What grieving clients
need from you

A number of commercials for financial advisors focus on being with clients for life’s high points—graduations, home purchases and retirement. Those celebratory moments are gratifying for clients and advisors alike, and encourage potential investors to consider the power of financial advice. What’s rarely depicted are the low moments advisors are privy to, such as when a longtime client dies. In those moments, your expertise—the secret sauce that can result in commercial-worthy achievements—is of little comfort to a grieving client.

Supporting a grieving client requires you to navigate an emotional minefield with tact and grace. It’s said that grief resulting from a loss is a universal experience and, simultaneously, individual experiences of grief are unique. This contradiction—that a universal experience feels differently for each person—may be why many of us feel uncertain of how to comfort those who are grieving.

It’s imperative that financial advisors know how to support their clients who are mourning the loss of a loved one. It’s not only a crucial part of your business—we’ve all seen those statistics of the number of clients who leave their advisor after a death—but, it’s an important quality for you as a person to provide comfort and support when others are suffering. Ultimately, you want to be one of the first people called when a client dies.

Don’t wait to reach out

You need to reach out to the family immediately. Express your condolences in a genuine, heartfelt manner and offer to help in any way possible. We’ve become accustomed to saying, “Let me know if there is anything I can do.” But, it doesn’t sound like a true offer to help, especially when you put the ownership on a person who is grieving. Instead, you could say, “May I bring you a meal next Tuesday?” or, “Do you need assistance or recommendations for funeral arrangements?” Most people can’t name their local funeral homes or know how much bereavement services should cost. When it’s time to make those important decisions, a grieving widow/widower can be vulnerable. You can ensure that no one takes advantage of them by providing specific recommendations of funeral homes, mortuaries, non- denominational churches, caterers or florists that are professional and trustworthy.

If adult children are helping to handle arrangements, reach out to them to find out how you can offer real assistance. Whatever you can do to alleviate stress, demonstrate that you are reliable. When you are supportive during an extremely tense time, it will be remembered.

In addition to bereavement-related services, you should make it your business to get to know the elder care and health providers in your community. It could be helpful for your clients, and their adult children, to have trustworthy referrals for skilled nursing providers, hospice providers and home health aide services.

Hold space at your first client meeting

“Holding space” is the act of being present, open and protective of what another person needs at any particular moment. It’s an incredibly important and impactful skill, particularly when someone is grieving. When the time comes for your first client meeting since a client’s spouse died, take extra care in every detail. Offer to meet at their home or even a new venue that might be less emotionally triggering. If you meet at your office, be prepared with tissues, snacks and beverages within reach to minimize interruptions. Ensure your staff is aware and sensitive to the needs of the client. Turn off your phones, allow no interruptions and pad your calendar to allow you to focus completely on the client. Make sure to give them time to talk before turning to business.

Similar to the stock phrase, “Let me know what I can do.” The standard greeting of “How are you doing?” should be tossed out. Again, it’s a question a grieving widow is asked regularly and doesn’t see it as an invitation to open up. You want them to feel safe expressing whatever emotions are present that day. Amy Florian, an expert on helping grieving clients, suggests better ways to open up your meeting in a way that indicates you are holding space for them as they are in the moment:

To greet the client:

“I’m so glad you were able to make it today. I only wish it were under better circumstances. Still, there is so much we can do together and I’ll do everything I can to make this very difficult process easier for you and your family.”

To create an opportunity for them to open up:

“Many clients tell me the time after a loved one’s death is like a roller coaster. What kind of a day is it for you today? Is this an up day, down day, or an all-over-place-day?”

Listen to them intently, using your active listening skills to make them feel heard. If you knew their spouse well, you can share a story or memory you have of them. It’s important for them to know how much you respected and enjoyed working with their spouse and that they will be missed.

Demonstrate patience and prioritization

Making consequential financial decisions may be challenging for grieving clients, especially in the beginning. You certainly don’t want to push them too far, driving them to seek out a more understanding financial advisor. There may be a lot of decisions to make and clients may feel overwhelmed at having to make those decisions on their own, for the first time. What’s more, it can be hard to discern the difference between prioritizing items requiring immediate action and less urgent, but significant, financial decisions. It may be helpful to lay out what needs to be taken care of now, such as life insurance, a trust or an inheritance, and explain decisions that could be put on hold and revisited at a later date. Help clients focus on what’s absolutely necessary in the short-term and shelve the less critical items for now.

Help solve their other needs

As time passes, the needs of grieving clients may change as they process and accept their new reality. The relational loss of a spouse is typically the most gut-wrenching experience. They’ve lost their partner and are adjusting to their absence. Stay connected to your client and attune to how they’re feeling. The holidays pose a particularly challenging time for grieving widows and widowers. I’ve met advisors who host a Valentine’s Day luncheon and others who regularly pick up the phone and call just to connect during the winter holidays and on birthdays.

For a lot of couples, one person tends to be more involved in the financial decisions. If the decision-maker has died, be prepared to take a step back and clearly explain their portfolio, their contributions/distributions and their overall financial status to the surviving spouse. Make sure they understand how you are solving for any financial loss as a result of their spouse’s death and that you clearly explain how it might impact their lifestyle.

Your client may be confronted with the functional loss of their spouse in different ways—an overgrown lawn, a stack of unpaid bills or piled up dishes in the kitchen. These daily reminders can be quite painful and overwhelming. Talk to them about the many ways that help is available to them and who you’d recommend. Gardeners, organizers, house cleaners and even car services can manage the tasks once owned by their spouse.

Grieving clients need an advisor willing to go above and beyond to provide an elevated client experience that balances emotional and practical support. Financial advisors see clients through intensely personal times, the good and the bad, and it’s imperative that you skillfully navigate them both.

The views expressed in this article should not be considered investment advice or recommendations to invest in any security or adopt any investment strategy.

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