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite's somber voice.

It has been 25 years since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, and we remember the name Christa McAuliffe as we mark the day.

Ten years after the smoke, sirens and crashing buildings on Sept. 11, 2001, we pause on the anniversary to show videos, tell stories of heroes, wipe away a tear and proclaim that we will never forget.

Whenever we experience a major loss as a nation, we remember, celebrate and honor that loss for years to come.

As these examples illustrate, when you are supporting grieving clients and friends, acknowledge that the goal of grief is not to forget or “put this behind us and get on with life.” Instead, we move on precisely because we remember, because we create an enduring memory to carry with us into a future that is different from anything that we could have imagined before.

We tell the stories and share appreciation for the privilege of having these people in our lives. We try to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening to someone else.

We change in more ways than we thought possible. We live with grief and healing, allowing both to coexist in the everlasting interplay between loss and gratitude, sorrow and joy.

In your practice, never assume that your clients are “finished” with their grief at a particular point in time. Honor their need to remember, and let them know you understand.

There are two simple steps that you can take.

First, don't be afraid to say the name of the one who died. Your clients never want to forget, and they hope others don't, either.

Too often, people talk about anything and everything except the person who died, avoiding the issue for fear that they will open old wounds or make the survivor cry. In reality, saying the name assures survivors that someone else remembers and cares, and it opens the door for them to talk about their loved one if they choose.

Three examples that you can say in person or write in a card:

• “It must be difficult to have these meetings without Jim; after all, it's only been four months. Yet I think we've made good progress as we work together to honor his legacy and protect your future.”

• “By now, you've encountered well-meaning people who are afraid to mention Kathy's name. Though not everyone will be open to it, I hope you still find opportunities to speak her name and tell her story.”

• “When I read the newspaper story about the charity golf event, I remembered how Alan used to recruit everyone he knew to play in it. He made such a contribution to the cause.” (Substitute any story or memory that is appropriate and honest.)

The second thing that you can do is to gently acknowledge the an-niversaries of a loved one's death for several years afterward. Do the same for birthdays and other special events.

Call, send a card or note, and perhaps include a “comfort gift.”

Call or leave a voice message that says, “Today is sure to bring a mix of emotions as you mark Helen's birthday. I just wanted you to know I'm thinking of you.”

Send a single flower with a note that says, “Those we love are forever remembered. I'm thinking of you on this fourth anniversary of Anne's death.”

Send a gift certificate with a card that says, “Nov. 18 will never be just another day on your calendar again. Although I cannot take away your loss, perhaps you can at least enjoy a cup of your favorite coffee with this gift card.”

When you acknowledge their loss, even years later, they know why they chose you as their financial professional — because you understand their experience in a way that few others do.

Amy Florian (amyflorian@corgenius .com) is chief executive of Corgenius Inc., a training source for professionals who want to speak with and support their clients, friends and family during times of grief and transition.

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