Working with grieving clients

For the first time in history, Canadians over the age of 65 now outnumber children under age 15, according to the 2016 census report by Statistics Canada. With the first batch of baby boomers having turned 65 in 2011, the proportion of seniors in Canada is growing every year.

We are now headed for a “death boom” in North America, according to Amy Florian, thanatologist and CEO of Illinois-based Corgenius, a company that trains professionals in supporting clients during difficult life transitions.

“Financial advisors are not prepared because [dealing with death] is something they rarely get taught,” Florian says. “Those who learn how to support grieving clients are going to retain and gain business.”

Here are three ways you can support clients who are suffering the loss of a loved one:

1. Express thoughtful condolences
One mistake advisors make when there has been a death in a client’s family is to avoid speaking about it, beyond platitudes.

Florian says most people tend to use trite phrases such as “I’m so sorry,” “You have my sympathy” and “At least he’s no longer suffering.”‘

“We’re taught to say so many things that are ultimately not comforting,” Florian.

While phrases such as “I’m so sorry,” are often genuine, your client has likely heard the same from everybody else, Florian says. Such a comment also does little to encourage conversation.

People experiencing grief need to tell their story in order to process the shocking reality of what has occurred, Florian says. To begin to provide your clients comfort, you might ask them “What happened?” “Who was with you?” and “How did you find out?”

Says Florian: “Well over 90% of people you ask will jump in and start telling their story.”

2. Offer assistance
Shortly after a death, your client will likely be overwhelmed with a to-do list they need to accomplish, perhaps more so if they just lost a spouse.

Ask what you can do to make your client’s life easier right now, Florian says. For example, you can offer to pick up friends and relatives from the airport or make phone calls that aren’t of a personal nature, such as contacting a florist.

3. Understand the unpredictability of grief
Questions such as “How are you?” or “How are you holding up?” can sometimes be difficult for clients to answer.

“Grief is not a linear process where we just gradually feel better until we’re healed,” Florian says. Emotions will vary over time.

Instead of asking, “How are you?” Florian says, ask your client “What kind of a day is it for you today?”

“This recognizes their reality,” she says. Clients will understand that you are genuinely curious as to how their day is going. “That in itself is comforting.”

This is the first part in a two-part series on helping grieving clients. Next: Attending the funeral of a client’s loved one.

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