Understanding Grief: How to Help Clients Who “Chase After Closure”

Understanding Grief: How to Help Clients Who “Chase After Closure”

When your clients experience a loved one’s death, they often seek “closure.” Yet no one really defines what closure means, whether it is possible, or how to get there.

By understanding a few things about the grief process, you can equip yourself to help them find peace.

For many in our society, closure means leaving grief behind, a milestone they usually expect within a matter of weeks or months. Closure means being “normal”, getting back to your old self, no longer crying or being affected by the death.  It means “moving on with life” and leaving the past behind, even to the extent of forgetting it or ignoring it. Yet for those who have experienced death, this kind of closure is not only impossible but indeed undesirable. 

Closure, if one even chooses to use the term, is more of a process than a defined moment. The initial part of closure is accepting the reality. At first, survivors keep hoping or wishing that it weren’t true. They expect their loved one to walk through the door. They wait for someone to tell them it was all a huge mistake. They just can’t accept that this person has died, that they will never physically see their loved one again or hear the voice, feel the hug, or get that valued input on a tough decision. Usually it takes weeks or even months for the reality to finally sink in. In time, they come to know, in both their heads and their hearts, that their loved one has died and is not coming back. They still don’t like it, but they accept it as true.

As your clients accept this reality, they can more actively make forward-looking choices that help them heal. They slowly begin to envision a life different from what they had planned before, a life in which they no longer expect their loved one to be there. They still feel the pain and loss, but except for short periods of time, they are not crippled by it.

For most of your clients, especially if it was a significant person who died, this healing phase is long and slow, and it involves a lot of back-and-forthing. They may alternate between tears and joy, fears and confidence, despair and hope. Sometimes they feel like they are taking three steps forward and two steps back.

It is important to give clients permission for whatever they are experiencing. Everyone else is telling them to put it behind them and get on with life. Set yourself apart by encouraging them to tell the stories and build memories that they will never “put behind them”. Reassure them that healing does not mean forgetting; it means taking the life, love, and lessons into the future with them.

Eventually your clients are able to let go of what can no longer be. Yet at the same time they realize they are taking the past, with all its pain and pleasure, into a new tomorrow. They become different and hopefully better, more compassionate, more appreciative, more tolerant people. They fully embrace life again, connecting, laughing, and loving with a full heart.

Still, there is no point of “final closure.” There is no point at which your clients can say, “Ah, now I have finally completed my grief.” Or “Yes, now I have healed.” There is no point at which they stop missing their loved one or wondering what life would be like if they were still alive. There is no point at which they will never cry again, although as time goes on the tears are bittersweet and less common. Because we never forget, we carry our loved ones with us forever.

“Closure”?  No, or at least not in the way people usually use that term. Acceptance – yes. Peace – yes. A future enriched with love, joy, and hope – absolutely. But putting a period behind the final sentence, closing the door and locking it behind you?  No, life and love are much too complex for that. This part of your client’s story does not end; instead it awaits the next chapter, which will undoubtedly build on all that came before.

Stand with your clients as they grieve.

Let them know they do not have to forget or leave the past behind. Encourage them to create memories out of what can no longer be, and to live their lives as fully as possible enriched by those memories. Offer them the patience and understanding that few other advisors do. You will reap rewards both personally and professionally.

Amy Florian
Life Transitions
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Amy Florian, CEO of Corgenius, combines the best of neuroscience and psychology with a good dose of humor in training professionals to build strong relationships with clients ... Click for full bio

Retirement Planning Has Its Limits: How to Prepare

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.

Rick Kahler
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Rick Kahler, MSFP, ChFC, CFP is a fee-only financial planner, speaker, educator, author, and columnist.  Rick is a pioneer in integrating financial planning and psycholog ... Click for full bio