Did you know that up to 70% of widows decide to make a financial advisor change after their spouse passes away? This statistic, along with the likelihood of those reaching retirement age who will experience the loss of a parent, sibling, or other loved one, means that you will most likely deal with many clients who are going through grief.
As fiduciaries, it's our job to not just care for our clients' financial interests, we also need to care for them as people. Someone experiencing grief needs to be mentored in a certain way to ensure they are able to move past their sadness and to also prevent any grief-induced decisions that could negatively affect their financial future. (For related reading, see: Why Do Widows Leave Their Advisors?)
When I work with clients dealing with grief, I find that I end up pulling a lot from my study of the soft sciences. It doesn't work to talk logic to a grieving widow who doesn't want to part with her deceased husband's company stock because it feels like a betrayal to her. You need to be able to understand what she might be going through and gently guide her to the right path. Here are five tips I have found useful for mentoring clients who have experienced the loss of a spouse (whether through death or divorce) or other loved one.
Use Your Powers of Empathy
Though you may not have been through the same difficult circumstances your client is experiencing, you can still empathize with them. Pull from your experiences with grief and try to put yourself in your client's shoes. Are their judgment skills impaired at this time? Is it difficult for them to make decisions? Do they need some time before they can even think about their finances? You may know that it's in your client's best interest to make some immediate financial changes, but that doesn't mean it's the best move at this point.
Go to Them
When a person experiences grief, it can sometimes be difficult for them to get themselves together enough to leave the house. They may be afraid they will break down in public or simply want to stay home among their deceased one's possessions. It can be very helpful to visit a grieving client in his or her home instead of requiring them to come to your office or meet you in a public place. You can even bring them lunch or some homemade cookies when you visit to further show you care. Even if you don't have any financial business to talk about, you can still visit your client to ensure they are doing okay, especially if their grieving period seems prolonged or especially intense. (For related reading, see: Estate Planning for a Surviving Spouse.)
If you have been advising your client for years and especially if you were close to the deceased spouse, it's usually appropriate (and advisable) to go to the funeral. You can offer support to your client as well as show that you are more than just an advisor, you're also a friend. Though funerals are no fun for anyone to attend, you will find that your client will greatly appreciate the gesture.
Refer to Grief Counselors
Some people will be able to move through the stages of grief on their own and with the help of a strong support network. Others, however, may need a little help. If you have a client who seems to be struggling, you can refer them to a grief counselor you trust to provide further guidance. Make sure the counselor you refer is someone you personally known or have worked with before to ensure they are a good fit for your client.
Recommend a Book
You should be a resource for your client in a broad range of areas that are not limited to the financial industry. If you notice that your client is having trouble coping, you can recommend a good book such as Grieving: A Beginner's Guide. This, paired with the further referral to a grief counselor if appropriate, shows that you understand what they're going through and are there to help in any way you can.
Whether you are working with a brand new client who is going through the grieving process or are helping a client you've worked with for years navigate grief's journey, these five tips should help you along the way. (For related reading, see: How do Social Security Benefits for Widows or Widowers Work?)