Welcome, everyone! Welcome to the 53rd episode of the Financial Advisor Success Podcast!
My guest on today’s podcast is Amy Florian. Amy is the founder of Corgenius, a consulting firm that teaches and trains financial advisors about how to work better with grieving clients.
What’s fascinating about Amy, though, is that she actually is a trained Thanatologist – one who studies death, loss, aging, transitions, and the various forms of grief. A path that first started for her when she unexpected become a young widow herself at the age of 25 with a 7-month-old son after a tragic car accident, and ultimately evolved into running a support group for widows, getting a Master’s degree and becoming a Fellow in Thanatology, and over the decades has expanded into conference presentations, workshops, a master class, and a series of books, with a primary specialization in working with us as financial advisors.
In this episode, we talk in depth about the real challenges as a financial advisor when trying to work with clients who are grieving, why the grieving process isn’t just about death and dying but any time someone has a break with an attachment – which can even include the break from the attachments of existing social relationships and personal identity when someone retires – and how in the end our job as advisors working with grieving clients isn’t about trying to make them feel happier, but simply to comfort them as they go through their own healing process. Even if that means there’s a lot of crying.
Unfortunately, though, in practice this isn’t what most of us tend to do when faced with situations of death, dying, and grief. Because these are situations that most are never trained to handle in the first place. Accordingly, Amy shares her expert perspective on how to be “No Longer Awkward” with grieving clients, what we should do and say to really comfort them, why saying “How are you holding up?” or “Is there anything I can do?” is not actually helpful for those who are grieving, why it can be even worse to try to hand a box of tissues to a crying client in your office, and why it’s better instead to ask “What do you wish people knew about what this is like for you?” or simply “What kind of a day is this for you?”.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Amy talks about how even though we as financial advisors aren’t meant to be professional grief counselors, that ultimately we can be “grief companions” that provide our support… beyond just trying to help with the financial issues that arise in times of grief.
So whether you have been curious about how you can be less awkward around grieving clients, the specific challenges financial advisors should expect when working clients suffering a break with some type of attachment, or curious about the role advisors can play beyond just addressing financial issues that come during times of grief, I hope you enjoy this episode of the Financial Advisor Success podcast!
What You’ll Learn In This Podcast Episode
- What thanatology is and how it is important to understanding grief. [3:04]
- How to be comfortable in your own grief and mortality and in turn be more comforting to others. [7:03]
- Why understanding grief and communicating with grieving people is vital to anyone who is looking to build a long-term relationship with clients. [9:15]
- What things you should not say to a grieving person and better ideas of what to say to them. [20:39]
- Why grieving isn’t just related to death and how it is related to many of the clients you deal with. [42:15]
- Why it’s more important to be a companion in grief rather than make people feel happy. [49:59]
- The general time horizon of the grieving process. [58:09]
- How to find a balance between helping grieving clients and addressing financial matters. [1:02:07]
- How Amy got started in thanatology. [1:08:36]
- How Amy defines success. [1:32:35]
Resources Featured In This Episode:
- Amy Florian – Corgenius
- Loyola University Chicago
- A Friend Indeed by Amy Florian
- No Longer Awkward by Amy Florian and Ken Florian
- Master Class
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Full Transcript: How Compassionate Communication Makes Us “No Longer Awkward” With Grieving Clients with Amy Florian
Michael: Welcome, everyone. Welcome to the 53rd episode of the Financial Advisor Success Podcast. My guest on today’s podcast is Amy Florian. Amy is the founder of Corgenius, a consulting firm that teachers and trains financial advisors about how to work better with grieving clients. What’s fascinating about Amy though is that she actually is a trained thanatologist, one studies death, loss, aging, transitions, and various forms of grief. A path that first started for her when she unexpectedly became a young widow herself at the age of 25 with a seven-month-old son after a tragic car accident. And ultimately evolved into running a support group for widows, getting a master’s degree and becoming a fellow in thanatologist, and over the decades has expanded into conference presentations, workshops, a master class, and a series of books with a primary specialization of working with us as financial advisors.
In this episode, we talk in depth about the real challenges as a financial advisor when trying to work with clients who are grieving. While the grieving process isn’t just about death and dying, but any time someone has a break with an attachment. Which can even include the break from the attachments of existing social relationships in personal identity when someone retires. And how in the end our job as financial advisors working with grieving clients isn’t about trying to make them feel happier, but simply to comfort them as they go through their own healing process, even if that means there’s a lot of crying. Unfortunately though in practice this isn’t what most of use tend to do when faced with client situations of death and dying and grief, because these are situations that most of us are never trained to handle in the first place.
And so Amy shares her expert perspective on how to be no longer awkward with our grieving clients, what we should do and say to really comfort them, why saying things like “How are you holding up?” and “Is there anything I can do?” are not actually helpful for those who are grieving and why it can be even worse to try to hand of box of tissues to a crying client in your office, and why instead it’s better to ask “What do you wish people knew about what this is like for you?” or simply “What kind of day is this for you?” And be certain to listen to the end where Amy talks about how even though we as financial advisors aren’t meant to be professional grief counselors, that ultimately we can be grief companions that provide our support beyond just trying to help with the financial issues that arise in the times of grief.
And so with that introduction, I hope you enjoy this episode of the Financial Advisor Success Podcast with Amy Florian.
Welcome, Amy Florian, to the Financial Advisor Success Podcast.
Amy: Thanks, Mike. I’m delighted to be here.
What Thanatology Is And How It Is Important To Understanding Grief [3:04]
Michael: I’m really excited to have you on the podcast today because you, I think, truly come to the podcast and our advisory world with a very different perspective than, well, really anyone else we’ve had or almost anyone else I’ve met in the industry. Your background is thanatology.
Amy: That’s correct.
Michael: Which is essentially the…correct me here, basically, like, the study of dying and grief? Am I framing that correctly?
Amy: In briefest terms it would be dying and grief. “Thanatos” is the Greek word for death. So “thanatology,” in most limited terms, is the study of death. In a broader sense the field of thanatology is death, loss, grief, aging, and transition. So it’s basically grief studies.
Michael: Death, loss, grief, aging, and transition. So your days are very uplifting, huh? That’s some weighty, kind of depressing stuff, right? I mean I guess that’s the point of why it’s so important and why there’s a study in it, but that’s weighty stuff by pretty much anyone’s measure.
Amy: It is weighty, it is serious stuff, but it’s actually not depressing at all because what makes it depressing is that we don’t know what to do and we don’t know what to say, we don’t know how to handle it, we don’t know how to heal. We don’t know how to help ourselves when it happens to us, we don’t know how to help the people that we care about when it happens to them. And so we’re afraid, it’s this big unknown. You don’t touch it, you don’t talk about it. By the time it’s a week after a funeral people are told to put it behind them, get on with life now, quit being such a Debbie Downer. We aren’t taught how to handle it. But if you flip that around and say, “There’s a way to understand what’s happening here. This is why I’m experiencing what I’m experiencing,” or, “This is why my loved ones are experiencing what they’re experiencing and this is how I can help.”
If you walked into the services after a death in a family and you knew with absolute certainty that you could make a difference, that you could be comforting, unlike all the other people who just come through on the conveyor belt and don’t really offer anything concrete or comforting, you know you can, than why would you not want to go? Of course you’d want to go. If you knew you could walk into a hospital room after somebody has been diagnosed or they’re in the hospital over the holidays with a serious illness, but you knew that when you went in you could make them smile. Or you could at least…you could be there for them in a way that other people can’t.
I’m actually a little bit hesitant to say you could make them smile because people sometimes think their job is to cheer the person up. And their job is not to cheer the person up, their job is to companion that person wherever they are.
Michael: That’s an interesting point. Your job is not to cheer them up, it’s to companion them wherever they are.
Amy: Exactly. And that will…eventually that will bring smiles, that will be healing, even if in the initial instance you’re companioning them wherever they are. Maybe you’re crying with them. Maybe when you visit them, they’re not going to smile. But that’s okay, then they feel like it’s authentic and it’s real and they don’t have to paste on the smiley face for you like they do with everybody else. Then you’re really helping them heal if you can be with them where they are. And that’s life-giving, it’s not depressing.
How To Be Comfortable In Your Own Grief And Mortality [7:03]
Michael: I don’t know, I mean I hear you. Maybe this is my own bias. I don’t think I’m alone in this, but, you know, just, I don’t know, it feels like there’s a depressing layer of just being around people who are going through death and dying and grieving processes that, you know, I’ll admit, even for me just, you know, if I’m thinking of going someplace like that, I…you know, my first problem is I just got to get out of my own head of not being depressed around being around death, and then figure out how to also hopefully be reasonably supporting for the person I’m actually visiting whose family has lost someone or a client who’s lost someone. I don’t know, is there…like, is there even a layer of you got to get comfortable with your own mortality before you can be effective at helping others deal with deaths in the family?
Amy: It’s a both/and. The more you can become comfortable with your own mortality and the more you can heal from the griefs in your own life, the better able you are to be there for other people in those situations. But at the same time, as you learn how to be there for other people in those situations, you become more comfortable with your own mortality and more comfortable with healing from your own grief processes. It’s a both/and, it’s back and forth, you’re learning all the time.
Michael: So can you tell us a little bit about just the…like, the work that you do? You’re a thanatologist, you’ve studied these things in great depth, but I know in practice you teach, you train. You know, I got familiar with your work originally because we overlap at a lot of advisory conferences where we’re both speaking usually directly against each other because I’m talking about the newest tax law thing and you’re talking about helping advisors work with grieving clients. So I guess, like, when someone makes an agenda, they’re trying to think, “Okay, how do we make content that, you know, won’t overlap too much?” You know? “I know, let’s put the thanatologist against the tax nerd.”
Amy: That’s right.
Michael: So I almost never get to come and see your sessions.
Why Understanding Grief Is Important For Anyone Building Long-Term Relationships with Clients [9:15]
Michael: Although I’ve been to it a few times and really enjoy it. But can you just talk a little bit about what do you do, what is your business and what do you actually do in this world of thanatology?
Amy: Right. I do a lot of different things. I used to do more one-on-one with people, I don’t really do that now. Well, I do very little of that right now because I’m traveling so much I can’t promise somebody I’m going to be there Tuesday morning at 10:00 every week. But I still have a support group that I started 28 years ago, a support group for widowed people, it’s kind of my baby. And I still facilitate that twice a month whenever I’m there. I have a team of facilitators and leaders for that group. So when I’m not there, I trust them to take it. But when I’m there, I’m always facilitating that support group.
Teach. I’ve taught a graduate class at Loyola University in Chicago for almost 10 years, I’ve taught undergraduate classes at three other universities. I teach at conferences all over the country in a variety of different vertical markets. Right now most of the demand, most of what I’m doing is in financial services with financial advisors and estate planning attorneys, trust officers, anybody who wants to build a long-term relationship with their clients. Because, you know, that’s where this industry is going.
There are hundreds of thousands of financial professionals who know what to do with the money, know how to balance a portfolio, know how to do taxes, know when you should file for Social Security. There’s hundreds of thousands of them. So what sets you apart? It’s the other stuff, it’s the relationship, it’s being there in ways that other financial advisers don’t know how to be because they’ve never been taught. So there’s a tremendous demand in this vertical market.
I also work with healthcare. I teach hospital chaplains, I teach nurses, I teach clergy, a lot of clergy. I do a lot of work with clergy and with churches and synagogues, places where people go when they’re going through something really tough. I work with nonprofit organizations. I just did a session for a nonprofit, for instance, that is for the families of children who’ve died of brain cancer, and walking them through that, talking with them. You know, it’s such an isolating experience when you have…when you go through something like that. To help them heal, to help them understand it, to help them face the holidays without their child. It seems almost unspeakable, but by the time we’re done with a session they’re so thankful because they have something to hang their hat on, they have a way that they can move forward now.
I work in very many different kinds of vertical markets, most of my work right now is in the financial professions because the demand is so high and that’s where the marketplace is going.
Amy: I began, by the way…one unique thing that I bring to the table is I began in a form of financial services. My first public speaking engagements were teaching general agents how to sell E.F. Hutton universal life insurance.
Amy: I grew up in a family, my dad was inducted into the Iowa Insurance Hall of Fame, I have a brother who invests pension funds, I have a brother who just retired from what was ING and is now Voya, I have a brother who works for AIG. I grew up around the financial world as I was growing up and my first jobs were in the insurance markets. So I know what it’s like to be on that side of the table. But then I also have all this education and the experience, I’ve worked with over 2,000 grieving people in the last 25 years. I know what they wish you would say, I know what they need in terms of their service professionals and their financial advisors. I hear them talk at support groups. You know, “I need help with investing the life insurance proceeds. Do any of you have a good financial advisor that you really trust?” I hear those kinds of things.
So both from my own prior experience and from the side of working with so many people and having the advanced education, it’s a unique blend that I bring to the field that really nobody else out there can do because of the background that I’ve had.
Michael: Yeah, it’s an interesting balance. And so it’s not hard to imagine why you’ve had such an uptake in speaking at advisory conferences about these topics. So can you tell us a little more? I mean, like, what does a typical session cover from you? I mean I’m just trying to imagine, like, how do you teach grief and death and dying, parentheses, in an hour?
Amy: Right, right. Well, first of all, not all of my sessions are an hour. But when I’m at a conference, when I’m hired to do a conference keynote or a conference breakout session, most of the time that is an hour. And that’s what’s required for CE, too, all of my sessions are certified for CE. So in a sessions like that there’s a number of different topics I teach. For instance, in-office skills. How do you answer the phone when somebody calls the office and tells you that someone just died last night, what do you do when they come into the office, how do you greet them, how do you handle an emotional client in the office, what do you do with their irrational fears, what do you do with the frozen widow who won’t change what her husband set up, all the in-office skills that you need for dealing with a client who’s going through a major transition.
I also want to throw in here it’s not just all about death, because grief is trigger whenever there’s a break in an attachment. Whenever we have to leave behind someone or something or a title, a way of life, an ability to do something, a function, a role, a dream, whenever we have to leave behind something we’re attached to and we have to go forward and learn how to live without, that triggers grief.
Michael: I love that framing of just grief is triggered whenever there’s a break in an attachment.
Michael: And so we can go all the way from losing family, losing job, losing identity, you know, losing family heirlooms. My child when she loses her Mulan doll, because she likes to cling to it wherever she is. So, you know, she goes into immediate grieving if it’s not in eyesight because she’s a three-year-old so that’s what she does. But, yeah, that’s an interesting framing.
Amy: Even positive transitions trigger grief. When a client retires. Everybody thinks, “Oh, what a wonderful… Yes, you finally don’t have to work.” But they leave their prestige behind. You know? “What do you do?,” “Well, I used to…” They leave their daily routine, their reason for getting out of bed in the morning, the colleagues that they associated with on a daily basis, their regular lunch spot. So many thing that they leave behind and moving into a world that they don’t know, it’s not familiar yet. Even positive transitions. Well, you know, getting married or having a baby. Having a baby is a wonderful transition, but don’t you just wish you could sleep through the night once in a while?
Michael: Yeah, yeah.
Amy: Don’t you wish you could go to the grocery store without carrying a minor U-Haul? Don’t you wish you could go out just spontaneously, go out to eat or go to the movies without arranging a babysitter two weeks ahead of time? You know, even the positive transitions of our life trigger grief. And the better we handle the grief of every one of these transitions, the better we handle the big ones, like the serious diagnoses and the deaths and the getting the divorce papers as a surprise, or being downsized or moving across the country. And it might be a positive move, but it’s a difficult move, it involved a lot of grief.
So when I’m teaching about grief, I try to frame that as, you know, most of our examples today are going to do with death because that’s the one people don’t want to talk about. But all of these principles, all the things I’m teaching, they apply to grief situations across the board.
Michael: I know we’ve seen this with clients over the years of the…just basically the grief process around retirement.
Michael: At least in our firm we have…we work with lots of folks that are in professional services. So, you know, lawyers, accountants, doctors, engineers, those types of folks.
Amy: Right, yeah.
Michael: And so their work is their identity, right? Like, an engineer is not just a job, it’s a personality type and an identity, as well.
Michael: And so much so that our industry has lots of jokes about working with engineering clients. But then they retire and they’re not the engineer anymore, or they’re not the doctor or they’re not the lawyer. And we’ve watched a lot of them really just struggle with, “Who am I now and what do I do?” I mean part of it is just, “How do I fill my time?,” but part of it is that loss of identity effect. That, I guess I never really quite thought of it in these terms, but would absolutely be something they go…you know, they go through a grieving process on.
Amy: Absolutely, absolutely. An image I sometimes use for the grief process is you’ve been kicked out of a room. And you may have wanted to leave the room or you may not have wanted to leave the room, but regardless you’ve been kicked out of a room and the door is locked behind you. Now you’re in the hallway and you’re facing five, six, seven, eight doors on the other side of the hallway. And one of those is going to become home eventually, one of those is going to become familiar, one of those you’re going to become attached to, but you don’t know which one yet. You poke your fingers into one door or you stick a toe into another door. Or maybe you spend a couple days in one door, and then go back out in the hallway and try something else. But you’re just in that in-between time, between what was and what will be, between the past you knew and were comfortable with and familiar with and the new.
And that happens with every transition. Positive, negative, every transition you end up in that hallway for a while where you just don’t really know where you are. And the bigger and the more traumatic transitions you’re in that hallway for a very long time, way longer than most people give you credit for.
What Advisors Should Be Saying To Grieving Clients [20:39]
Michael: So help us understand then. Like, what do we do as advisors, what should we be saying? I mean think you even…you’ve kind of set up the thought process, I think, a little bit differently just in saying, like, our job is not to cheer them up, our job is to companion them wherever they are. But can we try to boil this down a little bit more? Like, what is that…I mean what does that mean, what do we do? You know, I’ll certainly admit, like, I struggle a lot in those situations with, you know, recent widows where someone has passed away. Frankly, in client situations or just even in personal life and family situations of, you know, it feels awkward, I’m not sure what to say.
Amy: Or whether to say anything.
Amy: Or do you even bring it up. Yeah.
Michael: Right. Is it okay to bring it up, is it not okay to bring it up. You know, I feel like I go through this a lot even finding out that someone is sick in the family, I’m always terrified from that point forward to ever ask how the family member is doing because I’m afraid I’m going to ask how they’re doing and the answer is going to be like, “Oh, she died three weeks ago.” I’m like, “Well, don’t I feel like a blank now.”
Michael: And I’m pretty sure it’s not better to just ignore the thing and be silent, but, like, I don’t know how to ask these questions and bring the subjects up without feeling horrifically awkward or horrifically nervous, or the nervousness which probably just makes me more awkward when I try to have those conversations. Like, what do we do? Help me.
Michael: What do I do? And maybe a few others can learn from the personal counseling session I’m about to go through here.
Amy: Right. Well, the overarching principle to remember is that it’s not nearly as important what you say as that you ask good questions and really listen. What people need most when they’re grieving or when they’re going through a transition, what they need is to tell their story to somebody who’s willing to listen. It’s one of the ways that we make it real. You know, if you find that something bad happens to you and you’re walking around saying, “Oh, this isn’t happening to me. This is a nightmare, I’m going to wake up tomorrow and it’s all going to be gone.”
One of the ways we make it real is to hear the words coming out of our own mouths over and over and over again. But who’s willing to listen? In the initial instance right when it happens? A week after? Months after? On the first anniversary? Or even later than that? Who’s willing to listen? The key is to ask good, open, invitational questions, and then always to follow that other person’s lead. What you’re doing really is you’re issuing an invitation. You open a door, you invite them to walk through that door and talk to you about what they’re experiencing, and then you follow their lead, they can close the door if they want. They’ll let you know if they don’t want to talk. But in my experience well over 90% of the time they’re going to walk through the door and they’re going to talk to you because they are so hungry to talk to anybody who’s willing to listen.
One of my favorite questions to ask is, “What do you wish people knew about what this is like for you? What do you wish people knew?” It doesn’t feel intrusive, like, “Tell me how you feel.” It’s, “Tell me how you feel,” or, “How are you?,” or, “How are you doing?,” those are bad questions. “How are you?” is just going to get the standard answer. “Fine.”
Michael: “Fine.” Yeah.
Amy: Yeah, “Fine.” That’s what everybody says, “Fine.” Because they think you don’t really want to know. And they can’t really answer that question. “How are you?,” “Well, you know, when I woke up this morning I felt lighter than I had any time since it happened and I thought, ‘Oh yes, I’m on the path.’ And then at 10:00 that song came on. Oh my gosh, I just… But then I had lunch with friends and it really helped. But then the afternoon dragged on forever.” You know? “How are you?,” “Well, how do you think I am? My husband just divorced me.”
Michael: Yeah, that would be why I’m afraid to ask that question.
Amy: Yeah. So that’s what the… People don’t generally say that because we know that folks are trying to be helpful, they just don’t know any better. They’re trying to be, you know, politically correct or whatever and they’re saying, “How are you?,” but they don’t really want to know. So, “How are you?,” or, “How are you doing?,” or, “How are you holding up?,” which implies that you should be holding up, whatever that means, those are just bad questions to ask.
If instead you say, “What kind of a day is it for you today? Is this an up day or a down day or an all-over-the-place day?” “Oh, okay. You really do want to know and you have some clue that grief is not a linear progression, that it’s more volatile than the stock market. It is all over the place. You have some understanding what this might be like and you’re asking a question that’s different than everybody else, I can answer that question. You know what? This is an up day.” “Great. What is it that made it an up day? Do you have any clue or is it just…are you just grateful that you’re up?” If it’s a down day, “Is there anything particular that happened that triggered it that it’s a down day or is it just a down day and you’re trying to get through it however you can?” You just ask good questions.
Michael: Should I be trying to follow that up with some kind of, like, “Is there anything I can do to help or make you happy?,” or whatever? Something to that effect?
Amy: “Is there anything I can do?” or “What do you need?” are also bad questions. Because when someone is in the midst of grief, first of all, they can’t think. “What do you need?,” “Well, everything. I don’t know.” Or they can’t think at all. And they know everybody has got limits. So many people say, “Call me. Any time you need something, give me a call. Any time you need something, okay? Okay? Give me a call any time you need something.” “Really? Do you really mean you want me to call you at 3:00 in the morning when I can’t sleep and the tears won’t stop and I don’t think I can go on? Do you really want me to call you at 3:00 in the morning? Anything I need? Really?”
In some ways, you know, people, say it because they want to be helpful, but sometimes psychologically also we use it to get us off the hook. “Well, I told them to call me. I told them to call me if they need anything. They aren’t calling, so they don’t need anything. Right? They want to be alone, right?” No. But we can interpret it that way. But instead, you know, the grieving person is not going to call you. They don’t know what your boundaries are, they don’t want to impose. Grieving people feel like they’re such a burden on everybody the way it is. They don’t want to impose, even if they could think about what they need.
So when you call… If you truly do want to do something for them, then offer some suggestions that let them know what your boundaries are, what kinds of things would you be willing to do. Would you only be willing to do things that you can do from afar? You know, “Would it be helpful to you… I’m sure that you don’t have time or energy right now to clean your house. Could I arrange to have somebody to clean your house for you? Or could I pick the kids up from their activities? Would one of those things be helpful? Or what would you like instead? Or could I take you out for coffee just so you get a break? Or would it be more helpful if I brought in a meal so you don’t have to cook? Or maybe what you need is to address those ‘thank you’ notes. I mean there’s hundreds of ‘thank you’ notes. I can write the addresses on all those envelopes so that you just have to do the inside part. Would that be helpful?”
Give some suggestions for what you really would be willing to do, and then end it with, “Or would something else be helpful?” Once they have an idea what you might be willing to do, they may well choose one of the things you said or they may choose something else that’s, “You know, I don’t really need you to pick up my kids, but, you know what, if you could pick up my dry cleaning,” or, “If you could go get my groceries.” They know what kind of thing you’d be willing to do, so they’re more likely to be able to ask.
I want to go back, too, a minute just for those…the open-ended questions. If I’m talking just in casual conversation to somebody and they mention the fact that someone in their family died, you know, “When my dad died three months ago,” or, “When my sister died five years ago,” the easiest question to ask is just, “Oh, was she sick for a long time or was it a sudden thing?” They’ll tell you. They’ll start talking and talking and telling you the story. And most of the time they do it with a lot of energy because they need still to tell that story and they’re so happy to have somebody who really wants to know.
So it’s a very easy question to answer. Or, “What do you wish people knew?” You know, “What do you wish people knew about what it’s like to hear the word ‘cancer’ come out of your doctor’s mouth? What do you wish people knew about what it’s like to be in the hospital over the holidays? What do you wish people knew about what it’s like for you now three months after your spouse of 65 years died? What do you wish people knew about what it’s like to have to put your mom into memory care? What do you wish people knew about what it’s like to know that your son took his own life? What do you wish people knew?” They’ll tell you what they wish you knew. But it’s not intrusive, it’s an easy question to ask.
Sometimes people will say, “I wish people knew I feel like a strand of blown glass. If somebody goes ‘poof,’ I’m just going to break. They’re all telling me how strong I am. Yeah, right. I wish they knew what’s really going on inside.” I wish they knew that what I really need is…” You’ll get all kinds of answers. “I wish they knew, I wish they knew, I wish they knew.”
Michael: So are there other questions we can try in this vein? You know, “What do you wish people knew about what this is like for you? You know, what kind of day is this for you?” Like, what other kinds of questions can we ask that, I guess, that are safe and constructive questions? Because, you know, I’ll…I can certainly think of times that I’ve done the “How are you?” or “How are you holding up?” kinds of questions.
Amy: Because it’s what we’re taught, that’s what we’re taught. We’re not taught the good things to do, the good things to say. I’ll give you some more questions, there’s so many. I also have a…I created a little desktop reference called Compassionate Communication, and I think it has 32 questions to ask, 47 phrases to avoid, a 10-step protocol for attending the services. It’s got, like, bullet pointed… It’s just a bullet point desktop reference on some of these things that many people are finding really, really helpful.
Just to give you another couple of question ideas. “How do you wish people would act around you right now?” And you might get answers like, “I wish somebody would just say her name, I want to know somebody besides me remembers.” Because, you know, grieving people, they all want to know that their loved one’s life made a difference, that somebody misses them besides them, that the death left a void in the world. And yet by a week after the funeral everybody around them talks about anybody and everybody except the person who died. They avoid the topic, they act as if it didn’t happen. Right now we’re approaching the holidays. It’s their first holiday since a family member died and you’re wishing them “happy Hanukkah” or “merry Christmas”? I’m sorry, that doesn’t work because it’s not a merry Christmas or a happy Hanukkah this holiday.
Michael: So, you know, again, maybe this is one of these things that I get stuck on my own head. So I always felt like the fear was…the fear for me at least is I feel like I’m reminding them or dredging up the past by bringing it up. Like once we’re past the initial event, whatever the thing was, you know, someone passed away. Like, I feel…I’d always felt fearful to say, like, you know, “So, you know, how are you doing since Daniel died?,” as though I’m now bringing up into a widow’s face, like, “Oh yeah, in case you forgot, let’s talk more about the fact that Daniel died.”
Does that make sense?
Amy: Yes, absolutely.
Michael: It was fearful to me to bring up this thing that maybe hopefully they’re trying to move on from. Is this just I’m stuck in my own head because the reality is if it’s a fairly fresh death there’s no way that they’re moving on anyway, so just acknowledge that reality? Or do I run the risk, if I’m bringing this up, that, like, I’m going to…you know, they were making progress and I’ve just dragged them back to dwelling on the death again?
Amy: There’s so much richness in the questions you just asked.
Michael: Sorry, I probably put too many there at once, I’m kind of processing it for myself.
Amy: Yeah. You are honestly reflecting what people ask me all the time. So I’m going to try and take it apart a little bit and talk about different aspects of it. First of all, not, “How are you doing?” “What is it like for you now, three months after Daniel died?” Or, “What do you wish people knew about what it’s like now, three months after Daniel died?” Those kinds of questions. You ask the question, and then you follow their lead. But you say, “Well, should I ask about it three months later, six months later, a year later, or are they trying to move on? Am I just dredging something up?”
Amy: You are not reminding them of something that they aren’t acutely aware of every single breath they take every day of their life. If it’s their spouse who died, every day they’re waking up to that empty pillow, that empty side of the bed and going down to have coffee alone and reading something in the newspaper and not being able to say, “Hey, Jim, did you… Oh.” They are aware of it every minute of their day. And yet when they go outside their door, everybody else acts as if nothing happened. It is comforting to know that somebody is acknowledging the situation, the reality that they’re facing in their everyday life.
When it’s his birthday, it’s Daniel’s birthday, what is everybody doing on Daniel’s birthday? They’re avoiding his mom, his wife, his kids because they don’t know what to say. “Oh, I’m sure they want to be alone on a day like today.” Really? “Oh, I don’t want to remind them what day it is.” Oh, come on, that day is burned into their memory for the rest of their lives, you’re not reminding them of something. Or they say, “Oh, I don’t want to make her cry.” You think the tears aren’t there? What people do is based on the smiley face when they’re out with everybody else, and then they come home and cry alone.
They would much rather let those tears come out with somebody who’s sympathetic, who’s compassionate, who can say, “Yeah, this is a tough day, isn’t it?” You know, you can just give a call, “I know it’s Daniel’s birthday today, so what do you have planned? Are you going to go to the cemetery, are you going to get together with some family, or are you just going to cocoon in bed all day? What do you have planned for today? What is it like for you on Daniel’s birthday?” Wow, that kind of a touch is priceless, that’s golden. Or send them a card, “I can’t take away the pain of a day like today, but I hope you can at least enjoy a cup of your favorite coffee with the enclosed gift card.”
Do something to reach out to touch them to let them know they’re not alone. Grieving people feel isolated and alone. Because once it gets to be like a week after the funeral or a week after the divorce is finalized or once it’s a couple of months into the treatment or, you know, whatever it is, whatever the transition is, by the time we get just a little bit past it everybody is saying, “Well, you got to move on, you got to put it behind you, get on with life now.” That’s not what healing is. You don’t take something or someone or some ability or anything that you loved, that you cherished and put it behind you and go on with life. You learn how to let go of what you need to let go of, of what has to be let go of. You’re not going to hear their voice in person, you’re not going to get their hug. You have to let go of what can no longer be. But you don’t put it behind you, you create the memories, you create the stories, and you carry it with you for the rest of your life. They are a part of who you are, they’re in your DNA.
My husband died 37 years ago, but I will never forget him. He is a part of me, he’s a part of our son. I will never forget him. And so for the rest of your life occasionally you get ambushed because you never forget. You’re not supposed to. You carry it with you for the rest of your life. And it is comforting to hear the name, to tell the stories. The things that at first bring tears later bring smiles. Or think…
Here’s a good example. We just passed 16 years since 9/11. What do we do on the anniversary, every single year on the anniversary? We read every single name. We tell the stories, we shows the videos, we say, “Never forget, never forget, never forget.” We all hear all over again about these brave men and women who walked into those towers. We all hear all over again about all those people who just went to work that day and never came home.
What happens if it’s been 16 years since somebody’s spouse died, parent died, brother died, it’s been 16 years since a tragedy happened in their family? Do we have as much compassion for them as we do for our corporate grief? We’re not supposed to forget, they want to hear the name. This person was really, really important to them, they want to hear the name for the rest of their lives, they want to remember the stories, they want to raise a glass in their memory for the rest of their lives. That’s what healing is, when we learn to let go of what can no longer be and we learn how to build something new, we learn how to go on without that person in our lives or without that whatever it is that we lost. Without that in our lives, we learn how to go on.
You learn how to be a parent. And after a while of being a parent, you can barely remember what it was like not to be a parent when you were just single, but you don’t put that behind you as if you never were single or you never were just a couple. You still tell stories, “Oh, remember when we were just a couple and we went out and did this?,” or, “We traveled here,” or, “We did that.” Nobody tells you to put that behind you and get on with life. Even though you’re in a totally different space right now, you’re in a totally different stage of your life right now, nobody tells you to forget your prior stages. But when somebody dies we do. It’s like we expect them to forget. We expect them to never cry again?
Especially the things that happen only once a year, like the holidays and the birthdays and the anniversaries and the days that were special to that person, or the things that happen not even once a year. When a child is born with disabilities and their age-mates accomplish something your child never will. Or your child died, and then their classmates walk across the stage to get their diploma and your child should have been there. All those kinds of things, those take a lot longer to heal from because we don’t get to practice them very often.
Amy: So those anniversaries, the birthdays, the anniversary of the death or the divorce or the holidays, those things are painful for years to come because we don’t get to practice them very often.
Why Grieving Isn’t Just Related To Death [42:15]
Michael: So I want to touch a little bit more on the dynamic of crying, as well. You know, as you pointed out, you know, I think there’s a lot of time we have a fear of, “If I say something or bring this up, I’m going to make them cry. And,” I quote, “I don’t want to make them cry, so I just won’t bring it up.” And I think I know what your answer will be, given some of the conversation so far, but I take it I should not be as fearful as I probably am of bringing this conversation up, and then starting a discussion that ends in crying and tears?
Amy: Right. Tears are healing. There’s actually physiological chemicals in tears that relieve stress. We are supposed to cry when we’re sad. It helps us heal and it’s a sign of love. If you didn’t love that person, you wouldn’t be crying. If you didn’t miss what you used to be able to do and now you can’t do it because of your neuropathy or whatever the diagnosis might be, you can’t do it now, you loved doing that, it was a part of you and you have to let go of that. Of course you’re going to cry. These are good things, it’s good to cry, it’s good to face those emotions.
Well, grief is hard work. Grief is hard work, it is not for the faint hearted. People think it’s the strong people who don’t cry, it’s not. It’s the strong people who do. Because it hurts, because it’s difficult to face the loneliness and the void that can never be filled in the same way again. It takes real strength to do that. But it’s the only way to heal. Because if we repress it, ignore it, deny it, refuse to look at it, it doesn’t go away. It stays there and it festers and it will find ways to come back out and bite you. It might be out-of-proportion reactions to something else that happens in life or outbursts of anger or stomachaches or headaches. There’s all kinds of ways that unresolved grief comes back and bites us. If we have the strength and the courage to face those difficult emotions and to allow the tears to spill out. And to allow that to happen with other people, to encourage it to happen with other people.
Somebody starts to cry and you say, “Yeah, this is tough, isn’t it? I can see you really loved her, didn’t you? This is tough. It’s okay, I’ve got a good shoulder. You can use mine.” Or, you know, “This is tugging my heart, too. I miss him, too. Can I cry with you? I hope you don’t mind if I shed a tear.” That’s so much more comforting than somebody saying, “Oh, there, there, deer, cheer up, it’s going to be all right, really. Just put it behind you now. Look at everything else you have to be grateful for. Look. Look at this, look at that. And, oh my gosh, look at that beautiful tree on…that beautiful star on top of the tree. Look at that beautiful menorah. Look at how happy everybody is.”
Michael: Yeah, “Look at how much you have to be grateful for.”
Amy: Yeah, yeah. I wanted to also return because this…it isn’t just about death. You know, when you said, “What do you teach about?,” well, in-office skills and what do you say at services and how do you write condolence cards and do you send flowers to the services and do you bring up the name three months later.
I also teach a session on getting prepared ahead of time before any of this happens. It’s so important to get a lot of things in place ahead of time, it helps…it removes so many of the complications and so many of the issues that people face. If things are in place ahead of time before they’re getting…before they’re diagnosed with any kind of illness, before they have diminished capacity, before there’s a death in the family, before there’s a serious surgery or an accident where you’ve got to make medical decisions for this person, before anything happens, there’s so many things that need to get put in place. And I teach about the financial and non-financial, financial healthcare, ethical will, passing on a legacy. So much wisdom dies with our older people these days because we don’t value our elders in this society. How can they pass on their wisdom and their life lessons, not just their money?
So I teach about all of that. I teach about diminished capacity and dementia. The difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s, a lot of people don’t understand that. A lot of the myths that are going around about Alzheimer’s, what do you need to understand, what kinds of things do you watch for with your clients, how do you talk to them about it, how you talk to the family. I talk about elder fraud and being aware of that and what…all the whole milieu of what you need to know about that. I teach about serious diagnoses. Your client is diagnosed with cancer or they’re diagnosed with ALS or Parkinson’s, or any of the serious diseases.
Amy: If they come into the office, what do you say to them? “How are you doing?” Really? So I teach about serious illnesses, what do people need to have when they’re sick, when they’re seriously sick, when they’re dying, how can you walk with them through that. So all of these are different sessions. And women, you know, there’s some things that are more unique to women, even aside from the fact that 80% of men die married and 80% of women die widowed. Women outlive men and they’re much less likely to get remarried. And there’s all kinds of reasons for that, too. But what do you need to understand about that in your office and to companion people?
So it’s a much broader… Again, most of our examples today are dealing with death because obviously that’s the one people don’t talk about and that’s what I get so many questions about. But it’s much more than death, it’s really life. It’s life.
Michael: I mean I feel like by the time you grab up all the different categories, or just that framing, like grief is triggered any time there’s a break in an attachment, you feel like now I’m basically a full-time grief counselor with at least one client meeting a day for probably most advisors that has some connection to someone or many of these grief events that you’re talking about here.
Amy: Right. And you’re not becoming a counselor, but you are becoming a trusted advisor when you know what to do and you know what to say. You know your limits, too. You’re not counseling them through their grief, there’s people who are trained to do that. But at the same time you know how to be there with them, you know how to companion them in ways that most people don’t because we’re taught all the wrong things. We’re taught to say, “Put it behind you and get on with life.” We’re taught to cheer them up. We’re taught to say, “I’m so sorry.” We’re taught to not bring it up, to not rub it in their face, you know, a couple of months later. We’re taught all the wrong things.
And so people have doing all the wrong things for decades. If you can do the right things, it doesn’t mean you have to be a counselor, but it does mean you can be there for your clients in ways that other people don’t know how to be because they’ve been taught all the wrong things.
Why It’s Important To Be A Companion In Grief [49:59]
Michael: Can you help make maybe that distinction a little bit more though of being a grief counselor versus a grief companion? Maybe that’s a way to frame it. Like, I’m just trying to figure out from your perspective as an expert on this. Like, where does the line end about what financial advisors do and where should the line begin about what grief counselors do? Like, we’re…clearly we need to get better on some of these conversations than we are, but I think even those of us who do this well are probably quick to acknowledge, like, “I’m not a trained psychologist or grief counselor and I’m not necessarily trying to go that far with my practice.” So, like, where do you draw this line? Like, how far down this road should we go or is it appropriate to go in the advisor’s context?
Amy: It’s a little bit of a fuzzy line. I mean, for instance, you teach about behavioral science, behavioral finance, but I don’t think you consider yourself a behavioral scientist.
Amy: You know what you need to know in order to talk to clients in ways that make sense based on their neuroscience, based on their psychology. You know how to talk to the clients based on that. If they have serious behavioral issues, you’re not going to go there.
Amy: And in some ways it’s the same kind of thing with grief. You know how to be there for your clients. If every time your client comes in they do nothing but cry the entire time and this goes on for months, you can companion them all you want but they need more help than that.
Actually, one tip that I give to advisors is, again, before anything happens create a branded resource list, find out the resources in your area. Talk to the churches and the synagogues, talk to the hospitals, talk to the hospices, watch the newspapers for notices, find out where the support groups are, find out… You know, go to your local place of worship and say, “If somebody needs help, where do you refer them to? Do you offer anything? Does our place of worship here offer support groups or a nurse or counseling services? Do we have any services like that? And if somebody needs something we don’t provide, where do you refer them to?” It’s a way to get some trusted referral sources.
And you do the same thing with the hospices, you do the same thing with the hospitals, “Who do you refer people to? What do you have? What do you provide?” And you create a list of these different resources for support groups, for coaches, for counselors, for psychiatrists. Then when something happens, you give it to every single client. Because if you wait until it seems like somebody needs help, and then you say, “You know what, you really need help. Here, here’s a list of counselors,” that’s not going to go over well. But if you say, “This is something I provide to all of my clients when they’re going through a difficult transition.” And you can have one that’s based on grief, you can have one that’s based on divorce. You can have one that’s based on dementia, you know, the support groups for dementia caregivers and dementia patients, and the Alzheimer’s Association. Whatever, make it target to their transition.
“I give this to all of my clients that are going through this kind of a transition because often it’s really helpful to talk to somebody objective who doesn’t have the baggage of family, who knows what they’re talking about, who can help you maybe get through this a little bit faster with a little less pain, with a little greater understanding. These are people who can really help you. And so I provide these resources, here’s a list of the resources that are in our area. I suggest you take it home, stick it on the refrigerator or throw it on the coffee table. If you want to take advantage of any of these resources, I’ve gotten them from all these different, you know, good sources, I can’t guarantee any one because no one person, no one group, no one counselor is going to fit everybody. But you can give them a try. If you don’t want them, maybe somebody in your family will. Maybe you’ve got a brother, a sister, a parent, or a friend who could use these. Here you go, here’s a list of services.”
Then if it seems like…if it seems to the uneducated financial advisor that this person needs more help than they can provide, then you refer to it again, you know, “Remember that list I gave you? Do you still have that? If you don’t, I can give you another one. But remember, again, that sometimes it’s really helpful to talk to somebody objective who can… I hear your pain. You’re in a lot of pain and I’ll companion you the best I can, but there’s a limit to what I can do. There’s other people who are more trained in helping you get through this with less pain. What do you think? You want to take a look at that resource list again?” Something like that.
The thing is really most people get through grief without professional help. Professional help can assist. You know, going to a counselor can assist. But even if they don’t go to a counselor, most people manage to get through grief. It’s more unusual to have serious issues. For instance, clinical depression. If you notice your client is normally very well-groomed and they come in and they’re unkempt and just not taking care of themselves, or they lose a lot of weight or gain a lot of weight very quickly, or they can’t function, they can’t get out of bed in the morning. No grieving person really wants to get out of the bed in the morning, but most of them manage to do it.
Michael: They do, yeah.
Amy: But if they can’t get out of bed in the morning or they can’t go out of the house, they’re staying in their dirty pajamas for days on end. You know, if you see signs that seem like clinical depression, they truly need help, then absolutely. You know, that’s the, “Clearly this is beyond my expertise.” There’s so many other things in between where it’s a gray line. You do what you can do.
I’ll give you one other tip, too. Because it is not at all uncommon that, for instance, a widowed client wants to talk and you give the opportunity to talk, and then she’s calling every day. And you know if you get on the phone it’s going to be 45 minutes.
Amy: That’s not your job. So what do you do? You set your time limit ahead of time. If you’re going to answer the call, you say, “Oh, Helen, it’s so good to hear your voice. You know what, I’m glad you called. I’ve got another appointment, someone is coming in in 10 minutes. So I will have to hang up in 10 minutes, but for this 10 minutes I’m all yours. What do you need me to know, Helen?” And you set a time limit ahead of time. Then you stick to it. You say, “Helen, I told you, you know, I have another client who needs me, too. So I’ve got to hang up for now, but we’ll be in touch. Thanks for calling, Helen, it’s always good to hear your voice.” You set your time limits all the time, you set your own boundaries on what you’re willing to do. You don’t become the new husband. You know?
Most people have a sense of when they’re starting to cross into, “You know what, this is more than I can handle,” or, “This is more than I can do, this is more than I have time to do. This client doesn’t have enough money to make it worth it.” And it seems kind of crass to say that, but to a certain extent you have to because you’ve got other clients that need you, too.
The Time Horizon Of The Grieving Process [58:09]
Michael: Even when things are going, call it, reasonably well, like how long should we expect the kind of…the grieving process or maybe the phase of the grieving process where we should be expecting to spend more time with this client? Right? Like, I’m just trying to think in practical terms. If we want to be grief companions for our clients and we want to be supportive. And, granted, I’ve got to draw some boundaries, but, hey, you know, for the first one month or three months or six months or 12 months, like, I really do want to carve extra time for this client just to support them as we go through this process. And then at some point either the meeting schedule needs to normalize or they’re having some other issues that may require a referral to another profession. But, like, what kinds of time horizons should we expect or should we anticipate if we’re going to be trying to do more to companion clients through these grief phases?
Amy: Right. The difficulty with time parameters is that it’s different for everybody and for every loss. If someone’s spouse takes their own life, that’s going to be a longer and deeper and more complicated grief than if somebody’s mom dies after having Alzheimer’s for 12 years. The more warning we have ahead of time, the more anticipatory grief happens, we start grieving ahead of time because we know this is coming up. And it doesn’t take as long to get things put back in place again afterwards because you started doing it beforehand. When it’s a shock, when it’s a tragedy, when it hits you upside the head, those are going to take longer and they’re going to require more time.
In general, the first few months are going to be the most time-intensive because there are so many things that have to happen, so many things that have to get put in place. If somebody is divorced or somebody dies, there’s documents to fill out, there’s beneficiaries to change, there’s so many financial and legal things that have to happen on top of all of the grieving process. You have to make time to listen to their grieving as well as getting all this other stuff done. Yeah, it’s time-intensive, but it’s not a waste of time. Because if you can do it really well and do it in a way that brings in the family, too, then you’re going to have clients for life. If you can treat them really well when they’re going through the toughest times of their lives, you’re going to have a client for life and you’re going to have family and friends and associates, too. So, yes, it’s time-intensive, but it’s worth it.
As the grief dissipates, then you really need to follow the client’s lead. Some people, some people even with a tragic death, they’re ready to put the pieces back together and they want to move on. They have a style of grieving we call instrumental grievers, they want to do things, it’s how they process their grief. So they want to dive right in and start doing stuff right away because that helps them process their grief. Other people can’t do anything at all, they’re just lost, they can’t think, they can’t function, and it takes a while for the grief to dissipate a little bit so that they are able to do more things more quickly.
People are ready at different times. The key is keep checking in. Never say to a client, “Well, when you’re ready to talk, give me a call.” Because, you know what, their brothers, their neighbors, their friends are all going to be telling them who else they should talk to, where else they should go, what they should do with the proceeds. You may as well say “bye-bye” to those assets. You got to keep checking in. You know, “I’ll check in every two weeks.”
How To Find A Balance Between Helping Grieving Clients And Addressing Financial Matters [1:02:07]
Michael: Yeah. So, I mean, what do we… I feel like you raise a really good point there of trying to find the balance, right? Like, you know, A, just I’m now wearing my financial planner hat. There’s a bunch of planning issues that crop up when someone passes away, right? We got to deal with everything from settling an estate, all sorts of estate administration stuff, there are income tax issues, there may be estate tax issues, we got to process some insurance, we got to change a bunch of accounts. Like, just there’s a bunch of stuff, financial stuff that needs to get done. A, because it’s a good thing to do. B, because I wear the financial advisor hat, so that’s literally basically my job to help with these things. But I get it, I’ve got clients that are grieving. I don’t want to be, at the least, just imposing and high pressure about some of the financial issues if they’re not ready to deal with it. At worst, actually, like, come across as some kind of pushy salesperson even if I’m not selling anything just because I’m pushing them to get stuff done that they’re not ready.
So I don’t want to be annoying and pushy, I don’t want to lose my clients because someone else gets their foot in the door and persuades them to do something that may or may not be good, because I literally have known salespeople over the years that, you know, trolled the funeral listings and the obituaries, those people are out there. So, like, how do I try to stay connected to a client where there’s stuff that needs…there’s financial stuff that needs to get done and I don’t want to be overly pressuring, but there’s financial stuff that needs to get done? And I certainly don’t want you to start doing it with someone else in the meantime that would create more problems.
Amy: The easiest way to do that is to frame it that way in the beginning. To say something… Well, let me give you a little bit of background, too. That when people are grieving, it’s a terrible time to be making decisions because our brain gets flooded with cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone, it’s a… A little bit of it’s a good thing, it’s what gets you up in the morning. Too much of it pushes your brain down to just survival. When people are seriously grieving, they just wonder if they can breathe, they wonder how they can eat, they wonder how they can put one foot in front of the other. The upper cognitive levels get clouded, they get foggy, they don’t work as well. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a physiological response that all of us go through.
So science says it’s not a good time to be making the major decisions, especially irrevocable decisions.
Amy: And FINRA says the same thing. In the FINRA regulations it says nobody should be pressuring someone who’s going through a grief process or a transition, nobody should be pressuring them to make immediate decisions. You can use that to your advantage with your clients. You say, “This is a really difficult transition. And you know what that means? Science and the regulators say nobody should be pressuring you to make decisions right now, it’s just not a good time. You might think you’re acting rationally, but later you’re going to regret it.”
“Tell you what, I’ve got a list. These are the things that need to be done on a time frame, and I’ve got your back. I’m going to make sure that none of these fall through the cracks. I’m going to keep you on track, I’m going to help you make sure that all of these things that need to happen are going to happen when they need to happen. I’ve got you, you don’t have to worry about it. These are the things that need to happen first, these things we can put off for a month or two but then they’re going to have to happen, these are more longer term things.”
“I also know though, even though I’ve got you and we’re going to walk through this whole process together, I also know that whenever anything like this happens, you’ve got people that are going to come out of the woodwork telling you what you should do or where you should invest or how you should change or what decision you should make or what gift you should give to them or what loan you should make or where you should move to or what… You know, people are going to come out of the woodwork and inundate you with those kinds of things. If anybody comes up with a good idea, a good suggestion, bring them in. I’m your independent advocate, let’s sit together, let’s look at it together, because I’ve got your back here. I’m not going to let anybody take advantage of you, I’m not going to let you make a decision that you’re going to regret later.”
“So bring them in, let’s look at it. Let’s decide together if it’s the best thing to do. And if it’s a good thing to do, is it good to do it right now, or would it be better if we wait until something else happens or until the grief dissipates more. Let’s look at it together and decide together as a team, I’ll be your independent advocate here.”
Michael: So functionally my goal here is to get at least one meeting early just to set the stage of, “I’m here for you and there’s stuff that we’re going to work on and I’m not going to pressure you through it and we’ll get through it when you’re ready, but there is stuff to do. So, you know, when you’re ready to do things, let’s make sure we’re working on it together.” Like, just setting that stage?
Amy: You set the stage and you also say that you’re going to check in regularly. And it doesn’t have to take much. But every couple of weeks just give a call and just say, “Hi, I’m just calling to see what kind of a day it is today. Are you going somewhere? What do you have planned? What do you wish people knew? Is this an up day, a down day, an all…” You know, any of those open-ended questions, you just check in. And, again, you set your time limits. “I’m just checking in. I had 10 or 15 minutes and I was thinking about you and I just wanted to check in and see what’s happening for you today. Remember, we’ve got these things that we’re going to do, but don’t have to do those yet. I’ll be calling you every couple of weeks just to check in. Ask me any questions you want and we’ll get this done.”
How Amy Got Started In Thanatology [1:08:36]
Michael: So how did you come to this world of work and making thanatology your field of study? I’m imagining this isn’t necessarily the kind of thing where you grow up and by middle school you decide when you’re ready for your professional career you want to go into thanatology. Or maybe that was the case. Like, what was the path for you to do this kind of work?
Amy: Well, it certainly was not my intention. As I said, I started out in the insurance and financial world. I thought that’s where I was going to be. I sort of backed into it. My husband was killed in a car accident when I was 25 and our son was seven months old. I was in a little town in rural Iowa, nobody knew what to say to me, nobody knew. I mean what do you say to a 25-year-old widow with a seven-month-old baby boy?
Michael: I have no idea. I have no idea.
Amy: I tell people I healed by the grace of God and the seat of my pants. There was no such thing as a support group, there were a few people who reached out to me, many of them much older than me and not in a situation like mine. I did try…there was one group that met in a town, oh, I don’t remember, 50 miles away. And I went over to try it, but everybody in that group was in their 80s and trying to get their kids to understand that they needed a ride to the grocery store because they never got their driver’s license, their husband drove everywhere. And here I was with a baby boy. So it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever been through in my life.
As I healed I learned just from my own personal experience a lot of things about grief, a lot of our society’s attitudes about grief. We live in a death-denying society, people don’t want to even say the words. Even in our conversation here you’ve never said somebody died, you said they passed away. We don’t say the words. We live in a society that denies the reality. So I had a very difficult time healing, but I was determined, I was absolutely determined to heal. My son didn’t have a dad, he darn well better have a mom. And I did not want to live with that kind of pain the rest of my life. I describe it to people sometimes like a blowtorch in my gut. And sometimes it will be turned lower, sometimes it will be turned full force. But it was there all the time. I lived with a blowtorch in my gut and I did not want to live that way for the rest of my life. So I did everything that I could to heal, I learned a tremendous amount through my own experience.
Then about five years after John died I was talking to a man… Well, I went to a seminar, actually, on grief and loss and it was taught by a man who was very good, but he’d never been widowed. So I was talking with him afterwards and giving him some input and telling him about the journal that I… One of the things I did was keep a journal. And I was telling him about my journal and he asked if he could read some of the parts that weren’t too personal. When I let him do that, he said, “Amy, you have got to get some articles published and I need a voice like yours. Would you work with me on my seminars?” When I started working with him, then as soon as one group saw me another group wanted me, and then another group wanted me. Then they started asking me my credentials. I didn’t have any credentials in this.
Amy: Well, my credentials were my personal experience and that was it. So I went back to school, got my master’s degree, got a fellow in thanatology, which is the highest level or certification in the field, founded the support group, started teaching at colleges and universities, started offering presentations all over the place for all these different vertical markets, and it just exploded, it just kept going because the need was great.
Then it was about 10 years ago I have a friend, a good friend, who’s a financial advisor and he was over for dinner one night and he said, “Amy, I’ve never asked you for professional advice, but I really need to because I’ve got clients that are going through stuff. In fact, I’ve got one couple that have been my clients for a couple of decades and she died and he’s coming into the office this week. You know, when I answer the phone when a client calls, I pick it up and I say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?'”
Amy: “I can’t say that. When people are going through tough things, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say to them in the office, I don’t know how to talk to them on the phone. What do I do?”
So I coached him through some situations in his office and he said, “Amy, do you realize how many financial advisors there are in this country and every single one of them needs to know what you know?” So what he did was he took me to the Morningstar Conference. It’s in Chicago, I live in Chicago, he does, too. And he got me an exhibit hall pass. He went booth to booth with me introducing me to people saying, “You need her, you need her, you need her.” A few people took the risk and took me up on it, but it was so different, nobody had ever heard of anything like this before.
Amy: So a few people took me up on it and the same thing happened that had happened previously. As soon as one group heard me, another group wanted me. As soon as one publication published an article, another publication wanted one. And it has simply exploded everywhere since then. I am… As you know, we see each other on the circuit all the time. We are both road warriors, we’re very busy going all over the country, all over the world teaching about these things.
Michael: How much do you travel for doing this kind of speaking work at this point?
Amy: Last year I spent 105 nights in a hotel. That gives you a little bit of an idea.
Amy: I travel a lot.
Michael: Yeah. I mean that’s a couple days a week.
Michael: Every week of the year.
Amy: Yeah. There are times where I’m more busy and times where I’m less busy.
Amy: There are times where I’m going to five states in five days. And then there will be a couple of weeks where I don’t go anywhere. So I do try to maintain a balance.
Michael: Yeah. Same schedule I go through. You know, I was probably on the road 90 or 100 nights this year. And, you know, just particularly for our financial advisory industry we kind of cluster our conferences into the fall and the spring, and then the dead of summer is a little quieter because it’s hard to get anyone out for a conference in the dead of July or August. And then obviously the holiday season is a little bit lighter.
Amy: That’s right, yeah. And I know I’m not going to be able to travel like this forever. The travel is what I put up with to do what I love to do. I lead a very meaningful life because I know that no matter where I go I’m helping people heal. And I’m not just helping them professionally. I love that I’m helping people professionally, but I’m helping them personally. Every advisor who hears me is going home and has a family and has parents and has friends and has kids. I’m helping them as people. And, in fact, many of the questions I get afterwards in the hallway are personal questions, not just business questions.
So I feel like I’m really making a difference in the world, making a difference in people’s lives. I wish I could teach everybody. And the travel is what I put up with in order to be able to do that. At some point I won’t be able to travel as much and that’s…you know, that’s a transition of life.
Amy: I’m not in control, I’ve learned that.
Michael: Well, and I know you bring some people in to you, as well, right? Because you have a workshop version that you do in Chicago, as well as the ones that you travel out to.
Amy: That’s right. One of the frustrations is when I have only an hour. As you said, “How do you teach this in an hour?” You don’t. You give really… I’m very committed to being highly practical, giving a ton of takeaways, things that you can implement immediately in your office. I’m very committed to that whenever I teach. But it is one of the… Well, probably the most common response on evaluations is, “This should have been longer, I want more. I need more.”
So sometimes a conference will hire me to do, for instance, a three-hour pre-conference workshop or something like that. I do do longer sessions for people, as well. And then twice a year, every May and every September, I teach a two-and-a-half-day class here in Chicago. People come in from all over the country. We start at 1:00 on a Wednesday and we end at 3:00 on a Friday so people can travel same-day travel on both ends. And I cover as much as I can. You know, the death, divorce, retirement, aging, dementia, terminal illness, elder fraud, sandwich, the difficult diagnoses, everything. I pack in as much as I can in two and a half days. And we have time for role play and written exercises, things that we don’t have time to do in 50 minutes at a conference.
Amy: So that’s really a gratifying thing, too. It’s a transformative experience.
Michael: And we’ll make sure we include a link in the show notes for that, as well, if people are interested in actually checking out the master class if they maybe don’t want to just wait for Amy to appear at a conference near you but come out for the session. So this is episode 53, so for folks that are listening, if you go to kitces.com/53 we’ll have links out to Amy’s master class, as well as how you get in touch with her directly. Because I’m imagining there may even be some large advisory firms that would probably be more inclined to have you just come in and teach one of your workshops internally for them as opposed to sending folks out to Chicago. I would imagine you get some of that interest already from some firms.
Amy: I do in-office training, I do client events.
Michael: Clients, client events?
Amy: Clients, yes. Because I started my career working with who basically are your clients.
Amy: I was working with grieving people. So I’m very comfortable in those situations and I have a couple of client sessions that are the most popular ones. And I’ll come in, sometimes it will be in conjunction with an in-office training. A firm will bring me in to teach them for a half day or a day, and then do a client event that evening or the next morning, something like that.
Michael: What does this look like? Maybe I’m thinking of this wrong, just imagining like, “Hey, let’s bring all of our widows in to talk to Amy”? Like, something like that? Like, “Let’s bring in all of our grieving clients”? Or do you just sort of do this more broadly, like, “Hey, we’re having an expert in talk about how to help your family members who are going through grieving,” and everybody can sort of self-select in about who’s dealing with that in their family, which is probably most of us at some point?
Amy: Yeah. If you say, “Come learn about grief,” people won’t come.
Amy: But if you say…
Amy: Yeah. But if you say, “Come learn how to help your parents, come learn how to help your kids, come learn how to help your brothers and sisters, your friends.” The title that I’d like to use is the same as the title of my book for clients. I have a book called No Longer Awkward, which you’re very familiar with, for financial professionals. And then the client version of that is called A Friend Indeed: Help Those You Love When They Grieve. That’s something financial advisors can give to their clients, or people, churches are buying it, whatever, across the board. But the session that I teach for the clients is called the same thing, A Friend Indeed: Help Those You Love When They Grieve. So they bring clients in and they bring their family members, too. Learn what to say, learn how to really make a difference, learn how to help. Learn what to do so that when something happens in your family or your friendship circle or at your place worship, that you know what…how to companion people and how to be there for them.
And then the other one that I teach for clients, the shorter version of it, it’s called Aging with Dignity and Grace. The shorter version of it talks just about all those things to get in place ahead of time to protect the client, protect their family, to make sure that everything is covered.
Amy: It’s one of the most difficult things when something does happen, is, “Where is this stuff? And how do we make decisions?,” and, you know, to get all these things in place ahead of time. And then the longer version also goes on to talk about dementia, because that’s such a concern right now, and rightfully so. I mean one in eight people age 65 and over has dementia. By the time you get to 85 it’s almost half. So people are very concerned about that. And I teach about dementia, the signs and what it is and what to watch for and how all of these things that you’ve gotten in place now come into play.
Financial advisors really like these two sessions, too, because…especially the one about what do you get in place. I always send them, “And so-and-so advisor, he can help you do this, this is what they do. They have these documents, they have these referral networks, so come on back in and have them do it for you.” When I teach the one on grief, I say, you know, “I’m committed to help people achieve their life goals and so is so-and-so advisory, that’s why they brought me in. Because sometimes your life goals are not just financial, sometimes your life goals are to put the pieces back together and find the joy that’s still there in life, even though a big piece of it is missing now. They’re committed to helping you achieve your life goals and so am I, so that’s why they brought me here.”
I always try to send the clients and the prospects back to the office.
Michael: Right. And then just the books themselves, you know, I know I first became familiar with your work, I guess a combination… Well, I became familiar with your work a combination of all those conferences we started overlapping at maybe seven or eight years ago, whenever it was, and then reading your book. Which, so aptly titled for the discussion, is No Longer Awkward, you know, how advisors can feel no longer awkward with their clients. And, I mean, as you said, like, it’s a lot of these scripts and templates and just what do you do and what do you say and what do you write. The piece that still sticks with me from the first time I read the book was you have a section there about just how you handle clients who are…who cry. Right? Who start crying in your office. And why you shouldn’t offer them the tissue box.
Amy: That’s right.
Michael: Which I will fully admit to being quite guilty of having done for crying clients in our office in the past. And, you know, you made what, in retrospect, is the remarkably simple and probably quite true point, which is, you know, usually when we hand someone the tissue box it’s basically a nice, subtle way of saying, “Okay, we need to be done with this now. Would you please stop crying? Here’s so tissues so you can stop crying.” Which we basically do because we are uncomfortable in the environment where the client is crying, regardless of whether the client was actually done with that moment of grief that they were…
Amy: That’s right.
Michael: And I’ll admit, I kind of reflected back on some prior moments with clients, it’s like, “Yeah, I think in retrospect that’s pretty much why I handed them the tissue box. I guess I really shouldn’t have done that.” That just, you know, it’s the…I don’t know, it’s the practical little things that, when it’s hard to navigate those grief situations and we’re trying to extricate ourselves, we maybe do a lot of things to just try to move the process forward that may make us a little bit more comfortable but are probably really not actually helping the client on the other side.
Amy: That’s right. Like I said, we’re taught all the wrong things.
Amy: We’re not taught what really to do. And the things that really to do are things that build the loyalty, they build the relationship, they extend you to the rest of the family. They’re doing the right thing for the client. And when you do the right thing for your client, then it’s also going to be good for your business. You know, we know that in all aspects. When you do the right thing financially, that’s going to be good for your client, it’s going to be good for your business. When you do the right thing emotionally and walking them through grief, it’s good for you client, it’s also really good for your business.
Michael: Yeah. We’ll make sure we have links out to some of the books, as well. So, again, this is episode 53, so www.kitces.com/53. And, you know, just can’t recommend them enough as someone that’s just actually read and used these materials in practice for myself. Because I…frankly, I didn’t do this very well with clients, I’m still actually… I don’t think I would say I’m good at it, but I would like to think I’m better at it than I was before having learned some things from reading the book and now even more so with the conversation today and a couple of takeaways.
So do you imagine… I mean ultimately is this something that we should be just teaching as a part of CFP studies? You know, I don’t know offhand if any of today’s CFP programs actually have a course in thanatology and grief counseling, or maybe call it, like, grief companionship. I know we have a number of programs now that are working on general courses in client trust and communication, but I’m not aware of any that really get into this world of thanatology.
Amy: Well, you’re preaching to the choir here, I wish it would be a required part of CFP training in order to get the CFP designation. We’re not there yet. At the same time all of my sessions, everything that I teach, is certified for CE through CFP, through the American College. So ChFC, CLU.
Amy: It’s the CDFA, it’s the CIMA, all the IMCA credits. They are the certifying bodies, in other words, are awarding credits for this kind of training because they’re seeing how essential this is, especially going forward in the regulatory environment and where people need to differentiate themselves in ways that are not just financial.
Michael: Yeah. Well, and to CFP Board’s credit, you know, it was, gosh, I think now maybe five years ago or so that they added this category for continuing education around client trust and communication. You know, it’s not…certainly not anything close to a full course in the educational curriculum when we’re training CFPs, but at least it counts for CE credit. And, you know, I don’t know, maybe there’s…I know we have a few professors and program directors of CFP Board-registered programs that listen to the podcast, as well, so you can reach out to Amy directly if you want to start making a course for this.
Amy: Making a club for it, yeah.
Michael: Yeah, maybe as an opportunity to develop some standardized curriculum about this and actually get it out there to CFP programs.
Amy: I do have to hand to the CFP Board because when I first started teaching this, it was difficult to get my sessions certified. I had to provide a lot of information and really work hard to get the certification because it was so new, it was so different. But the CFP Board was the first one that recognized it and actually created this category on client trust and communications, under which my sessions would fit. And it’s been…now it’s a no-brainer. The CFP Board of Standards and the FPA, too, have been very supportive. I’ve taught at a lot of the FPA sessions, FPA chapters around the country and the FPA conferences. I really do have to hand it to the CFP Board and the FPA for their support, their grasp of how important this information is.
Michael: So where does this go for you from here? What’s next?
Amy: What’s next is in some ways continuing to do what I’ve been doing. I now have four publications out, the No Longer Awkward, A Friend Indeed, Compassionate Communication, and another client handout called Priority Actions After a Death Occurs. I’m going to continue creating things, making some of them available for licensure so that people can have them themselves, not just buy them. I’m expanding my topics all the time. I am working on getting other people involved, as well. It’s difficult to find someone who has the mix of background that I have. There are thanatologists, for instance, who can teach about grief but who really don’t understand what advisors are facing, they don’t know the business end of it. Or there’s people who are financial advisors who’ve worked with a lot of widows, for instance, who can teach kind of the financial advisor part of it but don’t have the depth of knowledge. As soon as they get asked a question about a suicide or about dementia or something, then they’re lost. So I’m always looking for other teachers.
I should have, and I know this is taught all the time in financial conferences, to have a plan, a five-year goal, where you’re going to be in five years. This has developed in such rapid and widespread ways that I have not taken as much time to work on my business as I have to work in my business. And I know that’s important. That’s going to be one of the higher priorities going forward, is to really do more visioning about where is this going, what could it look like. It’s so valuable, it’s so meaningful, it makes such a profound difference that I need to do more of the visioning kinds of things going forward.
Michael: Well, and, you know, one of the things that we often talk about here on the podcast is just the impact of having some kind of niche, having some kind of specialization, having a thing that you can really go deep and be better at than anybody else and become known for. And, you know, you’ve certainly done that here in your field of study, particular, I think, sort of narrowed down and focused into our financial advisor world, which, at the end of the day, is so large that you’re still traveling over 100 days a year. So obviously the focus has not hurt you. You know, it’s just helped to build in this amazing business of teaching and speaking and workshops and book writing and all the rest that you’ve done of just sharing this perspective of what you’ve learned in your specialty.
How Amy Defines Success [1:32:35]
So as we come to the end, this is a podcast about success. And, you know, one of the things that we always find is success just means very different things to different people, sometimes it means different things to ourselves at different stages of life. And so as you built this incredibly successful specialization for yourself and now, as you said, are maybe starting to think about how it shifts in the future as you spend more time working on the business and not just in the business, at a higher level I’m just wondering how do you define success for yourself?
Amy: For me success is making a difference in people’s lives, helping people heal, leaving the world a better place than it was when I came, using everything that I’ve been given. I’ve been…I have so much that I can offer and I feel a responsibility to offer that, to use what I have to help others. Because life is not just about me, life is not just about getting wealthy or gaining stuff or being famous. When I was very young I used to think I wanted to be famous. You know what? I don’t care. I want to be able to use what I’ve got to help other people, to make a difference, to leave a mark in the world, to make the world a better place than it was when I came, to help people heal. That’s what’s really important to me.
Michael: Well, I think you’ve made quite an impact with that already. You know, particular with the one to many effect that you get that every advisor you help gives a chance to help 100-plus clients down the road. And I think we’ll have expanded that reach quite a bit for you here with just the podcast and the discussion today. So thank you so much for joining us and helping share a little bit of that healing message out for all of us as advisors and all the clients we try to help through these grief transitions.
Amy: Well, it’s my pleasure. I’ve always enjoyed the times when we’ve encountered each other at conferences, I really admire what you do, as well. We both try to raise the bar in terms of our presentation skills and practical takeaways for people. There’s a lot of connections in there in who we are and what we try to do, and I do appreciate that very much about you. So it’s a pleasure to be able to collaborate together a little bit to have a longer conversation than we ever have time to when we see each other at a conference.
Michael: Yes. Someone is always heading off to an airplane for the next event we’ve got the next day.
Amy: That’s right, that’s right.
Michael: I’m glad we got to spend a little time and share it out to everybody who listens to the podcast, so thank you. Thank you, again, so much for your time.
Amy: You’re welcome. Thank you, Michael.