Working with grieving clients is a difficult challenge for many planners; most people simply do not have very much experience working with others who are grieving, and the uncertainty about what to say or do - or not say or do for fear of offending - leads many to avoid such potentially awkward situations altogether. Yet the reality is that experiencing loss, and grieving for it, is a fact of life, especially when we recognize that the kinds of "loss" triggering grief can encompass a wide range of circumstances, from the death of loved ones to a loss of role or routine to an outright material loss of money or even home.
Fortunately, though, a recent new book entitled "No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients Through the Toughest Times of Life" helps to provide guidance in navigating these difficult issues. Written by Amy Florian, who is herself an expert on grief, both academically (with 30 years of experience, she holds a Master's degree and is a Fellow in Thanatology) and sadly personally (as several decades ago a sudden car accident left her a 25-year-old widow with a 7-month-old son), the book provides guidance on exactly what to say (and not to say) in grief situations, and a wide range of templates and resources as well.
Simply put, "No Longer Awkward" may quickly become the definitive handbook for advisors on how to comfortably handle those uncommon-but-frequent-enough grief situations with clients.
Understand Grief And Different Types Of It
In her book, one of the key points that Florian makes is that grief is not a dysfunction; it's an expected and normal process to dealing with a loss. However, dealing with it inappropriately - or never fully dealing with the grief at all - can have highly adverse consequences.
In addition, Florian emphasizes that there are really many different types of grief; while the death of a loved one may be the most obvious triggering event, grieving can also be brought about by a material loss (e.g., losing money or a home), a mental/psychic loss (e.g., unrealized personal goals or a failed vision of marriage), a functional loss (e.g., paralysis, debilitating disease, or even losing driving privileges), loss of role (e.g., a job demotion or even promotion, parents transitioning to an empty nest, a business owner who exits the company), or a loss of routine (e.g., birth of a child, major job change, adjusting to life in a new environment). Viewed from this perspective, arguably most clients experience grief-triggering losses far more often than we may realize. Granted, not all of these losses are anticipated to have the same extent of disruptive personal impact as the more-commonly-recognized death of a spouse or another loved one, but failure to realize that clients also need to go through some type of grieving process for these other types of losses can become a roadblock in a client relationship if not addressed and handled appropriately.
As Florian notes, some types of grief are already disenfranchised by society - i.e., poorly understood or not always well supported, such as the impact of the death of a pet, the loss of an online friend, or the death of an adult sibling (as society generally focuses on the parents, spouse, or children in such situations). Ideally, Florian suggests that planners have the opportunity to take a proactive role to take every client grief seriously and give it the attention it deserves; but to say the least, planners should be cautious not to further disenfranchise a client's grief over a loss and make the problem even worse!
What To Say And What To Do
Perhaps the greatest challenge that most planners face in dealing with situations of grief is simply that we don't know how to act, what to say, or what to do. In other words, it's an awkward situation - which means as planners we may often try to quickly minimize or move past the loss and grief event, if only to manage our own discomfort. And the fact that we don't often deal with these situations (or at least don't recognize many) means we're often ill-prepared with little experience to know what to do (or at least, not until we've bumbled through a few such events and learned a few things to do or not do!).
Fortunately, though, one of the best features of Florian's "No Longer Awkward" book is that it guides the planner on exactly how not to be awkward in such situations - by literally providing a list of things to say, and things not to say, including the reasons why! For instance, don't say "I'm so sorry" or "You have my sympathy" (it loses impact because everyone else says it too), or "I know how you feel" (you don't) or "Call me any time" (questionable if you really mean it, and grieving people don't necessarily want to have to ask and feel even more vulnerable). Instead, Florian suggests better things to say, such as "I can't imagine what this is like for you, would you like to tell me about it" (give them a chance to share and talk through their grief) or "I know your grief won’t be over in a week, or a month, or even a year. This will take a long time, and I’ll be here for you" (and then of course, be certain to live up to the promise!), or simply say "I'll call you" and then really check in regularly (demonstrate that you'll truly be there as needed without them needing to ask or think about it).
Similarly, Florian's book provides other valuable tips and guidance. For instance, despite what you may have heard, handing a box of tissues to crying clients is not a best practice; it actually implies to the client that it's time to stop crying and dry the tears - even if the client isn't ready - and does more to signal your discomfort than to actually provide the client with comfort! Instead, just leave a box of tissues within reach of clients, and let them use if/when/as they're ready. Similarly, Florian suggests that having other "hand-held gadgets" or things to fidget with nearby may help as well; some clients may prefer to have something in hand when talking about difficult topics.
A Handbook For Working With Grieving Clients
Another nice addition to Florian's book is that it includes a series of templates that advisors can use (and/or adapt for their purposes) for communications with grieving clients, such as text to use to appropriately fill condolence cards or follow-up letters for the months and years after the event. The book also includes guidance about when to consider referring clients to other professionals; what are the warning signs to know when a client is moving through a normal-but-difficult grieving process, versus a situation where there may be additional problems or concerns? There's also an extensive list of additional resources, either for the planner struggling to deal with a unique situation, or to recommend to clients who may need some additional guidance for themselves, from how to discuss death and grief with children to moving on after a family member commits suicide.
Ultimately, I see Florian's "No Longer Awkward" as a kind of handbook for financial planners, as virtually every advisor will someday need to work with a grieving client, yet few have any experience dealing with such situations. In fact, in my experience acknowledging that grief is something that people must deal with - often over an extended period of time - is difficult for many planners, as we are often eager to move on to the planning steps that follow a tragic event; in fact, for some I suspect that focusing on the technical facts and the next steps to take is itself our own escape from what feels like an awkward situation. With a resource like Florian's book, though - with guidance on what to say, what not to say, and templates to use to get comfortable communicating and supporting clients appropriately - perhaps as planners we can get a bit better at no longer being awkward in grieving situations, and instead do more to help our clients through their own difficult times.