Loss is an experience that all humans share at one point or another, and when a loved one dies, the grief is undeniably and devastatingly certain. But what about the grief that we might feel for a loved one who is still alive, only physically separated from us? Or for one who is mentally incapacitated, but who no longer has the capacity to recognize us? These feelings of grief for someone who is still alive, but no longer present (either physically or psychologically), are referred to as ‘ambiguous loss’. For example, some clients might have relatives who are no longer mentally lucid (psychological ambiguous loss), and some may have loved ones who need full-time care provided by an assisted living facility (physical ambiguous loss). And as would be expected with extended human lifespans and increasing cases of mental incapacity that comes with a growing, older population, feelings of ambiguous loss are on the rise.
Because the average human lifespan has increased over the last several decades, we are now at a point where family members are commonly expected to take on the responsibility of caring for elderly parents or spouses, many of whom are afflicted with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Accordingly, advisors may find themselves dealing with clients suffering from ambiguous loss, especially when conversations are raised around incapacity planning and estate planning.
While most financial advisors don’t have formal training in grief management, there are some basic guidelines that can be effective in working with clients suffering from ambiguous loss. As a starting point, mentally preparing for client conversations, for example, can include a series of questions that advisors ask themselves about their own personal attitudes around grief and loss in general, and also around understanding the situational causes of their clients’ ambiguous loss. Understanding the daily routines and relationships that the client may be struggling with can also help the advisor relate more empathetically with the client. And starting any incapacity discussion as early as possible to give clients ample time to process their feelings of ambiguous loss while adjusting to their new responsibilities can prove helpful for the client to transition through change.
Additionally, the advisor can support clients by acknowledging their feelings of ambiguous loss, and helping them adjust to the ambiguity they face by planning for a broad range of financial scenarios. This can help clients attain a level of certainty over what they have control over versus what variables in their situation will inevitably remain unknown, and that may eventually need to be addressed. And last, the advisor can play an important role in their client’s life by helping them through the difficult process of understanding and accepting what is happening to them, by simply giving them time and space to share their stories when they are ready to do so.
Ultimately, the key point is that ambiguous loss is commonly experienced by many people, and advisors should be prepared to work with clients and their issues in a sensitive yet productive manner. The conversations will be difficult and may be highly charged with emotion, but offering compassion and providing support can have a huge impact on the client’s ability to make sound financial decisions, as well as establish trusting relationships not only between the advisor and the client, but with the client’s support system as well.