Advisors: Never Assume Your Clients Are "Finished" With Their Grief
Imagine a usual day. You grab a coffee and settle in at your desk. You conduct two productive client meetings and go for lunch before the afternoon’s tasks. There’s nothing unusual; it’s just a typical day. Then you answer the phone, you hear the hospital chaplain’s voice …..and nothing is ever the same again.
Now imagine it’s the 5th anniversary. That fateful day is seared into your consciousness and it will never be just typical. Though others may expect you to be “over it” by now, you will never forget what happened or the person you so loved.
Perhaps we can learn something from our public memorials of tragic days. Everyone older than 50 remembers exactly where they were when JFK was assassinated, and can still hear Walter Cronkite’s somber voice. It has been 25 years since the Shuttle Challenger exploded, but we remember the name McAuliffe as we mark the day. Almost 15 years after 9-11’s smoke, sirens, and crashing buildings, we pause on the anniversary to show videos, tell stories of heroes, wipe away a tear, and proclaim that we will never forget. Whenever we experience a major loss as a nation, we remember, celebrate, and honor that loss for years to come.
As these examples illustrate, when you are supporting grieving clients and friends, acknowledge that the goal of grief is not to forget or “put this behind us and get on with life”. Instead, we move on precisely because we remember, because we create an enduring memory to carry with us into a future that is different than anything we could have imagined before. We tell the stories and share appreciation for the privilege of having these people in our lives. We try to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening to someone else. We change in more ways than we thought possible. We live with grief and healing, allowing both to co-exist in the everlasting interplay between loss and gratitude, sorrow and joy.
In your practice, never assume your clients are “finished” with their grief at a particular point in time. Honor their need to remember and let them know you understand.
Two simple steps you can take:
1. Don’t be afraid to say the name of the one who died.
Your clients never want to forget, and they hope others don’t either. Too often, people talk about anything and everything except the person who died, avoiding the issue for fear they will open old wounds or “make” the survivor cry. In reality, saying the name assures survivors that someone else remembers and cares, and it opens the door for them to talk about their loved one if they choose. If tears arise, they were there anyway; you simply give permission for the tears to be accepted. Three examples that you can say in person or write in a card: - “It must be difficult to have these meetings without Jim; after all, it’s only been four months. Yet I think we’ve made good progress as we work together to honor his legacy and protect your future.” - “By now you’ve encountered well-meaning people who are afraid to mention Kathy’s name. Though not everyone will be open to it, I hope you still find opportunities to speak her name and tell her story.” - “When I read the newspaper story about the charity golf event, I remembered how Alan used to recruit everyone he knew to play in it. He made such a contribution to the cause.” (Substitute any story or memory that is appropriate and honest.)
2. Gently acknowledge the anniversaries of a loved one’s death for several years afterwards.
Do the same for birthdays and other special events. Call, send a card or note, and perhaps include a “comfort gift”. Examples: Call or leave a voice message that says, “Today is sure to bring a mix of emotions as you mark Helen’s birthday. I just wanted you to know I’m thinking of you.” Send a single flower with a note that says, “Those we love are forever remembered. I’m thinking of you on this 4th anniversary of Anne’s death.” Send a gift certificate with a card that says, “November 18 will never be just another day on your calendar again. Although I cannot take away your loss, perhaps you can at least enjoy a cup of your favorite coffee with this gift card.”
When you acknowledge their loss, even years later, they know why they chose you as their financial professional – because you understand their experience in a way few others do.
Retirement Planning Has Its Limits: How to Prepare
Retirement planning is one of the issues that commonly leads clients to consult financial advisers. One of its essential aspects is creating a plan to save and invest in order to provide a comfortable retirement income. Ideally, this starts many years ahead of retirement, even as early as your first paycheck.
As retirement comes closer, planning for it expands to take in a host of other considerations, such as deciding when to retire, where to live, and what kind of lifestyle you hope to have. When retirement becomes a reality, the focus shifts to carrying out the plan.
All of this planning is crucial. Yet, for both financial advisers and clients, it's good to keep in mind that planning has its limits. In the post-retirement years, it may be helpful to think in terms of preparing for old age rather than planning for it.
The older we get, the more important this distinction between planning and preparing becomes. Too many life-changing things can happen without regard to our best-laid plans. Often they occur unexpectedly, resulting in emergency situations where urgent decisions have to be made. A stroke or a fall, a diagnosis of terminal illness, a broken hip that leaves someone unable to go back to independent living—and suddenly, right now, the family needs to find an assisted living facility, arrange for live-in help, or sell a home.
What are some of the ways to prepare for these contingencies?
- Explore housing options well ahead of time. Find out what assisted living, home care, and nursing home services and facilities are available where you live and whether they have waiting lists. Have family conversations about possibilities like relocating or sharing households.
- Research the financial side of these options. Investigate the cost of hiring help at home, assisted living facilities, and nursing care centers. Find out what is and is not covered by Medicare and long-term care insurance. For example, people are sometimes surprised to learn that Medicare does not pay for nursing home care other than short-term medical stays.
- Designate someone to take over decision-making, and do the paperwork. Execute documents like a living will, medical power of attorney, and contingent power of attorney. Update them as necessary, and give copies to your doctors, your financial planner, and appropriate family members.
- Start relatively early to downsize. Well before you're ready to let go of possessions or move into smaller housing, start considering what to do with your "stuff." Focus on the decisions rather than the distribution. There's no need to get rid of possessions prematurely, but decide what you want to do with them—and put in writing. Do this while it's still your choice, rather than something your family members do while you're in the hospital or nursing home
- Do your best to practice flexibility and acceptance. No matter how strongly you want to live in your own home until the end of your life, for example, it may not be possible. The physical limitations of aging can limit our choices, and even the best options available may not be what we would like them to be. It is a profound gift to yourself and your family members to accept these realities with as much grace as you can muster.
Finally, please don't underestimate the importance of planning financially for retirement. Because the bottom line is that you can't plan for all the things that might happen as you age, but you can prepare to deal with them. One of the most useful tools to cope with those contingencies is having enough money.
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